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How Bikes Will Help Save Our Economy

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Tonight Spokane participated in the worldwide Ride of Silence honoring those who have been injured or killed while cycling on public roadways. Earlier today, I got my bike back after repairs after I was hit by a car. I shook the entire way on my first ride since the collision.

There’s no shoulder on Sprague Avenue where I was riding, but cars revved their engines passing me: universal driver-to-cyclist code for “getthef—outofmylane!” So maybe today is a good day to talk about why we should prioritize bicycle safety in Spokane, even in a recession, as an investment in our city’s economic wellbeing.

In a low-income city where many don’t have access to a reliable car, increasing bicyclist safety is necessary to our economic success — but bike infrastructure costs money, so bicycle advocates must make a sound economic argument for how we’re asking to spend taxpayer money during a time when those taxpayers are tight on money themselves.

To do so, our community should be quantifying the return we get from our investment in bike infrastructure like we do for motor vehicle infrastructure, then making smart choices about how to maximize that return. Unemployment is at 10.5% – our citizens are primarily concerned about economic growth to create jobs. A successful case for investing in bike lanes will address how bicycle infrastructure can aid in our city’s economic recovery.

Fiscal conservatives are most likely to support taxes when they’re a measurable investment in the economic health of our community. With regard to transportation infrastructure, many fiscal conservatives don’t buy the “you’ve gotta spend tax money to make money” adage unless it’s for motor vehicle infrastructure. I agree that functional, safe and efficient roads are essential to economic activity, but the case for transportation infrastructure shouldn’t be limited to serving motor vehicles.

For the same reasons we have to spend money on roads for cars, we have to spend money on bike infrastructure. We increase individuals’ ability to be employed — then spend the money they earn — by supporting bicycle transportation. It’s as easy as copy-and-pasting the argument made for freeway projects: If we can’t get goods and people to the same place at the same time, we don’t have an economy.

Take the argument made by Greater Spokane Incorporated (GSI) for the North-South Corridor project in Spokane:

“Maneuvering up and down Division Street while dodging trucks won’t be an issue anymore – for anyone. The North Spokane Corridor gives freight mobility an easier, faster route for truck loads traveling north to south, or south to north. Getting to Interstate 90 will now be much easier, and much safer.

Constructing the corridor creates jobs, which pay money, which circulates throughout the community. The workers pay for housing, utilities, food, vehicles, household furnishings, apparel, medical services, and so on. Many of those purchases are taxed, which helps our city budget. The corridor will also open the opportunity for businesses to open up along the route, thus helping grow the East Spokane and Hillyard District.”

GSI makes the argument for moving consumers and freight — and, equally importantly, the economic need for those very consumers to be employed. I’m not so sold on the idea that work projects will revive our economy, but we should to consider how mobility impacts employ-ability.

If you can’t get to work, you can’t work. In Spokane, the cost of a car trumps convenience for a lot of people — our median household income 7.25% below the national average and 16.9% below the Washington State average. Especially for low-income people who already face significant barriers to employment, lack of transportation can be a deal breaker. If “dependable transportation” doesn’t appear on a job application (and it often does), the requirement is implicit.

The same argument goes for consumption. If it’s harder to get places, you go to fewer places and buy fewer things — or only go to a few places to buy things. This is particularly problematic for businesses who exist on cars-only corridors like Division and Hamilton, and for places hard to access by bus.

Sure, biking isn’t ideal for everyone, but it’s a quicker and cheaper option than a car or even the bus for many people — for example, people who live and work within city limits. It’s great for people who work Downtown and can’t afford to park a car downtown for eight hours a day. It’s great for people who zip between appointments in and around Downtown. It’s great for people who have a car but ride a bike to work for the exercise when convenient. And by “great” I don’t just mean “super, super fun,” I mean cheap, convenient and thus, good for our economy.

Notice that I said “supporting bicycle transportation,” not “striping bike lanes.” That’s because it’s not bike lanes that increase cyclists’ safety, it’s the number of cyclists on the road. The more of us there are, the safer we all are. More people will bike when they feel safer on the road. The solution to that chicken-and-egg situation is to take action that makes people feel safer, so that we actually become safer. Sometimes that does mean paving a bike lane, but we’ve got to get past the idea that this is bike lane wars.

Many contentious bike lane debates can be solved with shared lane markings, or sharrows. They work in places where bike lanes don’t, like in urban areas where streets are too narrow to include a bike lane. The cost of many bike infrastructure projects, like sharrows or bike lanes, can be significantly reduced by adding those features as part of road improvement projects.

Education, like offering bike safety workshops, and accessibility, through programs like earn-a-bike programs or helmet subsidies, can be achieved in partnership with bike shops and non-profits at a super low cost to taxpayers.

However we decide to spend our taxpayer dollars on making bicycling more accessible to Spokane residents, we should regard it as an investment in our economic future.

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