The Terrible Catch-22 That Happens When Cities Choose Bikes
It's no coincidence that some of the cities considered 'best' to live in in the United States are also some of the friendliest to bike in. Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, California, and Seattle, Washington, continue to draw people to them, as do Chicago, New York, Denver and Boulder, Colorado, and Long Beach, California, among others.
Some of these cities - Boulder especially - have thriving bike sharing programs. Others are planning to get bike sharing.
One of these cities, Portland, despite an incredibly long rainy season and a miserably grey winter, has an admirable bicycle mode share of approximately 8 percent. That means that of all trips Portlanders take - to work, to school, to play and to do all their errands - 8 percent of the trips are by bicycle.
That percentage is by far the best in the nation.
Of course it didn't happen overnight. A series of actions lead Portland to embrace and build bike lanes and begin to encourage its cyclists.
The sad thing is, is that just as agencies such as the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) start to achieve success in turning people from their cars to their bikes, they also start to suffer a funding crunch.
Because, as Jonathan Maus points out in an article on BikePortland, much of the funding for transportation agencies comes from, yes, you guessed it, the gas tax. Unfortunately or fortunately, In Portland, and in other parts of the Northwest, driving has continually fallen in recent years. That means less money for bike lanes, and less money for routine things like fixing pot holes, and less money for big-ticket projects, too.
It's a classic Catch-22 - the more transport agencies are successful in encouraging drivers to bike, the less money from gas taxes there is in local coffers to build out the necessary bike infrastructure to make biking as efficient and universally popular as driving.
So, what are bike-loving cities to do?
In the case of Portland, with its long-term goal of getting bicycle mode share to a whopping 25%, there is no easy solution to this conundrum. Raising the gas tax is one strategy (our gas taxes are low compared to countries like Denmark) but that's not popular with voters.
Continuing to fund bike/walk projects is Portland's aim, and PBOT is making an interim goal of 10% mode share to help people observe their progress. Beyond that, PBOT says that it is looking for 'new revenue streams' to fund all the bike infrastructure and education it wants and needs to do.
It seems like somehow, PBOT and other transport agencies with a similar challenge have got to decouple from the negative (funding from gas taxes) and figure out how to get funding from the positive (the health, air quality, and stress-reduction) benefits people get from cycling.