Home > Lanes, Los Angeles, Policy > Bicycle lane “reality check”

Bicycle lane “reality check”

In her March 11 opinion piece for CityWatchLA (h/t BikingInLA), CSUN economics professor Shirley V. Svorny says that bicycle lane supporters (like Stephen Box) need a “reality check” because these lanes will increase road congestion. She says that “road diets” and “traffic calming” are phrases people use when they really want “fewer cars on the road,” but that such solutions increase congestion by removing traffic lanes. She argues that a carbon tax would accomplish the goal better without increasing congestion.

I’m not sure how she arrives at her conclusions. She hedges them with mother-knows-best phrases like “it is unlikely”, “that just can’t be,” and “none of this can be safe.” She quotes no sources for her observations. She makes the assumption that reducing lanes means increased congestion elsewhere, as if traffic were like water pressure, rather than having its own unpredictable and counter-intuitive patterns. (I would strongly recommend Tom Vanderbilt‘s book “Traffic” to bring her up to speed.)

Did Svorny miss a few things?

Svorny may have never heard of the Braess Paradox, from a paper written in 1968 by the mathematician Dietrich Braess. Braess showed that adding a road to a transportation system may slow down traffic overall for everyone, and that conversely, removing a road can speed up traffic. The phrase “road diet” isn’t spin used by “car haters” to get cars off the road. Road diets, instead, are real and proven ways of maximizing traffic throughput.

Svorny may have never studied traffic death statistics. One wonders whether her off-hand statment that “speed limits on roads have already been set to trade off safety and movement” could survive even a cursory inspection. When nearly 100 people daily are killed on our roads, and when cars are now the leading cause of death among our young, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve really made any kind of safety considerations at all in speed limits. (This confession of a traffic engineer is a heartbreaking look at how traffic engineers prioritize autos over humans.) The phrase “traffic calming” is not spin created by propagandists in a “war on cars”; it is, instead, a real and effective way of reducing death on our streets. Frankly, her statement that slowing traffic “is unlikely … an improvement” makes no sense at all. Speed kills. Slowing traffic is the whole point.

Svorny may never have examined how roads are paid for in this country. If she had, one would think that she’d reconsider her statement that bicycle lanes are “a huge loss of a capital investment.” That fact is that roads themselves represent a huge loss, full stop. It doesn’t matter whether we use them for cars, bicycles, or tiddlywinks, our roads are money losers. Repurposing the roads for bicycles doesn’t change that equation. What it does, instead, is open up the roads for more users, and importantly, more efficient use.

Svorny does present the rather intriguing idea of creating a carbon tax to reduce road usage. I would be for such a provision, but I’m not sure at all how the City of Los Angeles would go about creating it. From what I know, carbon taxes are usually the province of the State and Federal governments. I’ve yet to hear of any city that levied a carbon tax; I’d be interested to find out more if so. It would be especially interesting to discover what transportation mechanisms these cities put in place for those persons priced out of driving. Did they, perhaps, install bicycle lanes?

Svorny also presents the issue of very few cyclists on our streets. That is, alas, completely true. Los Angeles has a low bicycle mode share. As she says, the “reality” is that we don’t all ride bicycles. So I would issue a friendly invitation: come join us, Shirley! Come ride a bicycle on the roads with us. Give it a few weeks. Perhaps you might make it into an investigation of unnecessary bicycle lanes. Ride all the lanes you can find. At the end of your experiment, let us know your findings. If you find lanes that need to be removed, let us know which ones. If you find that we need to add more lanes, and safer lanes, we’re all ears, too.

Categories: Lanes, Los Angeles, Policy
  1. March 13, 2011 at 8:48 PM

    Bravo. Well said. What stuck in my craw was the specter of a self-identified economist making assertions totally unsupported by data. Had Svorny authored her missive purely from the perspective of a motorist, we could give it credence as a subjective account of daily experience on Los Angeles roads. Fair enough; I’m interested. But by tossing around “capital investment” and “value,” objective observation is instead suggested, and then a conclusion drawn despite the absence of any coherent argument. An academic reviewer would bounce this intro to the issue(s) in two seconds flat. Though the data exists to marshal a coherent argument against road diets and the like – data that informs federal studies and advocacy reports – unfortunately it’s not brought to bear here.

    I understand her frustration, though, because we’re all frustrated. Cyclists, for example, feel frustrated when sharing narrow quarters with aggrieved and aggressive motorists traveling routinely at 50 mph. (I know that I’m speaking to the choir here.) Thanks, too, for highlighting her conflation of engineering practices and simple sloganeering. When when talk about “road diets,” we’re not simply talking about disadvantaging motorists; we’re referring to an accepted practice of re-prioritizing the use of blacktop, a limited and very resource. Ditto for “traffic calming.” I guess you could read some attached value into it (i.e., mitigating road rage), but from an engineering or safety perspective, it’s simply slowing traffic as you point out. Good work!

  2. March 14, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    Regarding the lack of cyclists and capital spending priorities: If not for Caltrans $13B annual budget, how many cars would there be on our state-maintained highways?

  3. KARL
    July 18, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    I’m new to this rosy reading of ‘calming’ and ‘diet’ and assumed efficinecy without minimum speed requirements for bikes or cogestion taxing for slow pokes insisting on using only thereh own strength and wasting capital and labor using carbon fiber etc. to do so. I’ve fought my entire life as a scientist, economist, etc., against cars and for transit and ratinality and sanity even. I’ve stepped up to sales tax schemes to further widen cars, and in LA am front and center in identifyiinig where inth eobviousl ymultidecade pipline the wrench is best thrown- with a recent visit to one city hall having me enounter in office the sole purpose of to write checks to homeowners so there homes c an be demolosihed to furthe rwiden a car ony mounstroursly toxic road as if using it is econmically possible much less finishing the construction if said homeowners organnised and litigated effectively.

    She is no woman- only in gender that, like those emplqued at caltrans for ‘inventing’ ever more lethal even in construction ways to stack overpasses. Under them you mightn not know unless you walk are shrines to the fallen ironmen who toiled like egyptians routinelyh falling to there death.

    Any woman worthy of that description,any lady perhaps i mean, would not be so cryptically sarcastic or unintentional self satirising… except as I’ve just noted here, what you agree with, which isthat the premise of the path is that most traffic will remain cars.

    we really need to invest in final mile transit and get rid of al lhte express buses. this would free up most stgreets for only bike/pedestrian/transit use as hubs would hten have ‘cars’ for those willling to pay for the highrise parking garages etc. such hubs would require. getting cars off our private property, far away from our mailboxes and driveways but instad having robotic vans etc. humming aroudn bring us tothe garages or even further for those of us wlling ot goto work without bring the car, willing to find something else to do with half or more of our income, to enjoy.

    priorities are important and dollars are limited… we really have to stop spending money on things like subway tunnels as if emminent domain doesn’t exist, or worse as if ther ei sa needt omove many people far every day like that at all.

    we need in essence to stop facebook from preventing social networking from evolving freely- free of corporate influence and control, the inevitable result being ‘decomisioningi’of road project meaning GM , FoRD etc. bringing suitfor confiscating profits as if they had guarantees there useless research would be not just reimbursed but earn perpetual returns without it helping other then enable additiaonl or final decades of folly.

    IF we do survive on this planet long enough we can do so smarlty eventually… and the internet is better then cars- it’s more fun, uses less energy and pollutes maims far less.

    more then anything though it speaks less expensively and it’s to our kids that we have to tell the truth.

    they are listening- and corporations are creatring the car defending curriculumn that will plague future genratins on online and charter school academies, it’s not about god or sex anymore!

    Or even military counter recruitment- it’s abotu stopping the suppresion of shame for car lust,for stopppiong educational dollars being used to prvoide student parking in citieds!

    Multistory even student parking on land previously used for Gymnasiums and other factual horrors I could not make up as more repugnant and pure evil.

    WE need to be lobbying our leaders to release the suv bombing youth still imprisoned widely inthis countgry- and given them access to facts, statistics,licenses ot practice law like those merely convicte dof murder routinely make passage to far faster.

  1. March 15, 2011 at 12:07 AM
  2. March 17, 2011 at 12:23 PM

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