Friday, September 6, 2013

It depends on how you measure cost...

A morning accident at Mill and 12th Street

Over the last year here in Oregon, we have heard various voices call for a special bicycle tax or license fee to be imposed, statewide. The rationale for this seems to come from the belief that government-funded bicycle infrastructure is an enormously expensive luxury that those who use it should pay for. It has a beautifully straightforward logic to it, admittedly: Pay as You Go.

Once the details begin to come into focus, however, its luster fades.

Aside from the well-known fact that such taxes/fees are largely unenforceable and thus hopelessly idealistic (they have been tried before and didn’t work very well, and I don’t see that many more enforcement dollars going to such an effort today), there is the reality that bicycle infrastructure is a tiny, tiny percentage of the outlay we make for road funding, and that if autoists had to pay for what it truly cost to build and maintain their infrastructure, we wouldn’t be able to take our cars out of the driveway or garage

Similarly, the wear-and-tear on roads or other surfaces from bikes is nominal, and many of the bike lanes and other infrastructure put in by municipalities are so poorly-sited that they go largely unused, anyway, so those costs could be done away with by not putting them in the first place. 

In other words, the argument collapses after a while, turning into generalized frustration with taxes, traffic, a supposed "free lunch" enjoyed by others, and the corner into which we have painted ourselves in Salem and many other cities.

However, once we start talking about such revolutionary ideas, the conversation usually devolves into name-calling and belittling. I’m sensitive to this, because I am a cyclist, pedestrian, and also a motorist at various times. I try to remind myself that it doesn’t pay much to get into such childish screaming matches with one’s self, let alone others.

What makes the issue more focused for me is something like what I came upon a few days ago as I was cycling to church. An accident had occurred involving a minivan and a pedestrian crossing traffic island (this isn't about blame; I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t know if anyone was seriously hurt—my prayers were and are with those involved).

The vehicle's front end was pretty badly mauled, but the island’s warning light/solar power generating station didn’t come out of it too well, either. A lot of people were working on the aftermath just then. After I ascertained that there wasn’t anything I could do about this situation, I got to thinking….

When a vehicle hits such public infrastructure, someone has to pay for the said-infrastructure’s repair. When a motorized vehicle does the hitting, those costs are likely much higher than when a pedestrian or a cyclist smacks into something. While I don’t know exactly who does the paying in such situations (whosever “fault” it may be), do cyclists or pedestrians passing by such things ever say to themselves: “I bet that driver isn’t going to have to pay for that damage and those people’s time to fix things up again, but I'll have to pay for it in my taxes, even though I'm not responsible at all!”

Perhaps such people do exist, but they can’t be many. 

We have been trained to think about such expenses as part of the cost of having roads, cars, and public access. But it doesn't have to be so. This accident and its aftermath were hardly free, to anyone. If we are going to have a pay-your-way society, we need to wake up to what that would really be like: the many “free lunches” enjoyed by privileged groups would disappear, much to their chagrin. They might even be surprised who they are.

The true costs of transportation infrastructure are enormous, and we are all on the dole to one degree or another in this arena. The deeper issue here, to my way of thinking, is exactly what sort of community or society our transportation policies encourage.

The location of this accident brought this up in another way. The recent construction of several serious pedestrian crossings in Salem (and this was one) has significantly helped rein-in autoist entitlement here. I use them often when cycling, and they have really helped, what with all the traffic-calming and warning sign/light features on many of them. This is a good thing: drivers are, after all, in possession of what amounts to a weapon in a collision. But, there’s more to these crossings than just safety.

Such amenities also encourage more foot-traffic and a more human-centric experience of downtown. Many of these crossings are certainly very well used, revealing pent-up demand (often by younger people, seniors, and folks with special needs). They are helping to bring Salem—gradually—in line with the kind of community the rising generations desire—and to which they will move. It would be very costly to ignore such trends in our nation, simply repeating old slogans and re-living childhood memories of auto-centric suburban nirvanas that were never quite what they appeared, anyway.

Too often, the simple bottom-line cost (whether truly represented, or not) is used as the clincher in transportation and urban planning arguments. But, there are many ways to measure cost, and only when we learn to factor in more of the total picture will we be able to assess what is going on in a given situation correctly, or in a way that leads to progress rather than stubborn denial.

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