Cycling isn’t free; we’ve got to pay for it.

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Sweaty riding on a stationary trainer

Yesterday evening I set up my bicycle on a stationary trainer outside the most popular pizza restaurant in Berkeley. The line always stretches out the door in the evenings, so it offered an opportunity pedal and sweat (lots of sweating) and talk to people about cycling and explain why I’m riding 320 miles in June to raise money for cycling advocacy. I’m slowly learning the importance of creative fundraising, so that was pretty easy math: good pizza + quick-moving but never-ending line = captive audience.

So I set the trainer resistance to roughly the equivalent of riding up a three-percent grade and just pedaled. I barely got off the bike for 2 hours and 43 minutes. As I said, lots of sweating.

All the while, hundreds — literally — of people waited in line patiently for their pizza and most of them read my sign about how giving money would make cycling easier for them and for all. If someone really stared, then I’d engage them in more conversation. I took brief breaks when kids (or one man) wanted to pedal my bike for a bit.

And I raised $52.

I’m thankful for the generosity of strangers, but I of course overheard some dismissive comments. For example, one young man remarked to a friend, “I don’t know why he thinks I would give to that. Like, why should I pay money for something that’s free?”

I wasn’t there to argue so I let that one go; but it’s worth a bit of discussion, because, well, cycling is not free.

First, and most obviously, cycling infrastructure requires significant funds to pay for planners, architects, engineers, constructors, etc. plus the actual materials. No one thinks that road (re)construction or parking garages are free; neither are lanes, trails, bike racks, bus mounts and all manner of other facilities for cycling. Second, behind all of that material development of cycling as transportation is another expensive process — the education, advocacy, debate and discourse that create cycling as a viable, safe, equitable and sustainable form of mobility. That’s the cost of the work done by NGOs like Bike East Bay, for which I’m raising money.

Of course, that all seems reasonably obvious. But the fact that cycling development does cost money and yet a fair number of people treat it as essentially free is problematic for a few reasons.

First, and this is most obvious, it means that cycling infrastructure will rarely ever been provisioned privately. This stems from cycling infrastructure’s role as what social scientists would call a public good. It’s difficult to exclude or privatize cycling infrastructure (though certainly not impossible) and there is not a clear consumption that takes away from someone else’s consumption. In other words, the “market” will almost always undervalue it precisely because it profiteering is difficult. In property regime theory, that guy on the sidewalk — the one who said he wouldn’t pay for cycling — becomes a “free-rider.”

A second problem compounds with the first, because cycling as a whole — not just material infrastructure like lanes or racks — constitutes a public good. That’s because there are tremendous spillover effects of as more people cycle. In short, society as a whole benefits from cyclists. Cycling improves individual health, reducing burdens on a stretched healthcare system. Cycling also improves public health — primarily through a lack of pollution-based transportation — so that air we all breath is improved. Cycling of course reduces climate change causing emissions — burn fat not fuel! — which will otherwise have cascading detrimental effects on ecological, social, economic and political systems. Cycling also can improve communities by literally increasing the number of eyes on the street moving at speeds slower than the auto-transit car; cyclists are more able to notice when something is “wrong” from a pothole to a home invasion. Cycling is actually fun and can serve as a critical if overlooked source of individual and social happiness, through activity, parks, adventures, etc. Cycling often benefits conservation and preservation in that trails and parks tend to provide additional motivations and protections for green spaces. Cycling benefits also multiply more-than-linearly — i.e. they snowball — as ridership increases, because the more people that ride, the easier it is for others to ride.

A third problem exists in the social inequity that arises when cycling as treated as free. Of course, it is not and so often more affluent people, groups and communities will inevitably find ways to pay for cycling; they may have more political pull and will draw disproportionately more from limited government funds. They may also be able to contribute to private initiatives in their immediate area. Cycling is sometimes intertwined with gentrification as new developments treats cycling infrastructure, active transport and other new urbanisms as luxuries that attract premiums. In short, poor and political marginalized neighborhoods are often less cycling-friendly precisely because they have less ability to pay or advocate for this thing that people treat as free even when they can see it isn’t.

Finally, because the “market” is unlikely to fully value all these benefits of cycling and because we live in an era of government defunding and retreat — a political project of the free-marketers — the development of cycling culture and cycling as acceptable mobility is held back in ways the chief “competitor” to cycling wasn’t. Consider that the automobile became widespread amid government spending projects over decades such as the unfurling of the interstate system and suburban development models, aided by governments; even today massive amounts of federal infrastructure dollars go to projects that benefit drivers to the exclusion of others. Cheap fuel is an official and historical government policy. Car manufacturers are treated as too big to fail. But cycling is trying to come into its own precisely at a time the government is pushed by political ideologues to not spend on other public goods, Parks and public lands are under assault; sustainability and climate change mitigation are black listed topics; research on spatial inequity is actually something the government is trying to disallow. Simply put, cycling has a steep hill to climb.

So while it’s a critical and long-term political project to grab back the reins of government and refocus taxing and spending priorities on projects and programs that can serve so many, in the meantime civil society is desperately needed to fill gaps and fight for all the good that cycling can provide.

And that’s why I’m raising money for Bike East Bay and the cause of bicycling and sustainability. Because, no, in truth, the benefits of cycling are not at all free. They MUST be paid for, by us all.

To support me in this, click here.

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