The “Bikes vs. Cars” conversation gets us nowhere.

Source:  Eric Fischer

Source: Eric Fischer

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an extended article last month about a bike lane controversy in Philly. It was entitled, “The culture war in the bike lane: In Philly, are cars winning?” It followed the typical trajectory of so many articles that report on pedestrian and bike improvements, bouncing between defenses of the bike lane by local bike coalition leaders and responses from angry residents who just want to be able to park their cars in front of their homes like they’ve been doing for years.

It includes quotes like this:

 “the anti-bike people are winning. Look at almost any street, and it doesn’t have a bike lane. […] Car culture remains predominant."


“There’s been cars in South Philly since cars were invented. You move into a city, assimilate.”

I don’t blame the newspaper for featuring these fiery opposing perspectives (that’s one of the ways newspapers get readers and subscribers) and I don’t fault the local bike advocates for making a strong, unyielding argument about their right to cycle safely. I don't even necessarily blame the homeowners for being annoyed that something they've counted on for decades is suddenly being taken away from them.

But at Strong Towns, we think it’s time for a new tactic. Instead of framing this conversation about bike infrastructure as a “culture war” (which makes no sense because biking is simply a mode of transportation with many different sorts of users, not a “culture”) or a “cars vs. bikes” battle, we start by making the financial case for bike infrastructure. #DotheMath, as we often say.

When we start from the financial perspective, we can easily see that biking creates far less wear and tear on our roads than cars, which means less maintenance expenses for our cities. Additionally, biking and walking are far safer and more compatible with a human-scaled development pattern—which has also consistently proven to be more financially viable than a car-scaled suburban development pattern. With the cost of building bike lanes fairly low and the potential for gain so high, it’s one of the highest returning investments our cities can make.

So if you’re hoping to see more bike lanes in your city, approach your neighbors and local leaders with the financial arguments in favor of bike infrastructure. And if you’re skeptical about bike lanes, look at those financial arguments and consider that this is about more than just a parking space in front of your house.

The beauty of the Strong Towns mission is that, while it is rooted in financial goals, the impacts of those goals extends far beyond municipal budgets to create safer, healthier, more environmentally friendly, more connected communities. That is resoundingly the case when we look at biking and bike lanes.

Like the name calling between liberals and conservatives that is so common in our country right now, the “bikes vs. cars” conversation accomplishes nothing. If we reframe it, instead, as a conversation about choice and economic prosperity, we stand to gain so much more—bike riders and car drivers alike (and by the way, most people are both of these things over the course of a given year).

(Top photo source: Paul Krueger)

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