Who really owns the road?

The Gambit, a local New Orleans paper, recently published an article on bike paths in New Orleans.  Most of these paths were created from existing right of ways.  The article mentioned that oftentimes, cars, buses, etc., still use these new bicycle lanes on an ongoing basis.  In defining the challenges of encouraging bicycle lane safety, the article summarizes the challenges in creating bike paths on existing roadways, including enforcement and education.

Bicycle lanes represent a local mobility issue, although nationwide, ridership and walking represent a small percentage of total journey to work activities.  In the “U.S. Census Bureau’s report, the “Modes Less Traveled—Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States: 2008–2012“, one of the key findings was, “The number of U.S. workers who traveled to work by bicycle increased from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000 in 2008–2012, a larger percentage increase than that of any other commuting mode.”  But while bicycle activity has grown, Table 2 indicates that only 0.6% of Americans biked to work, versus 86% who used car, truck, or van, or the 5% who used public transportation, or 2.8% who walked.  (More people worked from home than either biked and walked.)

Bicycling represents a small mode of personal travel that uses the same transportation infrastructure as other users.  It appears that creating bike lanes raised a question of “who really owes the road”?  Oftentimes, we discuss ownership of the roadway by various political jurisdiction (supply), or by how various users, such as trucks, buses, cyclists, etc., access the roadways/transportation infrastructure (demand).   But ultimately,  infrastructure suffers from the “tragedy of the commons”, with everyone wanting roadway access, and unused capacity (i.e.,I don’t see anyone in that lane, so I can use it until they show up).  As common property, it becomes difficult to retrofit or change existing infrastructure when everyone is trying to alleviate their perception of congestion, improve their safety, or offset some other user cost within a relatively static system.

Addressing urban transportation will always remain a challenge, as no single solution exists that solves for all the needs of the transportation community for  economic development, safety, capacity, mobility and access.  (The following cartoon by Lockwood captures the mismatch between moving from the current to a future reality in urban planning and land use.)  While the Gambit article stressed education and enforcement to improve  bicycle lane safety, we may never really balance the needs of urban mobility until everyone understands the importance of staying in their own lanes!

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