An economic case for gimme gimme

I don’t generally like debates in print between individuals. I say readers ought to have the last word. Exceptions can be made, though, when the public record needs correcting.

I don’t generally like debates in print between individuals. I say readers ought to have the last word. Exceptions can be made, though, when the public record needs correcting.

This is the case with a recent letter to the Advocate taking issue with my proposal that it’s worthwhile spending public money on bike infrastructure. The concept was too easily dismissed with a derisive “gimme gimme.” There was no insight in my argument, the letter said.

Well, allow me to provide some numbers, if not insight.

The proportion of non-car commutes is small but rising every year. A study released in Edmonton and Calgary last week points to a drop in the number of Albertans aged 15 to 24 who hold a driver’s licence (from 90 per cent in 1991, to about 75 per cent to day).

Getting a licence and owning a car are too expensive and bothersome for a growing contingent of people. Other options have gotten more safe, accessible and pleasant.

About two-thirds of Canadians tell pollsters they would like to use a bike for their daily commutes more often. The other third is divided between hard-core riders and people who wouldn’t ride a bike if you paid them. (Which, as a matter of fact, is just what would happen if they did ride. Please read on.)

Those same polls show 82 per cent Canadian support for public spending on infrastructure to make cycling safe. The top barrier to cycling, we are told, is concerns around safety. Make cycling safe and more people will ride.

You could spend days studying reports that come up on a search for the economic benefits of cycling infrastructure. I will cite just few highlights.

l A report by Richard Campbell and Margaret Wittgens in 2004 titled The Business Case for Active Transport is a Canadian study that echoes many other international studies calculating the economic benefits of cycling infrastructure. Savings to health care was found to be a top benefit.

Just over 2.5 per cent of total health-care expenses result from poor physical activity. Cycling and walking in daily commutes is the easiest and cheapest way to increase activity. Campbell and Wittgens report that each one per cent increase in physical activity in the general population equals $25 million saved in health-care costs nationally.

They cite a potential 32 per cent savings in costs related to colon cancers and 35 per cent savings in costs related to Type 2 diabetes, if Canada achieved 15 per cent of all commutes being active (biking and walking), which is the current rate in Victoria.

If all of Canada walked and biked like they do in Victoria, taxpayers would save $178 million in health-care costs. Every year.

l Studies worldwide say bike commuters generally arrive at work more on time, take fewer sick days and are more productive than inactive people. Workplaces that support physical activity among staff report on average $513 return per year per worker, over inactive workers.

l Campbell and Wittgens say total savings to Canadian municipalities in road repairs (four cents for every kilometre ridden by cyclists), plus reductions in parking subsidies, impact of tourism, increased retail sales in pedestrian and bike-friendly areas, boosted property values of homes near bike infrastructure and more) adds up to about $3.6 billion a year in Canada today.

If we were all like Victoria, cities and their residents would have about $7 billion a year extra to spend on things other than closing roads every summer to repave them, building costly parkades and the rest.

l The cost of traffic collisions, considering all effects to property and people, was $10.5 billion in 1998. At our current rate of not using cars for commutes, we save $45 million a year, because collisions not involving cars cost way less. At the Victoria rate, those savings would be $301 million a year. That’s money in peoples’ pockets and a whole lot less grief in our lives.

l Parking spaces costs thousands of dollars a year to buy land for, build and maintain. At the rate Canadians leave their cars at home now, they collectively save municipalities $1.28 billion a year in direct parking costs, plus tax subsidies for parking spaces that aren’t built because we don’t need them. The Victoria rate would be $2.47 billion a year.

l The impact of all this adds up to jobs when the savings are spent. Per 100,000 households, that’s 462 jobs created by that new disposable income. It would be about 900 jobs if we were all like Victoria.

l Homes near bike infrastructure sell faster and for more money than homes that are not. In Surrey, B.C., the differential ranges from very small (one per cent) to a whopping 20 per cent over the same type of homes, but in neighbourhoods that are only drivable. That’s instant equity.

l The European Cyclists Federation tallied direct and indirect benefits of cycling infrastructure investment in the Eurozone at 400 Euros per person, per year. That’s about 200 billion Euros or the entire GDP of Denmark, per year. That’s at just 7.4 per cent of all trips in Europe being made by bike. But look at that number.

The people coming out to the Red Deer Association for Bicycle Commuting bike ride on Sept. 13 are not just a bunch of takers. They are taxpayers. Bike commuters put more into Red Deer’s economy than the cost of a few bike lanes — and a lot more than people give them credit for. Check for details on the ride. Maybe you’d like to have a slice of those benefits for yourself.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email