By Porter Stevens
When I visited Portland, Ore., last summer, I was impressed by how easy and stress-free it was to travel the city, both by public transit (which I wrote about in a previous column for Insider Louisville) and by bicycle.
In literature relating to “urban sustainability,” Portland is often touted as the bicycling capital of the United States. While there are several other cities in the U.S. that may dispute this claim, what cannot be disputed is the impressive impact Portland’s substantial investment in bike infrastructure has had on the city.
Embracing the bicycle as a practical mode of daily transportation is something the city of Portland is proud of; and it is a move that has paid handsomely in social and economic dividends.
Bicycling is big business in Portland; it is estimated that bicycle related businesses (everything from clothing and tourism to manufacturing) generate $90 million in annual revenue; in the state of Oregon, bicycle tourism is a $400 million a year industry.
One example bikes benefitting businesses is the bike corral, a parking infrastructure improvement that’s becoming the latest bicycle-related craze in Portland. A typical bike corral can accommodate up to 12 bikes in the same space used by a single car; according to a representative from the Portland-based Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the people riding those bicycles shop more often, purchase more items overall, and are typically hungrier and thirstier than your typical customer.
Bike-related industries in the city also are a major source of employment, supporting 850 to 1,150 quality jobs. Building the infrastructure needed to safely accommodate new and existing cyclists also is a great job creator. It is estimated that for $1 million spent on new bike lanes and other infrastructure, 11-14 jobs are created. This is in contrast to road construction projects that, due to use of small crews using large machines, only create seven jobs for every $1 million spent. In Portland, the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade project created 1,050 jobs alone.
Finally, investments in bicycling infrastructure can be beneficial to neighboring property owners. New residents who are shopping for their first home in Portland often consider access to major bicycling infrastructure to be a plus, and this had the resulting effect of increasing selling prices.
Homes in the vicinity of neighborhood greenways (streets that are designed to be bicycling corridors) have been shown to increase in value; according to one Portland realtor, in some areas this upsurge in value can be as high as 10 percent. Before the Great Recession, homes located in the vicinity of bicycling infrastructure sold on average for $2,000 more.
The positive economic impact of the bicycle industry on Portland is a real-world demonstration of a theory by economist Joe Cortright: The Green Dividend. The idea speaks to the culture of localism, and how investing in bicycling infrastructure can generate a “ripple effect” that greatly enhances the local economy. He writes: “It’s time to replace the cliché of green policy as sacrifice and instead recognize that for progressive regions and their residents being green pays handsome economic dividends.”
His analysis centers on the problem posed by Americans’ extensive use of gasoline, and the (usually) foreign oil from which it is derived. Since this product is controlled by large companies, most of the revenue from gasoline sales leaves a particular locale and is never seen again; Mr. Cortright estimates that 73 percent of the retail price of gas immediately leaves the local economy. Therefore, by switching from cars to bicycles, citizens are ensuring that more of the money they spend on transportation is staying in and benefiting the local economy. Cortright estimates that if Portlanders reduce their overall driving by about 4 percent, they would keep about $800 million from leaving the city; by investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, the city of Portland could increase local spending by more than $54 million over 15 years.
Portland is an excellent example of how cities, by making a very cost-effective investment in bicycle infrastructure, can have a significant positive impact on their local economies. From property values to job creation, Portland shows that building a practical, usable bicycle network can be a smart investment for any city to make. And it seems as though public and private leaders here in Louisville are taking this fact to heart.
I attended the 2014 Bike Kick Off two weeks ago, and I could not help but get the sense that the bicycle movement here is starting to rapidly gather steam.
The city is making serious investments in bicycle lanes, neighborways, and shared-use paths; public events like Hike, Bike and Paddle and cycLOUvia are successfully encouraging thousands of Louisvilians to start riding.
Though it will be several years before we can start comparing our city to places like Portland, it hopefully won’t be long before the River City starts enjoying the same benefits that the Rose City enjoys today.
Porter Stevens is a Masters of Urban Planning student at the University of Louisville.