Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Argument for Two Wheels

Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/16/realestate/commercial/for-those-who-pedal-to-work-a-room-to-store-their-bikes.html

Blog series: http://www.grist.org/biking/2011-07-05-bicycling-our-way-into-work-and-out-of-the-great-recession

Two popular topics pertaining to urban sprawl that consistently appear on this blog include: transportation methods and land uses. I recently found an interesting article that encompasses both of these topics in a very compelling discussion about something I have never heard of before: bike rooms. This article titled “A Room of Their Own for 2-Wheeled Commuters” was published earlier this month in The New York Times, and I realized an interesting link between this topic and urban sprawl.

According to the article, the 300-400 square foot bicycle room created in 2008 at 345 Hudson Street in northern TriBeCa (New York) replaced a ground-level unused storage space, and is used by many of the employees that work in the block-long building and were already riding their bikes to work. The costs for creating the bicycle room totaled $30,000, which included the installation of lighting, a new paint job, a new front door, and 10 bike racks at $2,500 each. The building’s landlord also pays an estimated $13 to $30 per square foot annually for rent.

In 2009, New York City created a law that requires commercial office buildings to allow cyclists to bring their bicycles into their offices. The fact that the 345 Hudson Street bicycle room was created before this law exemplifies the underlying motive behind the sprouting trend of bicycle rooms in New York City commercial buildings. Landlords realize that they forfeit the potentially high rent for the precious ground-level space in their buildings, but they also recognize that creating bicycle storage provides an incentive to potential two-wheel commuting tenants and to employees and customers that would take advantage of free parking.

Furthermore, Noah Budnick, the deputy director of the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, states that bicycle rooms are becoming a selling point for the real estate industry in New York. Landlords are incentivized to create bicycle rooms by the opportunity to earn LEED certification points. LEED certification indicates to the public and to investors that the building contributes to the efforts for establishing a greener community. In the case of 345 Hudson Street and a few other office buildings mentioned in the article, the bicycle rooms that replace an unused storage or basement space portrays land being transferred to its most highly valued use. If landlords can turn an unused space into an incentive for potential tenants or for current employees and customers, why not create bicycle rooms? If tenants, employees, and customers have a safe, weather protected, and free space to store their bicycles, why not trade their four wheels for two?

The topic of bike rooms spurred my interest about the practicality of bicycle transportation in our supposedly sprawling nation. I stumbled across a blog series titled “Bikeconomics” on www.grist.org that discusses the economic impact of bicycling and how the bicycle is “emerging as an effective engine of economic recovery.” At first I found the idea a bit far-fetched, but after reading the majority of the columns in the series, I began to see some sense in Elly Blue’s compelling argument. (I definitely recommend checking out this blog series if you have some spare time.)

I realize that bicycle transportation is not practical for certain cities, climates, and people; a bicycle would certainly not be the best option for a family that must transport kids to school and buy a lot of groceries, or for someone who must travel a long distance in a snowy climate along a route with busy streets and highways. But for a healthy individual that is located in a typically warm climate and within a reasonable distance (5-10 miles) from their job and other economic activities, a bicycle offers a very inexpensive and convenient transportation method. Consider the benefits of two-wheel commuting. Bicyclists can save the estimated $8,485 annual cost of driving a car (according to AAA), take multitasking to a new level by exercising while commuting, and help decrease air pollution in their city, all while still enjoying the same individual freedom that a car offers.

Bicycle transportation offers just as many benefits to cities as it offers to individuals. The blog series briefly discusses these benefits: “A 2008 study in Portland clocked bicycle-related industry alone as contributing $90 million to the local economy every year. Bicycle tourism is another huge boon to regions that can attract it -- in 2010, Wisconsin bragged of a yearly $1.5 billion bike economy.” And to add onto the discussion about the growing trend of bike rooms, city businesses certainly cannot complain about the prospect of reducing the need to provide expensive parking for car-dependent tenants, employees, and customers.

So how does bicycling and the current trend of bike rooms relate to urban sprawl? As we have discussed throughout this semester, transportation and policies affecting transportation directly relate to the spatial size of cities. In general, as the cost per mile travelled or overall cost per trip decreases (usually caused by increase in income or by transportation subsidies), the urban density also decreases as people can now afford move away from the urban center. It’s no wonder our current primarily automobile and mass transit dependent cities experience a decrease in urban density. Yes, bicycle transportation boasts obvious financial, health, and environmental benefits, but perhaps we have overlooked the most obvious benefit: the distance limitations of the bicycle! Unlike car or mass transit dependent residents, bicycle-dependent residents must live close to the CBD.

In my opinion, cities ought to create policies that exploit this specific benefit of bicycle transportation to encourage residents to switch from four to two wheels. New York City’s law requiring commercial office buildings to allow cyclists to bring their bicycles into their offices doesn’t exactly command the creation of bike rooms. But through incentives to both businesses (LEED certification points and a unique selling point for potential tenants) and individuals (safe, weather-protected, and free bicycle storage), this law indirectly encourages bicycle transportation.

Cities could directly encourage bicycle transportation (and also indirectly encourage a denser urban center) through any of the following: 1) a yearly tax rebate for two-wheel commuters, 2) an increase in the amount of safe bike lanes, or 3) bicycle advocacy agencies that educate the public about buying, riding, and maintaining bicycles. According to the Bikeconomics blog series, some U.S. cities such as Oakland have already taken initiative: “Earn-a-Bike programs empower participants with a free bicycle and the skills and knowledge to maintain and ride it well.”

Clearly, bicycle transportation is not for everyone, and clearly these suggested policies will not encourage everyone to switch to bicycle transportation. Furthermore, bicycle transportation cannot entirely shrink and/or reshape a city’s spatial size. But perhaps a city’s policies can simply encourage people to reconsider their primary transportation method and locational choices. The population of bicycle-dependent residents will undoubtedly be smaller than car and mass transit dependent population, but sometimes even the smallest changes can have the biggest impact.

1 comment:

Larry Eubanks said...

You write "in my opinion cities should . . . ."

What are the value judgments you make to support this "should?" Economic efficiency? What value judgments supports government forcing a business owner to use his or her property for a bike room, or even to use individual office or work space for bike storage during the workday?

Your analysis seems to suggest that without government intervention people can, and some do, see and act on private incentives that mean increased bike transport to and from work. Why is government's forceful intervention a good thing in contrast to leaving the free decisions of individuals to work bike commuting out in our daily lives?