Cities really want you bicycling (they just may not know it)

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns speak in White Bear Lake. I also got to go out afterwards for a bit with Chuck and a couple of other Streets.MN writers; Nate Hood and Justin Foell. Fun time.

The crux of Chuck’s presentation was the increasing financial crunch that cities across the nation are encountering due to the suburban development model we’ve been using for the past 60 or so years.

One of the key problems is that, in typical suburbs, the ratio of infrastructure miles to property tax revenue is out of whack. Too many miles of infrastructure to maintain, too little revenue. A $300k house on an 80’ wide lot in the suburbs costs a city about twice as much as the same $300k house on a 40’ wide lot in a more dense neighborhood. People in suburbs haven’t been paying twice as much though. We also drive a lot more to get to far-flung stores, restaurants, and schools which increases wear & tear, and thus costs, for our streets. We haven’t been coughing up for that yet either.

Ninas02.200x200On the suburban commercial front, strip malls, Wal-Marts, and Walgreens, with acres of low value parking lot, excess unused land, and single-story monolithic usage, produce very little revenue compared to historical mainstreet type buildings. Mainstreet buildings are higher value and provide more revenue. Mainstreet buildings are also multi-use rather than monolithic so we get more value out of each bit of infrastructure because it serves multiple purposes, such as retail and residential, instead of only one purpose, like our local Home Depot.

All has been fine and well though, as long as roads are new and new property is being developed that brings in increased revenue to cover the costs of older infrastructure. Once everything is developed, however, and revenue levels out, and streets and other infrastructure built decades ago need to be rebuilt instead of just patched, things begin to fall apart, physically and fiscally. As Chuck put’s it, we’ve a bit of a ponzi scheme going on.

All ponzie schemes eventually come to an ugly end. These cities are beginning to face a choice of; dramatically reducing costs, doubling or tripling tax revenues (through increased property values or higher rates), or some combination. Take your pick.

I saw more than a few knowing nods by White Bear’s mayor and others as Chuck described things. Can good pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure help?

RidingToSchool.200x200Costs – For many cities, road maintenance expense is a beast. More than a few city managers have likened it to pouring money down a hole—a pothole or manhole. But there’s a sinkhole coming.

Weight is the enemy of roads and city budgets. Roads can only handle so many cars and buses trudging over them before the potholes can no longer be patched and the road must be reconstructed. That’s expensive and the revenue model for suburbs doesn’t provide enough money to pay for it once all of the land is developed.

Getting another 10 years out of the 33 miles of city maintained streets in my suburb will save about $276,000 per year. Extending their life by 30 years, which is not unreasonable, would save about $540,000 per year. We also have 9 miles of county roads that provide opportunities for greater savings.

Each time a car drives down the street it reduces the life of that street by a minute or so. Each school bus trip causes the damage of several hundred cars. Each trip made by walking or riding a bicycle instead of riding in a car or bus reduces annual maintenance and, prolongs the life of the road, and reduces costs.

WhiteBear.200x200Encourage Local Shopping (without the parking)– For the past three or four decades, local businesses have increasingly struggled to compete with the big box retailers and chain restaurants.

Typically, I’ve not hesitated to drive my car seven miles to Home Depot to save a bit on something I need or want. And, I’ve often driven past a local hardware store that has higher prices.

There are hidden costs to this though. First is the cost of driving itself. Assuming I own my car and have covered the basic expenses, it still costs me about $0.93 for each additional mile I drive. Each round trip to Home Depot, besides time and tedium, costs me $13.06. Ouch! Is that really worth it?

My driving costs city and county governments for road maintenance and additional police and fire for crashes. Roughly $0.12 per mile. This money comes right out of my pocket in property and other taxes.

Then there’s the suburban development tax—If Home Depot doesn’t generate enough tax revenue for the infrastructure that supports them, will I or they, at some point, have to fork up for that. And if it’s they, will I end up paying anyway, in higher prices?

When I get in my car it’s easy for me to go anywhere for lunch or shopping (or was before that $13 calculation above). When I get on my bike though, I’ll almost always stick to places close by—usually within a couple of miles but rarely more than four miles away.

Staying local, particularly if I can walk or ride a bicycle, decreases infrastructure expense and increases the value of local stores, their contribution to my city’s coffers, and my city’s ability to better maintain the infrastructure in our city without raising my taxes.

Congestion – More people riding bicycles means fewer cars causing congestion. Do we really need a photo of congestion? Didn’t think so.

Bungalow.200x200Increase Property Values – Three very fascinating trends over the past decade have been the decline in car ownership rates, a decline in miles driven, and a move from living in suburbs to more urban areas.

These are not accidental, but appear to be driven by two common themes—a desire for community, and to be able to walk and bicycle more for daily transportation.

People want to be able to walk or ride to a local cafe or bakery and see people they know, there or along the way, namely their neighbors. They desire the routine repeated incidental interactions that allow us to get to know people and to keep up with the world around us. They want the health benefits and enjoyment of routine walking and bicycling, and the cost savings of not owning two cars. And they want to shop, eat, and go to school away from higher speed highway-like roads.

They desire the things that we don’t often get when we live in a suburban housing development and anonymously drive everywhere and usually to places farther away, on busy high speed roads, and that are crowded with a bunch of strangers.

These trends, much more than simply the Mayberry Syndrome, appear to be here to stay. In just a couple of generations, people have found that the far-flung, car-needy, segregated suburban environment has left them empty. We’re spending too much time driving around anonymously in cars and often don’t even know our close neighbors, let alone those three or four houses away. Talk about loneliness.

These trends aren’t helping housing values in the suburbs (nor suburban city tax revenues), but it doesn’t have to be that way. Suburbs can transform themselves to become more like the community’s that people desire. By creating an environment that is pedestrian and bicycle friendly. A place where people feel safe, and are safe, to walk or ride to local cafes, stores, and schools instead of driving to those far away. A place that encourages more locals to come regularly.

And there you have it.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN