You’re Not the Boss of Me

As one might imagine, I get into discussions of public funding for alternative transportation infrastructure quite a bit – online and offline, though the online conversations tend to be some of the most frustrating (and perversely amusing).  As the debate moves back and forth and I make my case for funneling dollars towards bike lanes, transit service, park-and-rides, or whatnot, I am amazed at how often and how quickly the opposing argument boils down to, “Well, you just want to control my life.”

Take, for example, a recent thread on Facebook, where River Laker (Roanoke’s Car Less Brit) shared this Roanoke Times article about a VDOT plan, currently unfunded, to spend $20 million adding travel and turning lanes to the Elm Avenue Bridge, Roanoke’s hotspot for congestion (as modest as that congestion is).  A few folks, myself included, commented that $20 million to alleviate congestion for a small number of drivers during rush hour on one tiny span of road might not be the wisest use of money, particularly when the same $20 million could complete the entire span of unfinished Greenway between Green Hill Park and Explore Park.  Yes, I understand that, in reality, government spending doesn’t work that way – the money is broken up into pots and can’t be transferred from project to project, but it’s the principle that’s the point here.

A proponent of VDOT’s plan (we’ll call him K.B.) stepped in to argue against the cyclists and others who were criticizing the proposal, and after engaging him in discussion it took only 7 posts before K.B. shot back, “What you’re really trying to do is force your way of life on me, admit it.”

This response amazes me on several levels.  First, it’s just a dumb argument (I’d like to be more diplomatic than that, but I just can’t):  not funding a road improvement does not equate to denying someone the ability to keep driving as they always have.  At worst, it reinforces the consequences of their choice  – choose drive alone everyday, deal with the traffic.  To be fair, the same can be applied to cyclists and bus riders – choose to ride a bicycle, accept that the trip is going to be more dangerous.  Not providing additional service does not equal taking away service.

Second, I don’t get how providing a bike lane for someone else to use forces the driver to change his behavior.  Now, TDM professionals like myself would love if this were actually true – if putting down a bike lane forced drivers to switch to bicycles (or to adding buses forced them to ride, or HOV lanes to carpool), then our jobs would be much easier.  We’d all be engineers instead of marketers.  Of course, that’s not how it works:  building out accommodations serves as one piece of a complex puzzle of infrastructure improvements, incentives, market pressures, and education to get people to use them.  Almost always, though, there is a built in audience – maybe small, maybe large – who would use the accommodation with little to no prodding.

More important is this:  TDM is about transportation choice – that is, we’re not against cars or driving alone, but we’re for using the right mode for the right trip and educating commuters about the benefits of doing so (significant dollar savings, environmental benefits, health benefits, and so forth).  In fact, surveys in Virginia have shown that commuters who choose to drive alone each day, or do so out of necessity, appreciate other commuters having the option to bike, walk, take the train or bus, etc., as it gets those cars off the road and allows the single-occupant-vehicle drivers to move along more efficiently.  Giving people the widest variety of choice helps the entire system move more efficiently.

In terms of where public money is spent, we take a view of investment equity; that is, public money should be spent in a way that benefits all users of all modes in some respect.  The idea that that spending money on bike lanes, greenways, and other accommodations now is a waste of tax dollars is a bit ridiculous given the number of cul-de-sacs, limited-access-highways and, yes, congestion mitigation projects that have been built over the last several generations.  If the measure of success is the number of people who use it, is a cul-de-sac really that much better of an investment?  Given the lopsided way we’ve spent transportation money the last few decades, we have a lot of catching up to do to reach some level of equity.

But let’s accept for a moment, just for the fun of it, this “you’re controlling my life” argument has some validity to it.  How, precisely, is the reverse not therefore true?  If adding a bike lane is controlling his life, isn’t adding additional driving lanes controlling mine?  So, even accepting that it’s got weight behind it the argument is pretty silly – the two cancel each other out, and we’re back to debating which is the better way to spend public money.

I’m not sure what causes drivers to retreat to this point – are they threatened?  Is it guilt?  Maybe they think they should be riding that bike to the store, but have rationalized not being able to do so because of the lack of a bike lane?  Whatever the case, it’s an unfortunate position that shuts down the important conversation we should be having about public investment in transportation infrastructure.