John Cassidy Watch, externalities edition

By Felix Salmon
March 10, 2011
back for a third round of smack-downs, after having drawn unanimous scorn for his first two attempts to demonize bike lanes.

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I’m beginning to think that John Cassidy must have a serious masochistic streak: he’s now back for a third round of smack-downs, after having drawn unanimous scorn for his first two attempts to demonize bike lanes.

Cassidy purports to take seriously the question of his negative externalities when he drives his Jaguar. But he gets it embarrassingly wrong:

In the case of motor vehicles, there are several negative spillovers, the most obvious of which is pollution and the associated climate threat…

A second issue is congestion…

This gets things completely backwards. The amount of pollution emitted by today’s cars is actually pretty low, while the amount of congestion they cause is enormous. I’d be happy to introduce Cassidy to Charlie Komanoff one day, the guy who’s actually done all the hard empirical math on this question. The pollution-related negative externalities associated with Cassidy’s drives into Manhattan are tiny, while the congestion-related ones are enormous — well over $100 per trip.

And Cassidy’s proposals for tackling congestion are weird indeed: carpool lanes? I have no idea how that’s meant to work on 52nd Street. Meanwhile, the one thing which does work — congestion pricing — is conspicuously absent from Cassidy’s list.

All of this rhetoric allows Cassidy to set up a classic straw man:

Some would say that reducing New York’s carbon footprint is of such importance that we need to utilize bike lanes and other techniques to further inconvenience car drivers.

Actually, John, amid all the thousands of words which have been directed at you since you embarked upon this bizarre crusade, no one said anything like that at all. Big cities like New York are already by far the carbon-friendliest places in America, as Cassidy’s colleague David Owen would be happy to explain to him.

But Cassidy drives blithely on:

I haven’t seen any cost-benefit analysis backing this up, and, frankly, I don’t think such concerns are driving the debate. If global warming disappeared tomorrow, the bike lobby would still demand more bike lanes.

Well, John, here’s a cost-benefit analysis for you. It’s a massive Excel file, It has almost nothing to do with global warming, and it’s completely compelling. The bike lobby has a solidly-grounded empirical basis for the advantages of building bike lanes. You, on the other hand, have an XJ6, an 8pm reservation on Grove Street, and an overgrown sense of entitlement.

Cassidy claims that he wants

some sort of efficiency test beyond the rule of two wheels good, four wheels bad. Do the putative gains in convenience, safety, and fuel-economy from a particular bike lane outweigh the costs to motorists (and other parties, such as taxpayers and local businesses)?

At this point it’s clear that Cassidy has no idea what this kind of analysis — which actually does get done — is involved in these things. He gets the benefits largely right, although I think that he massively underestimates the value and importance of safety gains. If you significantly reduce pedestrian fatalities, as the Prospect Park West bike lane has done, that in and of itself is reason to build it. As for the costs, there’s really very little evidence that motorists and taxpayers and local businesses bear any costs at all.

Cassidy’s in such a bizarro world here that he even wonders out loud whether the Prospect Park West bike lane might endanger pedestrians, when in fact it protects them. And when he forays into the issue of pedestrian safety — an issue which the pro-bike-lane crowd would happily make the sole deciding issue for every single lane — he decides that what’s important here is “the growing problem of cyclists terrorizing pedestrians”. Again, without any empirical evidence to back up his assertion that this problem is growing at all, and certainly without any recognition of the fact that cars are much deadlier in collisions with pedestrians than bikes could ever be.

Cassidy reckons, in his conclusion, that the question of whether to build bike lanes is not a question of a public-interest transportation facility against private-interest parking spots. Instead, he says, “it comes down to one private user versus another” — presumably the bikers on the lane, versus the car drivers who would otherwise be able to park in those spots. Well, that’s an easy balance to strike. When Cassidy plonks his Jag down on a West Village street and disappears off to dinner, he’s just using up space: he’s not serving any public interest at all, and he’s blocking that part of the road for anybody else who might want to use it. When a bicyclist travels down a bike lane, by contrast, she’s there and she’s gone. She uses up almost no space, and she immediately frees up the lane for the next cyclist to come along behind her.

On top of that, every driver who decides to bicycle on one of the new lanes is one less driver for Cassidy to compete with in crosstown gridlock. By rights, he should be loving the way that bike lanes are reducing the number of cars on the road, rather than railing against them. But for all that he claims to be “wonky” in this post, it’s clear that he’s much more interested in coming up with any conceivable justification for his already-existing prejudices than he is in dispassionate analysis. The fact is, it’s the bicyclists who have all the data on their side. The car lobby just has inchoate rants.

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