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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Comments
16 comments so far

I’m beginning to wonder if Cassidy has internet access at the New Yorker. He’s in full Sheen mode. Winning!

Posted by ny60983 | Report as abusive

Thanks for continuing to cover this, Felix. And on John’s point about all the costs to businesses, well, actually there’s some research out now showing that retail businesses are helped by taking away motor vehicle lanes and replacing them with bike/pedestrian infrastructure, as people driving cars drive to a location then get back in the car and drive home. People walking or biking are more likely to stick around and browse other shops, grab a drink, walk the neighborhood, etc.

http://www.ecovelo.info/2009/02/19/tradi ng-parking-for-bike-lanes-and-sidewalks/

Posted by aplambeck | Report as abusive

This whole fuss reveals something about how people are wired – although cars kill and maim so many more pedestrians in the city than bikes, they’ve been doing it for all of recent memory, so it doesn’t outrage people. But bike popularity is pretty recent, bike lanes very recent. Some bicyclists behave badly, outrage ensues … but onces bikes are everywhere, the outrage will probably ebb even if the same amount of bicyclists still behave badly … people are simply not rational creatures.

Posted by wah718 | Report as abusive

Felix,
Congratulations on TIME naming you one of the best 25 financial bloggers. Given the concentration and interest in financial subjects (most other areas have a far more diffuse following) this suggests you are one of the most significant bloggers on the planet.

Hypothetically, suppose I want to get pageviews, “relevance”, and possible new readers on the basis of _your_ fame. How? Getting you to comment on me would be great, though I would likely have to say something a bit controversial, something pressing one of your buttons while still seeming worthy of engagement. But if furthermore I could string you along, getting headline after headline by threading a fine line between insanity and being annoying in a more “thoughtful” way, it might work even better. Getting you to respond to me and link to me would in itself be great, but the traffic from getting three headline posts (aka references) could be career changing (or career-saving). The number of added pageviews, the number of new readers who will find me stick around, … huge! I’d go back and back again so long as you rise to the bait. And if I got three, I’m obviously learning some tricks here, so I’m surely going to try for four… .

Posted by bxg6 | Report as abusive

Jeez, Felix–what’s with your obsession with John Cassidy?? Me thinks someone is jealous of someone else’s far higher profile career. (Perhaps you too wish you wrote for the New Yorker?) Honestly, it’s getting embarrassing.

And as for the matter of the Prospect Park West bike lane, why the hell do you think it’s a bunch of old ladies protesting the thing–if not because it’s dangerous to pedestrians?!!!! The buffer lane of parked cars blocks the view of oncoming bikers, making it all the more likely that pedestrians will walk unaware into the path of an oncoming pedalist. Perhaps you should VISIT the avenue and see for yourself before you accuse others of making “bizzaro” comments about it. (Do you even live in New York?)

Posted by CitySlick | Report as abusive

As an exurb dweller who rides a bike primarily for exercise (and who works from home and rarely drives a car), I have no dog in this hunt. But I find it interesting and instructive that Cassidy considers cyclists and motorists as a disjoint set from taxpayers.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Has anybody read Evan Osnos’ post in his Letter from China blog titled, “The Bike Lanes of Beijing”? In it he states:

“But the part worth envying is the ambition of a city to envision bold changes and investments—not the ostensible efficiency of a system that deprives people of the right to participate in those choice.”

When referring to China’s ambition “to envision bold changes and investments”. This was done in defense of his colleague John Cassidy comment, ‘“it should be put to a vote rather than being enacted via bureaucratic diktat.”’ in support of putting bike lanes to a vote. Does no one at eh Net Yorker get it? Its not that such a comparison is unreasonable it’s extremely specious.

Posted by DeathSpiral | Report as abusive

Great post, Felix. What annoys me most is that John is trying to disguise his political view with flawed economic arguments.
1) Free parking isn’t free, as Donald Shoup (UCLA) has shown
2) There is no need that the government subsidises parking because parking is a private good. Bike lanes, however, are public goods.
3) Bike landes are not characterised by diminishing returns as John claims. There have increasing returns because better cycling infrastructure induces more people to ride.
4) (as you have written in your other post) The number of cyclists is not exogenous

I elaborate a more detailed version of these arguments on my own blog: http://olafstorbeck.com/2011/03/11/the-e conomics-of-bike-lanes-%E2%80%93-how-can -john-cassidy-get-it-so-wrong/

Greeting from London
Olaf

Posted by OlafStorbeck | Report as abusive

You wrote some time ago about the pedestrian/biker/driver daily consternation and, as I remember, you suggested there would be a learning/accommodation process that will be played out on the street as bikers become a bigger number of users of the road. You suggested that pedestrians who had figured out drivers, and what to expect when interacting, were not yet acclimatized to the bikers. This rattles them now but eventually an accommodation will evolve. I don’t remember any empirical evidence being referenced only wise observation. I found your thinking similar to mine: We road users will all learn to co-exist first in our heads, and infrastructure changes will follow from that.
BTW I have been reading up on the subject and have come upon several instances where writers admit there is a paucity of empirical evidence that can sway your argument pro or con.
I myself am looking into proposals for making walking more enjoyable in urban settings. Walking is more reliable for our common short trips for the most people at more times of the day and more days of the year than any other mode of transportation.
Another point: when I was reading Donald Shoupe’s lengthy book on free parking, I noted that he concedes that parking is a valuable asset and has been a great benefit to us all. He just doesn’t think there needs to be more, and that we should put a price on some of the existing parking space(but not all).
You see a public benefit when a driver abandons the car for the bike. First, I doubt this scenario. Drivers drive longer distances that are practical for biking. Also, there is empirical evidence to show that lower income drivers drive to their jobs because it is three-times faster than public transit. A more logical scenario would be a public transit user abandoning the bus/subway for the bike. Where though is the public benefit in loosing perhaps $1,000/year in fares to the legacy system that will now need a greater public subsidy. Of course, this would be only an externality to the oh-so-low cost of the bike lanes network.

Posted by tommurphy | Report as abusive

Where I live, abundant bike lanes have not stopped bikers from riding in the street. Arlington County has put many bike lanes on major roads but bikers usually ignore the lanes and continue to ride in the street. As a motorist, I’ll support bike lanes when riders agree to get the hell off the road where the lanes are available.

Posted by Carl15 | Report as abusive

Externalities, hell. I’m waiting for someone in the econoblogosphere to take on Cassidy on the actual freaking costs of asphalt and concrete.

Using the Generalized Fourth Power rule of thumb for road damage, the cost to build & maintain a piece of roadway for a 200lb bike is something on the order of 1/160,000th the cost of doing the same for a 2-ton car. This doesn’t even count as a rounding error in most road budgets.

Consider then that roadways — and especially city streets — are subsidized from the general fund.

Drivers aren’t even paying for the actual direct value of the resources they use, let alone the externalities.

Posted by axoplasm | Report as abusive

Felix, I could not believe your argument regarding the emissions of cars. Unfortunaltely I could not open the Excel file on my computer. Hence, I did some back of the envelope calculations myself.
http://cyclingintelligence.wordpress.com  /2011/03/13/ccc-a-note-on-cars-carbon-a nd-cycles/
Amazingly, it looks like you really have a point…

Posted by OlafStorbeck | Report as abusive

Also from Arlington, Virginia, where my husband bikes to work, in bike lanes most of the time. But I also admit to sharing annoyance with the “rules for thee but not me” attitude of many bicyclist, even though I’m married to one. What I would remind motorists annoyed to share a lane with bikers is that the bikers are in the driving lane mostly at their own peril to life and limb, while your own loss is measured mostly in time — usually seconds, not even minutes. If there weren’t bike lanes bicyclists would be in the driving lane all the time instead of some of it.

What is truly annoying about Cassidy is the degree to which he feels entitled to speak on a subject he obviously knows nothing about, and to assume he speaks with objectivity when it is evident that his conclusion is foreordained. His is the quality of reasoning I usually expect to hear from priests telling me why birth control is bad for me.

Posted by rb6 | Report as abusive

I’m a daily bike commuter in New York City. I also own a car, which I’ve been known to use to go out to dinner. Not once have my driving or parking been impeded by cyclists or bicycle lanes. Cassidy imagines a monster out of what is merely efficient progress. I can only assume that the vanity plates on his Jag read ROCINANTE.

Posted by adamdoesit | Report as abusive

I live on Prospect Park West, and it’s been interesting to me to hear some of my neighbors’ completely loony accounts of life on our street. To me, the bike lane has slowed traffic and made the street quieter. I like the way it looks better now that it’s narrower – it’s much less like a major thoroughfare and more like a neighborhood street. And I’m pleased to see more bikes on our street. I have no doubt that it’s safer for the bikers, pedestrians, and even the drivers.

But to some of my older neighbors (and it seems to be mostly people over 55 and the wealthy who complain about the bike lane), the bike lane is scary, ugly, and dangerous. They’re more worried about a bike hitting them as they forget to look both ways crossing the two-way bike lane than they are about speeding traffic. They think the bike lane is an eyesore. They’re scared to open their car doors because of bike traffic on one side (they’re unaware of how scared bikes are of car doors) and car traffic on the other (How many streets in NYC isn’t it dangerous to fling a car door open?). They think there are more car accidents and they’re certain people will die because emergency vehicles won’t be able to get through when delivery trucks and cabs block one of the two remaining car lanes.

And if you show them statistics or studies contradicting anything they say, they shout that the numbers are flawed and the studies are biased.

John Cassidy is a pretty good representative of the bike lane foes out there: irrational, persistent, cranky, and most of all, really defensive. Adam Sternbergh’s comparison of Cassidy’s rhetorical style to the Tea Party is apt.

Posted by HarryS | Report as abusive

Cars are unique among all common modes of *urban* transportation in that their sheer size — particularly in cities, which by definition have limited, expensive ground area for a large population to share — leads to a competitive, vicious circle of congestion when they’re overused. When more people drive, congestion gets worse for everyone, potentially destroying the positive economic effects of agglomeration, and as such the state has a vested interest in reducing congestion by discouraging driving.

Cycling, walking, and transit use are so much more space-efficient that, at typical urban densities, they are subject to a cooperative, virtuous circle of congestion that reinforces the positive externalities of urban agglomeration. More cyclists make for safer cycling conditions [P.L. Jacobsen, Inj Prev 2003;9:205-209], more foot traffic leads to lower crime rates, more transit riders creates demand for more frequent service. Looked at another way, each of these modes is subject to much higher thresholds where the virtuous circle turns vicious. The space occupied by three cars can easily fit 30 bicycles, one bus with 70 passengers, or hundreds of pedestrians.

Drivers tend to blindly bring their competitive outlook to all urban transportation, which is why Cassidy and others end up with such inane arguments.

Posted by PaytonC | Report as abusive
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