You might have read this article in today’s Commercial Appeal. If you didn’t, or for some reason are unable to click on links, the article concerns the recent installation of bike lanes on McLean Boulevard and some conflicts that has created. The conflicts stem from the loss of on-street parking, which was sacrificed to make way for the bike lanes, and are localized onto a roughly 2000-foot section of McLean between Poplar and Overton Park Avenue. Here’s a map of that section.
I’m not terribly familiar with that section of McLean, it not being in my normal patterns of travel. But, as you can see, there are no cross streets, meaning that the loss of on-street parking is a legitimate grievance for the residents and businesses there. A local resident received a parking ticket when she parked on the street, to make way for a construction crew doing work on her house. A videography business is worried about losing clients, since access to its offices are now greatly limited. No doubt other residents have similar complaints; again, all legitimate.
Two things struck me about the article and the concerns addressed therein. First, big props to the city and, in particular, Kyle Wagenschutz, for getting in front of this issue and responding very quickly to emails from concerned citizens. When I think about what effective local government means, rapid response to complaints or questions is tops on that list. (To that point, my wife have been very impressed by the MPD’s program of watching over your house when you’re out of town. We regularly call the MPD when we’re traveling and we feel safer as a result. In fact, we’ve gotten to know at least one of the officers assigned to our beat. Of course, bringing a tray of sandwiches to the local precinct will do that for you. But I digress. A lot.)
Second, the statement from one of the residents of McLean that it “is my right” to park on the street. That’s the problem. Because McLean is a public street, it is not only her right to park there, but every other resident of the city (and visitors to the city) also enjoys that same right. Not only that, every other resident of the enjoys the right to bike along that street, drive on it, or otherwise use it for any lawful purpose. Such are the difficulties of congestible public goods.
Economists have a phrase to describe this phenomenon: the Tragedy of the Commons. The basic idea is that when individuals share access to the same common resource, the resource is often depleted, such that its value is lessened for all users. Each user has the incentive to consume the resource as much as possible, to her/his own benefit, but in doing so, adversely affects other’s enjoyment. In this case, we see that the road in question is shared by many users: drivers, cyclists, residents, pedestrians, and so on. When all users attempt to use the same road for each of their own ends, the road becomes congested to the point that the overall benefit is reduced.
But there are ways of dealing with this tragedy, one of which the article (and the city) addresses: the assigning of property rights. If the various users of the common have limits on what they can consume, then the good can be protected for the benefit of all. The city initially did this by allowing unfettered access to drivers and parkers. Fine, unless you’re a cyclist. Then, the city reallocated property rights, creating bike lanes and greatly reducing the property rights of parkers. Fine, unless you’re a parker. But now, we have a proposed compromise, which is to allow parking in the bike lanes between certain hours; dusk to dawn, for example.
While I am generally more in favorable of compromises, as opposed to all-or-nothing solutions, and while I do think that allowing night-time parking in bike lanes would be acceptable, I do have some concerns about that solution. First, I’m concerned that others would seek to apply this solution to other lengths of road where bike lanes have been recently installed. The loss of parking space is a legitimate concern, as we have seen expressed in the discussion over bike lanes on Madison Avenue and Cooper Street. But if this solution were applied more broadly, the integrity of those bike lanes, and the protection they afford cyclists, would be compromised. While I recognize that some such compromise is acceptable, I’d like to minimize it. To be sure, no one has suggested such additional compromises, and hopefully that won’t come to pass.
My other concern is that, while perhaps Pareto-improving (sorry for the overuse of economics jargon, by the way), compromises can be confusing. Parkers and cyclists would have an entirely new paradigm to adjust to, one that might not be as easily understood as one all-or-nothing solution or another, to say nothing of the difficulties in enforcing this solution. This is not to say that an amenable solution does not exist; indeed, the city, to its credit, is looking into that as well. In fact, I’m really curious to find out what other cities have done in similar situations.
One last point, before sleep overtakes me: part of me is utterly overjoyed when I read articles like this. Why, you might ask? Because when cities march (or pedal) down the path toward being truly bike-friendly, they inevitably encountered such issues. While some might take this story as being evidence of the intransigence of the non-biking public, I take it as meaning that we, as a city, are doing the right thing. Memphis is truly becoming a bike-friendly community, and these intermittent skirmishes are evidence of that. As long as we all keep our heads (and helmets) about us and focus on the long run, we’ll be fine. Just imagine what Memphis will be like in 10 years, or even next year, and these short-term concerns become less of a headache. (Unless you live on McLean between Poplar and Overton Park Avenue, that is.)