Tagged: rules of the road

End of the week wrap-up

Hi everyone.  Well, after an incredibly productive day yesterday spent working the yard, my immune system decided to take the rest of the weekend off.  I woke up this morning around five with aches, a mild fever, and that special kind of nasty taste in my mouth that only a cold can bring (hint: think an ass-flavored fruit roll-up … with no fruit).  On strict orders from Nurse Wife, I spent the day in bed.  Normally, getting sick really bugs the crap out of me, as I like to stay busy and be busy, even if that means just cleaning up my MP3s or sorting paperclips by color and size.  (Don’t put it past me.)  But it was actually really nice to have a day of forced rest.  We’ve both been ridiculously busy lately, Ms. Wife (and she is known in her new role as a middle-school math teacher in Frayser) especially, so I very much appreciated the downtime, even if Ms. Wife had to spend most of the day working on lesson plans for the next week.  Plus, I managed to plow through a stack of half-read New Yorkers while I rested.  Not even a cold can stop me.

But enough about my unproductive productivity.  I have some articles I’ve been saving for just the right time, which is now.

First, are cyclists the new limousine liberals?  Well, assuming that taking a limousine to work involves profuse sweating, dealing with surly drivers, and the ever-present danger of being run off the road, sure.  But that’s not the point.  Some libertarians in Washington D.C. are apparently taking issue with public subsidies for the city’s very popular and successful bike-sharing program.  Their beef is that most of the riders are college-educated and white, characteristics that don’t reflect the city’s population.  (The article does a good job of addressing that objection.)

The larger question for me revolves around subsidies.  From an economics perspective, goods and services should be subsidized when the value to society exceeds the value to the individual.  In the case of bike infrastructure, there is just such a difference in value.  It has to do with the congestion externality created by vehicular traffic.  Essentially, the individual’s decision to drive a car is motivated largely by individual costs: fuel, repair, and so on.  But the individual’s decision to drive also creates other costs which are not directly paid by the individual.  Among those costs are the reduced driving times experienced by other drivers when one more car enters a roadway.  These congestion costs are a negative externality, a cost generated by each individual but not paid by those individuals.  Generally speaking, negative externalities result in too much of some thing being done.  In this case, too many miles driven.

Cycling however carries very little congestion externality, especially in cities with robust infrastructure for cyclists.  So, a subsidy for these programs is entirely justified, as it uses a public payment to reduce a public cost.  It is worth noting that other solutions to the congestion externality, like congestion taxes, are far less popular (and politically feasible), so targeting these public funds at programs that are popular makes sense.  Plus, there are positive externalities associated with cycling, like enhanced productivity (which might be fully captured in higher wages) and decreased reliance on healthcare (which would be more difficult to capture).  Indeed, there are estimates of the net gain from cycling, and the net costs from driving.

Whatever the case, I think the subsidies are fully justified.  It would be good to see the city take steps to improve access to the program for low-income residents.  But given that libertarians are not known for arguing in favor of government programs to alleviate poverty (beyond an often misguided belief that smaller government = more freedom), it appears that their concerns are motivated more by ideology than sound economics.

Speaking of economics – and who doesn’t tremble with joy on hearing those words? – this brief article on the Marginal Revolution blog asks about the socially optimal level of bike danger.  OK, it’s really just a repost from an email to the authors of the blog, but it raises an interesting question.  Again, we see the presence of an externality, again a negative one.  The externality is the one cyclist’s decision to obey the rules of the road leads to expectations about the overall lawfulness (or lawlessness) of cyclists.  So, if a majority of cyclists in Memphis are law-abiding citizens, stopping at traffic signals and so on, then drivers should expect that any given cyclist will be law-abiding.  The danger, according to the letter, is if a large number of cyclists are scofflaws.  This could change the expectations of drivers about cyclist behavior and potentially lead to more conflicts, accidents, and so on.  (Note: I’ve written about this before.)  And, at least one person thinks that being a lawbreaker is ethical.  Works for me!

Let’s talk for a minute about the phrase “socially optimal.”  Basically, a good or service is produced at a socially optimal level when the value to society of the last unit produced equals the cost to society.  So, thinking about cyclist behavior, the socially optimal level of bike danger (or safety) is found where the benefit of one more instance of dangerous behavior exactly equals the cost.  In other words, the socially optimal level of bike danger is found where there is neither too much nor too little danger.

But again, there could be an externality here, as my decisions about how dangerous to ride could effect drivers’ expectations about how dangerous are all cyclists.  So, I should behave less dangerously, lest my reckless behavior reflect poorly on my two-wheeled brethren.

(And if you needed more libertarian content, the authors of the Marginal Revolution blog, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, are economists with a decidedly libertarian bent.  They are both employed at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which is funded in part by the Koch Brothers.  Whatever the case, and however distasteful you might find the Kochs, I’ve met both Tyler and Alex, and they are both very nice guys.  Also, their microeconomics text is among the best I’ve ever read.  But enough about that.)

A few comments on another post about biking on Marginal Revolution:

  1. No, biking is not inherently dangerous, especially if drivers are polite.
  2. Discouraging biking might be the cheapest way to reduce accidents, but it is not the best way.  See above.
  3. Drivers might have a higher time-value than cyclists, but over short distances, there is little difference between driving and cycling, to say nothing of the health benefits of the latter.
In other news, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is making a statewide tour, soliciting input about transportation funding needs.  They’re scheduled to be in Memphis sometime between September 10th and 13th.  It would be great to see cyclists turn out in droves for these meetings.  Stay tuned for more details.
 
Do we need laws to protect cyclists and pedestrians?  Yes, no doubt.  But such laws will be largely meaningless without effective public education and enforcement.  Some peer-group effects couldn’t hurt either.
 
Making biking less scary?  Yes, please.  I am very pleased to see the efforts to link previously unconnected sections of bike lanes in Memphis into a truly city-wide network.  Big props to our city’s and county’s leaders for taking charge of this issue.
 
Oh, Texas.  You never fail to impress me.  OK, there’s some good stuff in the guidelines, like asking drivers to lower their speed, cover their brakes, etc.  But claiming that pedestrians and cyclists can be huge sources of danger?  Come on.  That’s so 20th century.
 
Lastly, insurance for cyclists?  Yes, please!
 
OK, that’s all I have for now.  Thanks for reading.  More to come soon.

Parking in bike lanes

I’ve seen it many times; I’m sure you have too.  Sometimes it’s a landscaping truck, or a broken-down car.  Sometimes it’s an MLGW truck or even a Memphis Police Department vehicle.  A friend of mine on facebook even began to chronicle it on his wall.  As the subject line suggests, this post is about parking in bike lanes.

I don’t have any statistics or photos to share with you.  Usually I’m too busy to stop and take pictures or do a count of vehicles parked in bike lanes when I’m biking to school.  It appears to be more common on Southern Avenue than Madison, probably because there is already on-street parking on Madison.  I hear that it’s an issue on McLean as well.

None of this should be particularly surprising.  For all the acclaim the bikes lanes have received, many Memphians are not used to them.  Part of that stems from the fact that new lanes are being added on an ongoing basis, so drivers haven’t had a lot of time to adjust to them.  And they’ve only just recently begun to infiltrate the most dense and heavily-trafficked parts of the city, on roads like Peabody, Madison, and McLean.  Nonetheless, the lanes are here to stay, so we have to do what we can to educate drivers and ourselves about the proper use of these lanes.

For more information on the city’s rules about bike lanes, visit Municode, a repository of municipal codes from across the country.  Click on Tennessee, then Memphis, then the Memphis Code of Ordinances link.  The relevant code is found in Title 11, Chapter 11-24.

I’ll quote from the code here.  In Section 11-24-9, the code says that “[e]very person operating a motor vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a person operating a bicycle within a bicycle lane. A person operating a motor vehicle may cross a bicycle lane when making a turn or when entering or leaving the roadway, but a bicycle lane shall not be used as a turning lane or passing lane.”  It goes on to say that “[m]otor vehicles shall not be parked, stopped or left standing in a bicycle lane unless the city has determined that parking within the bicycle lane in specific locations is appropriate during certain hours and official signs have been erected in the designated areas to that effect or the city engineer has issued written special permission parking for a specific event during certain hours.”  That’s as clear as I can imagine.

So the challenge now is on two fronts: education and enforcement.  On the first front, the city recently released a video which discusses the proper etiquette in the use of bike lanes.  It’s a great video, short and to the point.  And hey, that male cyclist looks familiar, doesn’t he?

On the second front, we must rely on the Memphis Police Department.  I called the MPD today for more information about the fines that could be levied on a vehicle parked in a bike lane but was unable to get a response.  (Don’t worry: I didn’t take it personally.  I know that our city police are pulled in many directions and I always appreciate their part in making Memphis a better place to live.)  But according to the city’s code, parking in bike lanes is a misdemeanor offense, so I imagine that the penalty is similar to what would be levied for a parking ticket.

Hopefully, continued education, vigorous enforcement, and the accumulation of experience in dealing with bike lanes – plus lots of cyclists using those lanes – will resolve many of the unlawful uses of these lanes.  We’ll likely never reach a point of 100% respect and compliance, but by working together we can insure that bike lanes are used only for their intended purposes: giving cyclists a safe place to ride.


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