Evaluating public expenditure: measuring outcomes

Depending upon where you’re from, you will have more or less familiarity with the issue of cycle-ways in urban environments (being from Sydney and now living in NY – and not being a motorist – I am fairly familiar with it).

New York, for example, has made significant moves towards cycle-friendly transit lanes (this is 2nd Avenue, way downtown, via Streetsblog:

Streetsblog 1

Streetsblog 2

Sydney, of late, is beginning to get ‘with it’. Economic evaluation comes in when you look at this sort of thing and ask, “was that worth it?” Think about New York City, for example. The nominal cost of this stuff is a few cans of paint; the full cost is something else: diminished space for cars means slower traffic; slower traffic means higher costs. Is the Excess Burden placed on the city worth it? For Sydney:

Money wasted on cyclists: NRMA

Taxpayers are pouring millions of dollars into lining motorways with cycleways that are barely used – and are building a new bicycle lane the NRMA says will effectively cost $300,000 for every cyclist that uses it.

Despite pleas from Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, for bicycles to reclaim the streets, the motoring organisation says residents are sticking to four wheels.

In a submission to the Roads and Traffic Authority it accuses the Government of wasting millions on cyclists at the expense of motorists, who are forced to battle worsening congestion as lanes are removed from busy roads.

The cycling lane on the M2 attracted just 130 cyclists a day. The Iemma Government is building a cycleway alongside choked Epping Road, despite as few as 25 cyclists using that corridor each day.
At $7.6 million for the Epping Road cycleway, the NRMA says that would amount to spending $300,000 per cyclist on a lane that is unlikely to attract many more riders, based on the experiences of the M2 motorway.

But:

A spokesman for the RTA said the cycleway would attract many more cyclists than those now using Epping Road. He said the NRMA’s figure was not a true reflection of how popular the new cycleway would be once completed.

“If you give cyclists a dedicated facility instead of riding in normal traffic, they will use it,” the spokesman said.

Hence the title: how is the outcome being measured, here? It would appear that measuring the number of cyclists utilising the cycleway is already premature (which is common sense: one should wait until public infrastructure is settled and known before measuring use of that infrastructure), but is the argument/suggestion that the number of cyclists on a cycleway is the outcome measure even valid?

This takes us back, immediately, to the timing of the measurement. Squeezing traffic is half the point: we are supposed to be offering motorists a dis-incentive. Expanding road-space to deal with cars is like expanding your belt to deal with obesity – it’s just plain silly. After a while we should return to see (a) how many bikes are on the road, (b) how many cars, and (b.2) how many motorists have swapped their car for cycling, and finally (c) other public transport.

This, too, is where merely measuring bicycles is off the point, because transit is a multivalent measure. If the problem is cars, pollution, etc., the solution has to be everything that isn’t cars. In which case everything that isn’t cars has to be, somehow, the outcome measure.

Other issues, such as crowding out (a negative), incomes generated (a positive), and so forth are also important. Pointing at bikes on a path and a bill to the taxpayer is not, necessarily, evaluation.

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