Bike Lanes Not a Good Use Of Taxpayers’ Dollars

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I’m going to make myself deeply unpopular with a very vocal Saskatoon demographic — cyclists — but that’s OK. We need to debate this, because our property taxes and city spending are getting out of control. 

Last week, city council’s transportation committee voted to endorse a plan to spend $27.7 million over the next 11 years to expand our city’s bike lanes and add more sidewalks. 

The plan still needs to be approved by city council as a whole, but committee endorsements are designed to guide that process.

Of that $27.7 million, $10.28 million is earmarked for expanding Saskatoon’s protected bike lanes over those 11 years, and $4.6 million of that would pay for permanent bike lanes downtown over the next three years. 

Surprisingly (or maybe not) Ward 5 Coun. Randy Donauer cast the sole vote against the plan, citing the cost of implementation.

This seems rather tone-deaf on the part of the other five members of the committee: Councillors Zach Jeffries, Bev Dubois, Cynthia Block, Sarina Gersher and Mayor Charlie Clark. Tone-deaf because the controversy over the perceived and actual efficiency and practicality of our current bike lane network has been a hot-button issue since day one. I can’t image Saskatoon ratepayers are super-excited about spending more money to keep it going.

Perhaps that’s reflected by a recent CTV Saskatoon poll, wherein 87 per cent of more than 1,000 respondents said no to the question, “should the City of Saskatoon spend $4.6 million to install permanent bike lanes?”

I appreciate that’s not a scientific poll, but even weighted for population factors it’s likely still a rather resounding rejection of policy.

I do not hate cyclists, or progress. Yes, I appreciate that modern cities in Sweden, or whatever region we’re aspiring to live up to this week, supposedly make cycling to work a breeze.

I also understand that $5 million, or even $10 million over the course of a few years, represents a fraction of the city’s spending budget, which currently tops half a billion dollars per year. 

On the issue of comparisons to other cities and countries, we need to take into consideration a number of factors before we start comparing apples to apples. Among them are our relatively low population (the city estimates our July 1, 2018 population to be 278,500), our geographical layout and city design including all of our bridges, which almost entirely drive how traffic flows downtown, and  — you guessed it — our climate.

For me, however (and apparently Donauer), this is about spending priorities. There are many items buried within any government’s budget that equate to a small, even minuscule portion of overall spending; but when those individual items add up, guess what we get? That’s right, a five per cent property tax increase, or garbage collection as a utility, et cetera, et cetera. 

Look at this from a per capita perspective, though admittedly that is somewhat difficult to do because the estimates of the number of cyclists are all over the place. The report considered by the transportation committee alleges that two per cent of the population, or 5,500 people, cycle to work. I’m going to go with no, and assume they mean two per cent of the working population. 

In the summer of 2017, the North Saskatoon Business Association (NSBA) installed cameras, donated and attached to a downtown building by one of their members, which recorded movements in bike lanes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

According to their news release later that year, the cameras counted an average of 84 bikes a day. This was less than half of what the City of Saskatoon’s own bike-sensitive counters recorded in 2017, which they said tallied as many as 310 cyclists per day on one block of Fourth Avenue.

So let’s meet in the middle, even leaning a bit to the higher end, and say that 250 cyclists moved through Saskatoon’s bike lanes daily in 2017. 

City hall’s goal is to double the number of people who walk and cycle in Saskatoon, so bump that up to 500. Using the city’s $4.6 million number to install permanent bike lanes over the next three years, and dividing it by 500 cyclists (you already know where this is going), the cost is $9,200 per bike. 

Are you kidding me?! The 2019 transportation budget in its entirety only spends $294 per capita, or less than $1,000 per person over three years (with adjustments for inflation and spending). So forgive me for wondering why we’d prioritize nine times that much for a small group of individuals.

And that’s the point, isn’t it: “prioritize.” If we’re going to control spending in this town, we must prioritize initiatives that better the lives of more than 500 people. Of more than 50,000 people, preferably.

At last week’s transportation committee meeting, prior to endorsing the report, Mayor Clark wondered whether funding might be available from the provincial or federal government (a financial plan is expected later this year as part of a wider transportation strategy).

I think the mayor needs to do more and better than wonder and hope — though let’s face it, there’s only one taxpayer. You and I will be paying for those bike lanes either way. Remember that when you’re driving by them.