Tim has pointed out the relationship between gas prices and bike demand. Riding bikes improves air quality if you would have been driving otherwise. The problem, in many places, is where do the bikers get to ride? Luckily the federal government is happy to subsidize bike riding and improved air quality.
From Saturday's WSJ (Building a better bike path):
Cities across America such as Portland, Ore., Dallas and Clearwater, Fla., are grappling with a dilemma. They'll soon be able to tap a big new source of money to build bike paths, thanks to unusually generous provisions for cyclists in the $286.5 billion transportation bill that Congress approved in August.
Exactly which bike paths will share in the windfall from the new transportation bill will be up to the states. One exception: $38 million is earmarked for bike paths in Louisville, Ky., a project mentioned in the bill. Bikes Belong, a lobbying group funded by the bicycle industry, estimates that about $1 billion from the transportation bill will go toward trails.
$1 billion for bike paths, but the bikers are ticked because ... they must share the paths! (personal note: my 3 year old is currently trying to learn to share.)
North Carolina State researchers found cyclists unhappy about sharing space with joggers, baby carriages and kids peddling their first two-wheelers. "You've got a mix of elementary students and meatheads," says Theo Petritsch of Sprinkle Consulting, who has researched bike-path use.
One unintended consequence of subsidies to encourage biking is crowding and negative health impacts (i.e., bikers crash into things, including people). Is there a solution?
In some cases, designers say the ideal would be to create separate jogging trails and keep the bike paths only for cyclists -- but a hitch is that usually only shared-use paths qualify for those federal funds. Another approach is to widen the bike paths. That can provide ample room for both bikers and joggers -- but in some cases, increasing the size by 2 feet, or 20%, could double the cost of the path. Still others talk about "traffic calming" -- basically, narrowing paths or adding curves in critical spots to force everyone to slow down.
My take is that we shouldn't count on bikes taking over for cars anytime soon.