Let Private Companies Pay for More Bike Lanes

How One Scooter Company Wants to Change Urban Infrastructure

There are currently just 361.65 miles of protected bike lanes in the entire United States—but an electric scooter company wants to give us many more. Bird is a Santa Monica-based company that was founded in 2017 and achieved an astounding $2 billion valuation just a year later. It distributes electric scooters in select cities, where users can rent them for $1 per ride plus 15 cents a minute.

Bird has proposed offering its host cities a dollar a day per scooter, earmarked to build protected bike lanes. Those lanes, which allow bikes and scooters to move smoothly without conflicts with cars or pedestrians, will be needed to accommodate Bird’s growth if it achieves the market share that its investors obviously expect.

People For Bikes, an advocacy organization, estimates that a protected bike lane costs $445,000 per mile to build, although there is substantial variation. A researcher at Columbia University estimated that New York City added bike lanes in 2015 at a rate of $178,000 per mile, although most of those were unprotected bike lanes, which are cheaper and less safe. With Bird active in 20 cities, there might be 4,000 scooters on the streets now—enough to fund three miles of new protected bike lane in a year. But what if the company continues to expand and succeed? Imagine a market for 100,000 scooters, which would fund 82 miles of protected lanes, annually, far more than the US currently installs.

Bird’s entry into the market, along with other scooter and dockless bikeshare companies like Lime and Mobike, has caused predictable tensions about the use of public space. First, city streets have limited space; it’s no surprise that committed motorists want more parking while everyday cyclists and scooters (or should it be scooterers?) want safe bike lanes.

But there’s another tension: who gets to decide what our cities look like? Some urbanists, who by their own lights ought to be allies of the new scooters, are uncomfortable with the use of private money to fund public works. David King, for instance, recently tweeted "I'm all for more bike lanes everywhere, but prioritizing allocation of street space based on private money paying for favored projects is bad policy. Paying into a multimodal program would be better--maybe though something called "taxes."

The top-down planning mindset errs in its basic conception of public space. The role of city governments is not to force an enlightened vision on the public, but to accommodate the public’s needs. Many urban planners remain wedded to overpriced, inefficient options that they think people ought to want, and many regulators are stuck in a cars-first paradigm, ignoring the demand for walkability.

Market urbanism rejects the usual culture war lines—bike and transit people versus car people—and emphasizes that governing authorities ought to listen to and accommodate people’s choices in the available markets. Cars work great for some trips, scooters for others. Just as cities reoriented their roads to accommodate cars 100 years ago, they ought now to accommodate scooting—even without outside funding.

But Bird is going one step further, offering to enter the long tradition of private provision of public goods. The original subway lines were private. Private institutions have frequently built or maintained public parks. Radio broadcasts, a textbook example of a public good, are largely private in the US. Companies often provide public entertainment because they benefit from the attraction.

Bird knows that it relies on public, government-owned infrastructure to survive and thrive as a business. It also needs grumpy regulators kept at bay. Bird will of course benefit from safe, quick facilities for its customers to use. Regular cyclists and even Bird’s competitors will benefit as well.

Government still has an important role to play: they own the streets and referee among the competing users of public space. They should absolutely accept Bird’s offer and expand their networks of safe bike and scooter routes.

This bike commuter, for one, is looking forward to free riding on Bird’s generous provision of a public good.

Photo credit: JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock