How Much Would It Cost to Minneapolize the Country?

What would it cost to retrofit the entire United States to be reasonably bikeable?

A hundred bucks a head could revolutionize transportation in the United States. Photo: ##http://www.theurbancountry.com/2012/03/rural-bike-infrastructure-in.html##The Urban Country##
A hundred bucks a head could revolutionize transportation in the United States. Photo: ##http://www.theurbancountry.com/2012/03/rural-bike-infrastructure-in.html##The Urban Country##

It all began with this idle question on Twitter. Bike advocates in the U.S. love to talk about incremental changes, small victories, baby steps. But, I wondered, what if we went further? What if we just went ahead and retrofitted the entire country to accommodate and even encourage bicycling? All at once, one big investment, a one-time federal spending appropriation?

I pose a lot of idle questions like this one; this time someone responded with an exact number:

@ellyblue The FHWA pilot project spent about $100/ per capita to significantly improve NMT in typical communities http://t.co/ef5OvwJLg2

— Todd Litman (@LitmanVTPI) April 25, 2014

Todd Litman’s answer was surprisingly simple: $100 per person. That’s what was spent, he pointed out, in four communities that were part of a major pilot project in active transportation funding a few years back [PDF].

I’m not talking Amsterdam-level bike-friendliness here — even in my wildest thought experiments I know better than to imagine that could or should be created overnight.

I’m talking more like Minneapolis — one of those four pilot cities, ranked as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. It’s not perfect — but it’s a much, much better place to bike than most U.S. cities, even in its iciest winters.

Could the whole country get Minneapolized for just $100 a head? Would that be enough to set the trend in motion to create real, lasting, long term change? Even the Netherlands had to start somewhere.

The U.S. population currently clocks in at 313.9 million people. So by this measure, the cost of a pretty darn good bike retrofit would cost $31.4 billion. Let’s round it up to $32 billion.

$32 billion.

It’s a big number, even in the general scope of federal transportation spending. But it’s hardly out of reach.

In terms of federal transportation dollars, the amount is about 9 percent of the total cost of the Senate’s transportation proposal. A hefty chunk for sure. But unlike the rest of that money — most of which will be sunk into money-losing, debt-raising programs and roads for cars that require greater and greater spending each year — this one-time investment in bicycling would actually earn money on a number of levels: improving local retail economies, boosting safety, creating jobs, and perhaps most of all improving health outcomes and reducing health care spending.

Almost none of these benefits are specific to people who ride bicycles. Sure, if you’re able to ditch your car for a bike, you can turn your personal financial life around, and this $32 billion investment could help millions of Americans do just that. But ultimately, it’s not about bicycles at all. Societal improvements that happen to be great for biking end up helping everyone, including people who will never get on a bike.

Yes, $32 billion is a made up number. (Pro tip: all numbers are.) Suburban, urban, rural areas all have different needs. Places with a lot of bridges are different than places with a lot of hills. Old cities are different from new cities. Each city is exceptional in its own way. If we did the math on these variations and exceptions, perhaps the total cost would be higher. Then again, it might be much, much lower. (Our country’s non-urban areas are full of wide, underutilized roads, and paint is cheap).

My hunch, though, is that any savings would be balanced out by the necessary policy of applying these great bikeability improvements equitably — not just focusing on urban cores and up and coming neighborhoods as is currently typical of bike planning programs, but on every community in the country.

Just for perspective, here are some examples of what else $32 billion will get you:

Or we could have a country where we could all have the choice to get around actively, humanely, economically, and without massively screwing each other over for generations to come.

Federal spending isn’t the end-all-be-all of transportation funding. But as Minneapolis has shown, it can powerfully unlock local matching funds. More importantly, a boost in new projects can unleash the enormous reverberations and positive economic impact that an increase in bicycling can bring to entire communities. And that’s priceless.

  • R.A. Stewart

    “Or we could have a country where we could all have the choice to get around actively, humanely, economically, and without massively screwing each other over for generations to come.”

    Well, clear choice then. Anything but that. :-/

    Seriously, though, thanks for a thought-provoking perspective. While I find it difficult to imagine this country ever shaking its road addiction, sometimes you do have to pause a moment and really rethink the situation from the ground up. And you do have to imagine what you’re working toward, even if it seems impossible.

  • GC

    So, about the cost of 2 tanks of gas. Per person.

  • Pete

    In Chicago you’d have to factor in the cost overruns due to fraud, waste and mismanagement. So make that $500 per person.

  • John Lloyd

    Great article. One other thing to note: yes, the $32B figure is about 9 percent of the current fed transportation budget for the year, as you note. However, the $32B bike infrastructure amount could be allocated over, say, 5 years, which means the yearly figure would be about $6.4B, or about 2% of the current federal transpo budget. Long-term maintenance costs would be much lower also, because bikes cause very little wear-and-tear on roadways, compared to automobiles.

  • Bike East Bay

    An idea: $32 billion is about what the Federal gas tax generates in 1 year. Would Republicans agree to give bike projects all that money for one year in return for no bike money in all future years from this tax? Would Democrats? Is it even a good idea?

  • andrelot

    As the article recognizes, the $100/person is a totally made-up number, a guess, and therefore any of the following conclusions of the article are moot and non-credible.

    I dislike it a lot when Streetsblog put out theses empty pieces that don’t rely on verifiable data at all, using just some randomly picked numbers instead. They ought to be better than this.

  • Mackey Smith

    let’s do it!

  • Robin

    Um, it seems you only read the “bullet points” and have a low reading comprehension level. Elly DID refer to the WELL-DOCUMENTED report, based on before/after statistics submitted by the Federal Highway Administration with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. So…. this article is NOT based on “empty pieces that don’t rely on verifiable data at all, using just some randomly picked numbers”

  • Since we’re in abstract, why set sights so low? Even if Amsterdam isn’t the end goal, I’m confused as to why people continue point out how it took Amsterdam 40 years to become Amsterdam and say we’ll get there “eventually”. There’s no reason to start out by ignoring what has been discovered there (and elsewhere) in the past 40 years and continue to focus reinventing the wheel. Airbus didn’t start with Wright Flyers, Elon Musk didn’t build Model As before starting his Teslas. America might be the land of progress and innovation, but apparently can’t do so for bicycling infrastructure.

    A necessary start would be to mandate that all new construction include adequate bike infrastructure. (For example, BIK LANs don’t belong on arterials ever.) That would include cracking open the CROW Design manual for bicycle traffic and taking the recommendations for separation to heart which are based on speed/volume of the traffic, not bike counts. That means we won’t be perpetually one step behind of projects to fix and will drastically lower the cost per head as well when included as part of the road right-of-way from the start. (Which this project [PDF] has attempted to do, though they’re somewhat thwarted by CA’s Class I/II/III shenanigans [PDF].)

    At the same time, there’s also no need to dig up perfectly good legacy roads tomorrow. Paint and bollards would have the desired effect to start, then real improvements can be incorporated with more comprehensive rebuilds/realignments/etc. The paint and bollards should definitely not be seen as a final solution, but they will get more people riding. That’ll add to the safety in numbers as well as more people clamoring for improvements too because they’ll directly benefit. All of this should work out to even less than $100/person. Bike infrastructure is cheap and saves money by reducing need for car infrastructure. It’s high time we stop letting the powers that be relegate it to second-class status and take matters into our own pedals if they can’t get it done. Stuff can be done today.

  • Clyde S. Dale

    If you’re not going to comment from an INFORMED standpoint, STFU.

  • spending 9% of the transportation budget seems like a small number, but cyclists currently comprise an even smaller number . the majority unfortunately think “why would we spend all this money to cater to the lunatic fringe comprised of scofflaws?”