In January 2019, after five years as a pilot project, Toronto’s City Council voted unanimously to make the cycle tracks on Richmond, Adelaide, Simcoe and Peter Streets permanent. While this good news was covered in the media, one key part of the story was missed – the Toronto Financial District BIA, the St. Lawrence BIA and the Toronto Entertainment BIA, the three BIAs that the cycle tracks pass through, have all supported the cycle tracks. A BIA supporting cycle tracks is probably one of the most direct examples you can find of businesses recognizing the benefits of investing in cycling infrastructure.
Cycling Contributes to Public Realm
A BIA or a Business Improvement Area is an association of businesses in a neighbourhood that work to make their neighbourhoods thriving areas that attract shoppers, diners, tourists, new businesses and the like. An important ingredient for such a neighbourhood is a vibrant public realm and all three BIAs have strategies for their public realms that include cycling infrastructure.
The Master Plan for the Toronto Entertainment District BIA lists cycling infrastructure as a key component of its public realm framework. The St. Lawrence BIA Master Plan – developed to guide public realm improvements – has among its guiding principles, recommendations to ‘favour the pedestrian’ and ‘continue to support and encourage cycling facilities’ in their neighbourhood. Sidewalks and cycling infrastructure are key components of the Public Realm Strategy of the Toronto Financial District BIA as well. In fact, the Public Realm Strategy says investing in the public realm has the following benefits – higher property values, better employee retention, improved transportation circulation and a safer and healthier environment which leads to better productivity.
Over the course of the pilot, these three BIAs have installed and maintained planters along the cycle tracks, which contribute greenery to the street, and also provide increased separation between cyclists and motor vehicle traffic. In 2017, the three BIAs even won an award for their collaborative work on the streetscaping of their public realms, including the cycle track planters. In 2015, the Toronto Financial District BIA submitted a letter in support of extending the bike lane pilot, and while at the most recent vote, the St Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA expressed some concerns in regards to the proposed shift of the bike lane location to the north side of Adelaide, they remain committed to seeing the lanes become permanent.
Calculating the Benefits of Cycling
This relationship between good pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and the economic health of a BIA is not new. From 2015 to 2017, TCAT and our partner at University of Toronto studied the economic impacts of the Bloor Street pilot bike lane. Most merchants reported a higher number of customers after the installation of the bike lane while visitors gave higher estimates of spending and visit frequency showing the bike lanes had a positive impact of the economy of the neighbourhood. More details of this research can be found in our report ‘Economic Impact Study of Bike Lanes in Toronto’s Bloor Annex and Korea Town Neighbourhoods’
The benefits of having pedestrian and cycling infrastructure are not limited to economic ones alone. There are benefits related to health and equity as well that the communities stand to gain. A 2012 report by Toronto Public Health puts the value of ‘reductions in mortality from current levels of walking and cycling in the Toronto population’ to be between ‘$130 million and $478 million each year’ and this doesn’t even include reduced medical costs. Increasing Toronto’s walking mode share to 12% and cycling mode share to 6% would end up preventing about 100 additional deaths with an associated economic value of $109 million to $400 million. Compare this to the annual capital expenditures on cycling and pedestrian projects, which at the time the report pegged at about $14 million or 5% of total capital expenditures for City of Toronto Transportation Services, and it becomes clear how the benefits far outweigh the cost.
Traditional cost-benefit analyses do not typically capture the wide range of benefits connected to active transportation. A new paper (summary below) by the team at Active Neighbourhoods Canada sheds light on alternate tools that convey the health and equity-related benefits of active transportation. Among other things, these tools are able to put in economic terms how different groups in a community benefit from active transportation, and calculate health benefits in terms of ‘economic value of mortality rate improvements’. At a time when the construction of a sidewalk or a bike lane is debated extensively as opposed to that of an overpass, using these tools to convey the value of the former becomes critical to ensuring the full benefits are captured, and cycling and pedestrian infrastructure is prioritized.
Read a summary of our Active Neighbourhoods cost benefit analysis paper below
Perhaps it is easy to see the benefit of a highway, of a stretch of asphalt, lights and guardrails that move hundreds of thousands of cars every day. As members of a car-reliant society, we’ve grown familiar with the perks that these roads provide, they are known to us: movement of people, movement of goods. Many of our provincial transportation ministries deal in everything vehicular: overpasses, highways, exchanges. But what of a bike lane, or a sidewalk? Is there as much clarity when it comes to the benefits they provide?
There are benefits, and lots of them
Years of research have told us that the benefits of quality active transportation infrastructure are vast, and the stakeholders seemingly endless. We know that increased physical activity, like biking to work or walking to get your groceries, results in many benefits including:
- Better physical and mental health outcomes,
- A reduction in cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity, osteoporosis, depression and respiratory disease (Carrick, 2013; Litman, 2018; Kelly et al., 2014),
- Lower rates of absenteeism from work (Deenihan & Caulfield, 2014),
- An increase in property values in residential areas located close to public trails,
- A reduction in cognitive decline and dementia, found in those who walk more (Litman, 2018)
We know the benefits of good active transportation infrastructure, but we also know that they are not as broadly accepted as infrastructure made for cars, an overpass for example. However, to communicate these benefits to decision makers, we are tasked with presenting the profitability of an active transportation project. But how are those benefits measured? How can we demonstrate the value of such a project? We wanted to learn more, so we commissioned a piece of research to dig a little deeper.
We conducted a scoping review of 29 research articles and 37 grey literature reports to address the following question: in cost benefit analysis literature, what are the population health equity benefits of active transportation infrastructure projects?
What we learned was that the methods that exist to measure the benefits of these projects are limited and in early stages of development. Yet they do provide us with some tools to work with. These tools have demonstrated the relationship between active transportation and health. For example, the evidence that links increased physical activity to decreased health care costs, better health outcomes, and reduced premature death is growing (de Hartog, Boogaard, Nijland, & Hoek, 2010; Deenihan & Caulfield, 2014; Macmillan et al., 2014; Oja et al., 2011; Pucher & Buehler, 2010; Teschke, Reynolds, Ries, Gouge, & Winters, 2012). However, consensus about how to measure more intangible social benefits, like enjoying one’s commute or the development of a close-knit community, is lacking – we simply do not know how best to conceptualize and measure these outcomes.
Beyond measuring outputs, we found that some researchers argue we must focus on the capacity of people and organizations to act. Though partnerships and stakeholder participation are not requirements of the types of analyses we looked into, there were many examples of intersectoral collaboration, community involvement, and government consultation (Smith Fowler et al., 2016).
How, and why, we measure these benefits
Consider this: last winter, my neighbour broke her arm slipping on ice, so I drove her kids to school for a week. We drove because the route to their school was simply not safe to walk – when it came time to cross the six lane, 70 kilometer per hour road that lay between their house and their school, there was no proper crosswalk or pedestrian overpass.
We know the value of that impassable road, we see trucks laden with food bound for supermarkets, people going to work, and kids getting dropped off at school. Yet, we also know that when those same kids bike or walk to school (increased physical activity), they have “better academic achievement, better concentration, better classroom behaviour, and more focused learning.” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2015, p.1). But these facts are not common knowledge – not to the same sweeping extent that “the efficient movement of people and goods” is, however relevant to each and every one of us.
Considering that a whopping 62% of Canadian kids get to school using an inactive means of travel, like a car, bus, or train, it is important that people have access to information about why other forms of transportation are important (Canadian Fitness & Lifestyle Research Institute, 2013). Like our research found, ways to measure these benefits are in the early stages, but there are tools at our disposal that can assist us in making the case for quality active transportation infrastructure. Below, you will find examples on the types of analyses we explored.
Cost Benefit Analysis
When we measure the benefits of active transportation infrastructure, we typically use the “gold-standard” of economic assessments: a cost benefit analysis. Much as it sounds, a cost benefit analysis looks at a program (let’s say city council wants to build better bike infrastructure) and considers both the cost (building a bike lane) and the outcomes (increased physical activity, decreased congestion) and turns that information into dollars.
Yet, during this process, who is deciding what exactly counts as a benefit and then for measuring it? This question is important for the simple fact that not everyone will see the same thing as a benefit. Yet, active transportation infrastructure provides benefits to our society that are not immediately and obviously measurable. Many argue that these benefits, such as a more cohesive community and feelings of security can be tricky to measure in monetary terms and are “overlooked and undervalued” (Litman, 2018, p.1; Van Wee & Börjesson, 2015). So, if our traditional measurement tool, the cost benefit analysis, is a little too narrow to capture the value of these things, let’s talk about other tools we can use to measure them.
Social Cost-Benefit Analysis
A more broad type of analysis that is capable of capturing even the most intangible benefits on the list is a social cost-benefit analysis. It works much like a cost-benefit analysis, but differs in that it considers the social benefits of a project, and has the capablity to address equity concerns by analysing how costs and benefits are distributed across groups. Its broad scope allows for comparisons to other projects, taking “different economic risks and uncertainties into account, providing decision-makers with choices and options” (Smith Fowler et al., 2016, p. 10).
A social cost-benefit analysis conducted on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment found that “A switch from bus to bike yields a social gain of around 50 cents. A shift from car to bike outside urban areas yields 4-7 cents per kilometer; in urban areas this is 10 to 41 cents.” (Decisio, 2012, p.3).
Figure 1: Social effects modal shift per kilometre
Retrieved from Decisio, 2012, https://docplayer.net/22245384-Social-costs-and-benefits-of-investments-in-cycling.html
Social Return on Investment
Social return on investment is a relatively new analysis tool similar to a social cost benefit analysis, in that it gives a monetary value to intangible project outcomes. However, it differs in that it measures the value the project gives stakeholders and uses economic language to communicate the value in a way that stakeholders will understand. For this reason, non-profits have used this method to demonstrate to the social impact of their service to funders (Smith Fowler et. al., 2016). So, if a bike lane was being considered in your city , this tool would measure the value it would provide to stakeholders, like city council, bike lane-users, the surrounding homes and businesses, and the community it sits within.
World Health Organizations Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT)
The World Health Organization’s Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT) for cycling and walking is an entire online database that aims to measure, explore, and reduce health inequalities. It can calculate the answer the question: “if x people cycle or walk y distance on most days, what is the economic value of mortality rate improvements?”. Regular walking and cycling reduces mortality, and this tool has been used throughout the world to estimate the value that this brings to a society (World Health Organization, 2018). This tool has many strengths, like continuous updating, its population level use, and the inclusion of both cycling and walking. However, adults with average levels of physical activity are the main focus of the tool, meaning that it cannot be used to measure children, youth, seniors, or people with disabilities. Considering that only two out of every 10 Canadian adults fall into this category, the HEAT tool has some limitations (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2016).
A study conducted in Ireland used the HEAT tool to determine the potential impact of a segregated cycleway. The tool found that the project could “reduce the number of deaths per year by between 3.39 and 17.93” (Deenihan & Caulfield, 2014, p.148). The tool also found that after ten years, for every euro spent, between €2.22 and €11.77 would be accumulated in benefits.
Using the tools at our disposal
In our car-reliant society, we don’t have to be a transportation engineer or urban planner to know the benefits of cars and roads. We can observe this in the process, where the time spent debating a project versus its cost can often seem out of balance. The cost of a bike lane is minimal, yet the debate is fierce. On the other hand, a multi-million dollar overpass faces little community deliberation. But the outcomes of these projects affect the choices we make. As it stands today, 4/5 Canadian commuters use private vehicles, compared to less than 6 out of 100 people who walk and only 1 out of 100 who bike.
Options are important, important for our health, community well being, and even the simple action of enjoying our commute. Yet to create these options, to help build healthier, more connected communities, we have to know how to communicate their value. Our research demonstrated that there are tools, and that though they are in their early stages of development, some are quite robust.
However, to use them to their greatest extent, we must find opportunities to collaborate across sectors, encourage data collection at the local level, and educate community members and decision makers to use these types of analysis in a participatory framework. If we can do so, we may enhance our ability to assign value to undervalued infrastructure and make the benefits of active transportation infrastructure as widely known as that of an overpass.
By Katie Lore
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Carrick, K. (2013). Glasgow Health Walks Social Return on Investment Analysis: 1st April 2011 to 31st March 2012. Retrieved from http://www.socialvalueuk.org/app/uploads/2016/03/Glasgow_Health_Walks_assured%20and%20formatted.pdf
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