The League of American Bicyclists points to the “Bike Account” published biannually by the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. One fascinating statistic that jumps out is the conclusion of the Bike Account study that every kilometer of cycling creates a “net social benefit” (as compared to driving, which creates a net social loss). Converting from kilometers to miles, and Danish Kroner to dollars, these numbers come out to $.41 “net social benefit” per mile traveled by bicycle.
(photo by Lucia Coma)
That’s a pretty awesome little statistic. However, as Samuel Clemens famously said, there are three kinds of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics. And while cycling “feels” like it should be beneficial to society on balance, I wouldn’t be surprised – at all – if there’s a fair bit of goal-seeking behind these numbers. The Bike Account is prepared by the City of Copenhagen, which has a stated goal that 50% of its residents bike to work or school by 2015. Plus, there’s the inherent problem of trying to model complex systems. Whether you’re valuing a fast-growing business, predicting climate change or trying to quantify the benefit of a societal activity, the more dynamic the variables the greater the risk of your output being unreliable. Garbage in, garbage out.
While the Bike Account doesn’t provide a lot of detail behind the benefit model, it does indicate that it is based on a combination of factors including health, transport costs, security, comfort, branding/tourism and transport times. Those are all great things to include. They also include some fairly “soft” factors and elements that could be shaded significantly to obtain the desired outcome. I’d love to be able to dig into the model itself.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big believer that cycling is beneficial to society, and absolutely beneficial to those who ride regularly. But color me skeptical when it comes down to turning that belief into cold, hard numbers.