Economics of road space

Many of us do not want to hear it but road space means money. It costs taxpayers money to build & maintain roads. However, authorities also earn income from on-street parking charges which can contribute significantly to the budgets of such authorities. This creates a challenge when it comes to prioritising space for road usage & in many cities of the world brings about the politicisation of street space. The politics of street space in most cases sadly comes down to cars vs. everything else but the media tend to go for cars vs. bicycles in their quest for clicks!


Road infrastructure


Road infrastructure is expensive to build & maintain. The type of road will determine the cost e.g. a multi-laned motorway vs. urban street will produce different costs. The cost of living in a country will likely determine the cost of building roads when comparing one country to another. Even within a country, the location & geography of a road will determine costs.

In Europe, the cost per km of road built is likely to range from €3 million per km upwards once you take into account the overall design, material, labour involved. That would likely be on the lower scale of costs.

Once the road is built, it needs to be maintained e.g. wear & tear repairs, line marking, infrastructure management, lighting etc.


“There is no space”


Unfortunately when so much of our road infrastructure is designed with motor vehicles in mind, whenever a conversation comes about introducing the need for designated or improved cycling lanes and/or pedestrian footpaths, detractors use the argument that there is not enough space to do it. There is probably not enough space for the status quo but what opponents of such infrastructure retrofitting rightly fear is that something needs to give. That something tends to be on-street car parking, perhaps some traffic lane space etc.

In Ireland this is an endless debate that has been raging on in many towns & cities. Dublin City is suffering from chronic traffic congestion but there are endless debates & arguments about inserting cycle lanes into sections of our streets. It is an old city that was never designed for motorised traffic so there is a regular requirement of the city council to tinker with traffic layouts to try & improve traffic flows. To many this has been a can-kicking exercise. The introduction of a new on-street tram line across the city centre from late 2017 means that new traffic layouts are needed & for many it is “taking” space away from motorists.

In these kinds of circumstances, retailers & businesses regularly argue that they need motor traffic to bring motorists into the city & for somewhere to park so that they can buy merchandise, make deliveries etc. It would be unrealistic in most cases to state that traffic could be entirely banned from a city centre. However where space is limited, for a city to function as a livable as well as healthily economic space for traders, the priority needs to be focused on moving the majority of people around the city as efficiently & as sustainably as possible. Generally cars are not the most efficient at doing that, especially cars inhabited by a single occupant.

This brings us back to road space, the debate needs to focus on street use. When you have say a two way street with two sides of the street lined with parked cars, is that the best use of a street when you could substitute those lines of parked cars with safe cycle lanes & wider footpaths?


Taxpayer Subsidies


Taking the cost of infrastructure development & maintenance of our roads & city streets, most of this infrastructure is funded primarily out of taxpayer funds. Is this the best use of taxpayers money when there are so many other competing services such as public health, social security, education & much more starved of resources in many countries? Until recent times & indeed in Ireland at present, road planning & development is being done for motor vehicles in mind. Barring some countries such as The Netherlands & Denmark, most countries are not embarking on some wide-scale cycle lane nor pedestrian “highways”.

Many will make the argument that by encouraging more motor vehicle usage, it impacts a country’s economy & environment in many ways e.g. more people driving leads to less people walking or cycling. This in turn is contributing significantly to public health issues as less people are exercising leading to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease etc. Pollution from motor vehicles is significantly contributing to poor air quality which exacerbates health issues as well. Governments are investing billions of euro each year to fight these health issues, again another form of subsidisation of motor vehicle usage.


Sustainable Streets


Many cities around the world are looking to a model of developing sustainable cities & at a more micro level, sustainable streets. This takes various forms including:

  • Developing pedestrianised streets
  • Developing cycling lane networks across cities
  • Making cities more friendly to encourage people to live in city centres
  • Making cities more friendly to visit to encourage more economic & tourism activity
  • Making cities safer by slowing traffic down on core streets & residential areas
  • Reducing motorised traffic to improve air quality & reduce noise pollution

Various towns & cities across the world are trying to adapt their cities to a more sustainable footing. It is not impossible to achieve & economically making a city more friendly to live in & be used by people will ultimately lead to a better quality city economically & in other means.