St. Paul paid to build bike lanes. Now it is going to pay people to use them

Last month, I wrote that ‘“If you build it, they will come” …might be sound advice when it comes to supernatural baseball fields, but [is] bad advice for government transit.’ I was talking about that notorious white elephant on rails, the Minneapolis to Big Lake Northstar line, but it applies, too, to St. Paul’s bike lanes.

Last week, the Star Tribune reported:

Summer is here, but in St. Paul, bike sharing isn’t.

Hailed as affordable transport for commuters, tourists and locals, the annual rollout of rental bicycles is traditionally a sign of summer. But bike share has been absent from St. Paul since 2019, even as service continued across the river in Minneapolis.

The city is still pursuing a bike-sharing vendor, through both requests for proposals (RFPs) and conversations with companies, said Reuben Collins, a transportation engineer for St. Paul. But the city may have to subsidize the service in the future.

Back in 2017, St. Paul was served by Nice Ride, the Minnesota-based bike share program now owned by Lyft. The company was making changes to its leadership, and multiple companies were knocking on the city’s door during the bike share bubble, hoping to service the area, Collins said. In early 2018, Lyft and Lime were among the companies expressing interest when the city issued an RFP.

“The bottom line is Lime submitted the best proposal to the city, and so we selected Lime as the as the vendor,” Collins said, noting the contract was not exclusive.

Nice Ride left, and Lime operated for a few months before winter arrived. In early 2019, Lime informed St. Paul and many other cities that it would not be returning.

The city tried again in 2019 to find a bike-share vendor, but didn’t receive any responses, Collins said.

“I think the landscape of bike-sharing vendors across the nation has changed dramatically. There are just vastly fewer of them. I think the reality has set in that bike sharing is not a profitable venture,” he said. “There just aren’t very many companies out there still in the business.”

In short, too few people are interested in cycling to make ‘bike sharing’ profitable. So, having spent a substantial amount of money building bike lanes, the city government is now proposing to pay companies to provide a service that almost nobody is willing to spend their own money on.

St. Paul’s bike lanes have been a total failure. Yet, the city remains intent on building more that nobody will use. St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter is cancelling Independence Day fireworks again this year, claiming that he has better things to spend tax dollars on. In truth, spending money on a bunch of stuff that blows up for half an hour is probably a better use of tax dollars than more bike lanes that just lay there unused.

The total failure of St. Paul’s bike lane scheme is also one more nail in the coffin of the theory of induced demand. As I’ve written before:

This says that after the supply of a good increases, such as miles of freeway, more of it is consumed. The basis of this argument is a 2009 paper called ‘The fundamental law of road congestion: Evidence from US cities’ by economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner. 

This is often cited as an argument against building more road lanes.

But if supply creates its own demand, where is the demand for for St. Paul’s bike lanes resulting from their supply?

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.