'Every economic action has an economic impact," longtime local economist and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor Fred Crowley once said. "The difficulty lies in figuring out exactly what that impact is."
As special-interest groups jostle each other in search of public funding, economic impact analyses have become an indispensable marketing tool. Want to persuade voters to ante up tax dollars for your project? Hire some heavy-duty consultants, prepare an EIA, and make your case.
EIAs adhere to certain rigid protocols. Though the folks who prepare them freely admit that their work is highly speculative and mostly hypothetical, their data and conclusions are wrapped in the mystical cloak of urban utilitarianism.
This secular religion demands that those who seek funds must show a return on their investment. That's why we're constantly bombarded with competing claims. The pitch:
(Group name) contributes (millions/tens of millions/hundreds of millions/billions) to the (city/county/regional/state/national) economy, employs (hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands) of hardworking Colorado Springs residents, and pays (figure plucked from thin air) in taxes!
The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments recently commissioned an EIA of cycling's impact on the Pikes Peak region. The $50,000 study, partially funded by contributions from SRAM Corp. and the Trails and Open Space Coalition, reached some interesting conclusions.
Prepared by transportation consultants Steer Davies Gleave, the EIA focused on bike usage and spending among local residential commuter cyclists, residential utilitarian cyclists, residential recreational cyclists, and non-residential recreational cyclists. The first three accounted for 1.55 million cycling days per annum, with total expenditures of $5.4 million. The fourth, with only 102,000 trips per annum, was estimated to account for $22.5 million, giving a total value of the cycling economy of $27.9 million.
That's because cycling visitors, whether they bring their own bikes or rent them locally, pay for lodging, meals and gas for their vehicles. Locals only contribute three or four bucks per cycling day (mostly by buying and maintaining their bikes), while visitors spend $219.40.
With a "combined total effect in terms of output" of $33.8 million, cycling is pretty small potatoes. Compared to the Springs metropolitan area's $26.5 billion annual GDP or the city's federal military GDP of more than $5 billion, cycling's annual impact scarcely qualifies as a rounding error.
The study may encourage us to invest in cycling infrastructure, but economics shouldn't be our guide here. We need to ask ourselves what kind of city we are, and what we wish to become.
Successful second- and third-tier cities such as Denver, Austin, Boulder, Oklahoma City and Fort Collins are created by and for their residents. They can be compared to patchwork quilts — pieces of different shapes, texture and size that together make a harmonious whole. Imagine them as full decks of cards. You need aces, deuces and everything in between.
And Colorado Springs? We're raggedy-ass card sharks trying to lure suckers into a street game of three-card Monte. In the great game of city creation, we're scammers, not players.
Do we need better cycling infrastructure? You might as well ask whether we need the Fine Arts Center, Garden of the Gods, the Pioneers Museum or the spectacular places of worship that ring downtown. Utilitarian economics says they have little value ... but our hearts tell us otherwise.
If we love Colorado Springs, we'll restore and renovate our poor, damaged city. If our ambition is to become an aging, querulous retirement community, we're right on track. If not, we'll get to work.
We have a choice. We can keep taxes low, or we can build a great city. We can't do both. City builders cater to the aspirations of future generations, not the fears of aging retirees.
So let's do marvelous, exciting things that no EIA would suggest. For example, how about a spectacular cantilevered bike-pedestrian bridge over U.S. Highway 24 at Ridge Road, linking the Garden of the Gods, Red Rock Canyon, Section 16 and Bear Creek Park?
Impractical, expensive and economically inappropriate? Yep.
Part of a city that we could love? You bet.