Photo by Tuaussi on Flickr.

Bike lanes have lately become a proxy for all things that benefit affluent residents. But juxtaposing bike infrastructure with a program like job training distorts reality, because bicycle infrastructure costs a miniscule amount compared to job programs, and actually helps poor residents gain better access to jobs.

Last week, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy took aim at what he characterized as the District’s neglect of jobs for impoverished residents at the expense of initiatives he perceives as aimed at those who are more affluent:

This month, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) unveiled an economic development plan that he says will create 100,000 jobs and generate $1 billion in tax revenue over the next five years. But who will get those jobs? D.C. residents hold less than 30 percent of the jobs in the city, and readiness programs tried so far just haven’t worked.

But what if the city got as serious about creating jobs as making bike lanes?

The problems of inequality and disparate economic opportunities are very real in DC, where a sizeable portion of the population—largely long-term African-American residents—do not seem to be benefitting from the city’s so-called renaissance.  Unemployment east of the Anacostia River remains significantly higher than in other parts of the city, and development that has transformed many areas of DC has been slow to reach its more impoverished areas.

Understanding the size and scope of this problem, inquiring why it persists and searching for meaningful solutions are worthy pursuits that all seeking to create a more livable city should support.

However, pitting jobs against programs like bike lanes is divisive, putting a bogeyman that supposedly symbolizes the city’s misplaced priorities ahead of real issues. There’s little evidence to support the idea that the District is pursuing initiatives such as bike lanes at the expense of jobs and social welfare programs.

Far more money goes into job programs than bike lanes

The District’s FY2012 budget allocated $126 million to the Department of Employment Services (DOES). DOES’ purview includes programs such as adult workforce programs, transitional employment, local job training and the controversial Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP).

Many of these programs fall within the Workforce Development division, which “provides employment-related services for unemployed or underemployed persons so that they can achieve economic security.” Workforce Development alone saw more than $55 million in the FY2012 budget.

Meanwhile, the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) commands a 2012 capital budget of $128.1 million, which covers a vast array of responsibilities relating to the planning, construction and upkeep of the District’s roads, bridges, trails and more. Separating out the amount spent specifically on bike-related infrastructure is practically impossible, and DDOT did not reply to an inquiry about these figures by publication time. However, some information is available.

DDOT’s budget allocates $5.17 million “Mass Transit,” which includes funds for programs such as bike sharing, car sharing and planning other alternative transportation options, while an additional $5 million is dedicated to planning and policy, which include pedestrian and bicycle programs and designing bicycle infrastructure.

Combined, this roughly $10.2 million, which constitutes expenses on far more than simply bike-related programs, comprises approximately 8% of DDOT’s budget. (It would also represent a similar percentage of DOES’ budget, and less than 1/5th of the amount spent on Workforce Development.)

The actual construction cost for bike routes and lanes throughout the District is minuscule, according to the District’s Bicycle Master Plan. This is because DDOT constructs most bike lanes or routes as part of larger streetscape and repaving projects, which minimizes bicycle-specific costs.

According to the master plan, the total cost of construction and signage of all new bike routes and lanes between 2005-2015, which encompasses well over 100 miles of routes and lanes both east and west of the Anacostia, is only $420,000.

By contrast, the District budgeted $1.57 million in 2012 alone on reduced WMATA bus fares for impoverished residents east of the Anacostia. In other words, as a portion of DC’s overall $9 billion budget, costs assignable specifically to biking and bike-related infrastructure make about as much of a dent in the District’s budget as the cost of refreshments served at Council meetings. (OK, perhaps that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.)

One may argue that what the District is investing into job training and placement services for its more poverty-stricken communities is insufficient, and that it needs to make a greater effort to ensure that District residents can find work at many of the businesses moving into the city.

Or, perhaps one might ask why, with hundreds of millions of dollars having gone to DOES in recent years, the unemployment rate remains so stubbornly high? (Unemployment was 26% in Ward 8 in 2011, nearly twice as high as the highest ward west of the Anacostia (Ward 5) and 13 times greater than the District’s most affluent ward, Ward 3.)

But these aren’t the types of questions Milloy raises. He implies that poverty and income inequality remain persistent throughout the District in part because the local government is fixated on initiatives such as bike lanes that are supposedly focused on affluent residents at the expense of jobs programs for its needier residents. “Jobs, not bike lanes,” he says.

Jobs and bike lanes are not mutually exclusive

Robust and well-funded job training and placement assistance programs are not incongruous with progressive transportation options such as bike lanes, streetcars, subways and buses. In fact, one might argue, the two actually go hand in hand. As the District’s roads become more choked with traffic, and as the price of gasoline and the overall cost of car ownership continue to rise, developing more cost-efficient transportation options is a tremendously sensible policy.

For example, with its annual membership fee of $75 and stations throughout the city—including more than a dozen east of the Anacostia—Capital Bikeshare is a very cost-effective method of navigating the city. It’s also environmentally friendly and physically beneficial.

The growing presence of bike lanes and routes, including many miles east of the Anacostia, along with bike parking options throughout the city, make commuting to and from one’s place of employment on two wheels an attractive and convenient option.

Rather than question why the city is devoting any resources to bike lane construction, a better question would be why the city’s existing job training and placement programs are ineffectual. And rather than perpetuating the fallacy that the District has to choose between these two, all residents should support a city that has both smarter, sustainable transportation options and innovative and effective job training and placement options at the same time.

Ben Harris lives in Rockville, where he writes the North Bethesda-focused blog NorthFlintVille. Prior to moving to Montgomery County in 2011, he lived for 5 years in DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood, where he served on the ANC 2F Community Development Committee and Arts Overlay Review Committee. From 2007 to 2011, he and his wife maintained the Logan Circle and Shaw-focused blog 14th&You.