Bike friendly cities are
beginning to prove their merit as valid indicators of health and prosperity for
cities around the world. But in the United States ridership remains staggeringly
low in comparison to our European counterparts. Metropolitan cities across
America stubbornly cling to their car-centric infrastructure. There, congested
highway lanes, noise and constant road repairs create daily stress, economic
strain, and health complications, all due to our heavy dependence on automobile
transit. How can increasing cycling infrastructure in our cities improve the
overall health and vibrancy of the community?
several contributing factors as to why we here in the United States are
predominantly automobile dependent versus our European brethren. Of them, the
difference in our cultural mindset seems to be a main factor in this
dependence. As it stands here in North America, depending on where you live,
bike culture may seem more like a sub- or even counter-culture activity,
popular with groups that differentiate themselves from the mainstream who tout healthier
and more sustainable lifestyles. The typical American cycling magazine
illustrates this point even more clearly: Cycling is a specialist’s accessory
or a symbol of minority lifestyle. It’s a sport activity done on days off or a
training regimen for athletes, not a valid form of daily commute.
This cultural mindset
has us suffering at the hands of an unsustainable transportation system.
The numbers speak for themselves as evidence of the need for change. In 2010, Americans
drove for 85 percent of their daily trips and roughly 30 percent of those daily
trips are shorter than a mile. Of those under one-mile trips, Americans
drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans made 70 percent of
their short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation.
In the U.S., problems
surrounding car travel have been met with solutions focused on technological
changes rather than altering behavior. For example, in response to air
pollution or traffic safety, technological fixes included the addition of
catalytic converters, reformulated cleaner burning fuels, seat belts, and air
bags. These fixes allowed Americans to continue driving as usual. European
countries implemented these same technological requirements, but also more aggressively
reduced speed limits in entire neighborhoods, saw to the creation of car free
zones, drastically reduced car parking, and implemented policies that actually
encourage behavioral shifts.
If we then compared the
mostly car-addicted U.S. to the cycling haven of Copenhagen, Denmark, cycling
is common across all demographics – men and women, young and old – who commute
regularly by bike all-year round. They cycle to work, school, daycare, grocery
stores, and events.
The vibrancy of these
bike-friendly cities are beautiful examples of thriving community centers where
people traffic trumps vehicle traffic. This proves what cycling
enthusiasts across the country already know: cities whose residents ride, run,
walk, and participate in other activities have increased economic growth and
productivity compared to areas with more sedentary citizens. These
bike-friendly communities also boast higher levels of mental health and
A report from the
University of California suggests that due to such conclusive evidence of the
physical and economic benefits of a healthy populace, their report claims that
cities have an economic responsibility to promote cycling, walking, and public
transportation, as well as increasing green space to ultimately curb car usage.
Their study included date from 521 reports on the topic, pulled from 221
sources in 17 different countries.
Of the many boons to increasing cycling
infrastructure, most of us are unaware of just how the act of choosing two
wheels over a motorized four can actually save money, boost revenues, and help
the economy both broadly and locally. Here are five arguments for the much
needed implementation of cycling infrastructure:
At the top of this list
is health costs. Bike infrastructure makes so much economic sense that it can
accurately be described as a health investment. In Portland, Oregon,
health savings could save $600 million a year by the year 2030. If we look at
Copenhagen again, that pre-eminent cycling city, it expects to save $60 million
a year in health costs once it’s network of 26 cycling “superhighways” is
Next is the fact that
bike infrastructure is actually cheap, and creates jobs. The average cost to
build one mile of urban freeways is around $60 million. The best type of
protected bike lanes cost somewhere between $170,000 and $250,000 per mile and
require far less maintenance. As well, bikeways create more jobs per dollar
than roads, according to one study.
Third on the list is
parking. Truth be told an astonishing amount of space in most urban cores is
dedicated entirely to the subsidized storage of private property (e.g. parking
garages and lots). Throw in roads and you have many cities giving up over half
of their area to cars. Take a look at Houston, where 65% of the city is paved
with asphalt. Clearly, with so much underutilized space, cities are losing lots
of potential income.
Next, local economies
see a boost from bike infrastructure to boot. Studies show that bike parking
brings in more revenue than car parking. On certain streets, that is.
Bikers on average are more likely than drivers to stop and spend, of course,
you can accommodate more people in the same space when not having to
provide parking for their cars. Then of course there’s also the potential “green dividend”
aspect when people bike to town instead of drive to suburban malls. Their cash
goes to local businesses, not to oil companies or Middle Eastern sheiks.
Portland contributes $800 million to their local economy simply by driving 20%
less than other cities according to one study.
And lastly, cars are
expensive to procure and own, particularly for people of low income. According
to the American Automobile Association, driving a sedan costs on average $9,122
a year, not including expenses such as parking. A household that earns less
than $70,000 are spending nearly 20% of their income on transport. Bikes are much
cheaper to own in contrast, roughly a few hundred dollars a year for
maintenance, gear upgrades, and the annualized cost of a bike.
I emphasize these
factors over the standards that you would typically hear of beneficial
reasons to advocate for bike-friendly infrastructure. Yes, cycling is healthy
for you and doesn’t pollute the environment. But how often do you actually
avoid eating dairy simply because it’s better for you or because the dairy
industry is cruel and milk from cows is wholly unnecessary in the
human diet? We need more than the fluffy anecdotal and guilt-ridden reasons to
fly the flag of bike infrastructure in our large cities. And, to it put
plainly, the almighty dollar and bottom line tend to speak louder than the
revving of that dirty car engine ever would.