What size impact can bicycles have on the planet? According to a recently study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, it could be as much as US$3.8 billion a year from avoided mortality and reduced health care costs.
The study, conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin, reportedly factored in data on air pollution, medical costs, mortality rates, car accidents and physical fitness and “found that if inhabitants of the sample region switched to bikes for half of their short trips, they'd create a net societal health benefit of $3.5 billion per year from the increase in air quality and $3.8 billion in savings from smaller health care costs associated with better fitness and fewer mortalities from a decreased rate of car accidents.”
That’s the good news, but according to Maggie Grabow, Ph.D. Candidate, Environment & Resources at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, we still have to get there. “The United States is definitely trending toward ‘bike acceptance’ but we have a ways to go,” Grabow told BikeRadar. “Our hope is that when people read the benefits of our study - that by replacing 50 percent of car trips with bike trips in the Upper Midwest we can save 1,100 lives and save $7 billion annually, they might consider biking or walking more.”
She noted that the study highlighted the multiple benefits that a bicycle can offer not only an individual but also a community as a whole. The group’s findings suggest that significant health and economic benefits are possible if bicycling were to replace short car trips. This could mean less auto dependence in urban areas, and would further improve health in downwind rural settings. “If we swap bikes for cars, we gain in fitness, local air quality, a reduction in greenhouse gases that affect global climate change, plus the personal and economic and quality of life benefits of biking,” said Grabow.
“We hope that the results of our study can help policymakers to make more informed urban policy choices which promote bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, so that biking and walking are the healthy and easychoice,” she said. “Transportation policy has enormous potential to catalyze the development of healthy communities, but it requires an initial investment and long-term commitment.”
One issue is that infrastructure, and simply put American cities are not exactly designed with cyclists in mind. “American cities do tend to be much larger and built around the automobile, but the urban centers of American cities often have areas and density levels comparable to those well-known international cycling capitals,” explained Scott Spak, who worked on the study and is now Assistant Professor, Urban & Regional Planning and Civil & Environmental Engineering, at the University of Iowa. “Cities like Portland, Madison, and Minneapolis are already approaching the bicycle infrastructure and accessibility of some of the most compact, bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Our analysis supports the idea that the city centers of many large and mid-sized American cities could support that much biking, based on population density and trip length.”
Bike usage is generally good if the proper, safe, infrastructure is offered
Spark, who is also Assistant Director, Environmental Policy Research, Public Policy Center at UoI, adds that American cities of all sizes have been actually seen expanded connectivity between bicycling and mass transit. “If you're in the urban core it’s often faster and more convenient to bicycle for short trips than to drive,” Spark told BikeRadar. “Still, it's unlikely that every American city would build that kind of bicycle infrastructure any time soon, and extending it to outlying suburban and exurban areas would likely be a slow process.”
Of course issues remain, notably safety of riding and the potential risks involved, as well as where urban bicycle owners can even store their bikes when not in use. There is also the issue of upkeep on a bicycle as well. “From my perspective, getting the bike is the first step to making the lifestyle change,” says Grabow. “However, I do understand the importance of safety, and I could see how the quality of bike may be important for safety of the rider.”
Spark adds that the next step will come through improving and expanding safer infrastructure for bikes, and make them accessible for all users regardless of age, ability or mode of transportation. He says, “From the empirical evidence over the past few years, it appears that as American cities build safe infrastructure, people quickly begin to use it.”
Then there is also the issue of weather. While cycling in many European cities is a year round form of transport, the climate tends to lack the heat and humidity of much of the Eastern portion of the United States, as well as the brutal winters that grip much of the Northern portion of the country.
Grabow agrees this is an issue, but downplays the factor it could play. “I know that weather plays an important role in determining whether or not a person bicycle commutes; however, I’m not convinced it is the only factor,” said Grabow. “Since we knew that weather might be an issue, we conducted our analysis during the warmest six months of the year, when it is most feasible to bike. I may be biased, but I still see a steady flow of bicycle commuters during the cold and snowy days in Madison, Wisconsin.”