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 at a staggering 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?
There are 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. 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. Just about any destination, is a bike destination.
And the vibrancy of these bike-friendly cities are beautiful examples of thriving community centers where people traffic trumps vehicle traffic. And 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 wellbeing. A report form 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 (The , 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 completed.
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.