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Positive Spin

Why bikes are better—for health, for pleasure, for communities

It is widely alleged that Albert Einstein thought of the Theory of Relativity while riding his bicycle. If we go with the story, we can picture the young theoretical physicist, wiry hair blowing in the wind, pumping the pedals to spin the circular sprocket, which turned the elliptical chain, which spun the large back wheel, propelling him onward into the night as a generator spun with the front wheel, creating the electricity to power his headlight. With each revolution, the circumference of his tires was translated into linear distance, and it’s said he took special note that the light coming from bicycle headlamps appeared to travel to him at the same rate of speed, regardless how fast the approaching riders were moving, or their distance away from him.

With some refinement, his little theory transformed the fields of physics and astronomy during the 20th century and made him the most recognizable scientist of all time. It also changed perceptions of time itself. All from a bike ride.

While the odds that any of us will come up with a similarly revolutionary thought as we pedal along are exceedingly small—there are an estimated one billion bicycles in the world (twice the number of automobiles) and there was only one Einstein—there’s a lot of scientific literature to show that riding a bike is beneficial to your mind. It alleviates stress, heightens altertness, and while a bike ride might not lead you to the discovery of the Higgs boson, it might help you figure out how to fix a broken garage door. I can attest to that.

Even if you don’t change the world while riding your bike, you will, in the short term, change yourself. And if you look at some statistics, a lot of us could benefit from some change.

Gearing up

According to a 2008 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38 percent of American adults are considered “inactive.” If we focus on statistics for Erie County, the percentage is a little less severe. Still, one quarter of Erie county adults are physically inactive. Busy as our lives may seem as we rush here and there in our cars, work and play with our phones, read, watch TV, sit at computers, or play video games, 59 percent of American grownups fail to get even 10 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

The payoff for this sedentary lifestyle is an increased risk in developing everything from anxiety and depression to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. All the sorts of health problems you see pharmaceutical companies marketing pills to us to treat. Over the past 25 years, statistics show an alarming increase in the number of Americans who are termed obese. Today, over a third of the population—or 36 percent of our adults—are obese. 12.5 million—or 17 percent—of children and adolescents are defined that way as well.

These kinds of figures aren’t news to us, because we’ve seen them reported on TV. There are entire television series that focus on the problem, and the commercials that air during these programs advertise diet plans where we can have our meals delivered to our front door, to cook in our microwaves, and eat from our TV trays as the pounds melt away. We can supplement this by ordering exercise gear that we can use while watching TV. Or, we can order DVDs that will have us working out in our living rooms, jumping around in front of the idiot box.

In the US, less than one percent of trips around town are made by bicycle and the obesity rate is over 30 percent. In Germany—the land of sausage, chocolate, and beer—people use their bikes for 10 percent of their trips and the obesity rate is only 13 percent. In the bike-friendly Netherlands, 25 percent of these trips are made by bicycle and the obesity rate is 10 percent.

The population in those countries didn’t get that way by accident. The Dutch government created incentives for people to ride bikes and use public transportation as an alternative to driving as a result of public outcry in the 1970s when car-bicycle accidents reached an all-time high. Now, cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Denmark lead the world in creating bike-friendly infrastructure that encourages riding over driving, year round—even in snow. In Copenhagen, 37 percent of the population now commutes to and from work or school by bicycle. They teach their children how to ride safely at an early age, and because so many drivers also bike, they are more apt to be cautious around cyclists. On the web you can watch many videos of their well-used bike lanes. They are so safe, it’s nearly impossible to spot a bike helmet in the river of riders. There’s no real need for them there. And these countries have recognized huge savings in healthcare costs because people are simply healthier by lifestyle.

There’s also a disincentive to driving in many European countries: the price of gas. While we curse $4 per gallon, they’ve been living with $8 per gallon for years. Here, in 2012, we have a pudgy presidential candidate trying to woo voters by promising—however impossibly—that he will lower the price of gas to $2.50 per gallon. This, in a country where 43 percent of all household driving trips are three miles or less (according to a 2009 survey by the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration), 36 percent of adults are obese, and one of the biggest hot-button issues is how we shall pay for our skyrocketing healthcare costs.

How did we get here?

In his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter D. Norton details the way the automobile gained supremacy on US roads. It’s important to remember that the bicycle as we know it today was not the forerunner of the car. In fact, they were invented almost simultaneously in the late 19th century. Less than 20 years later, it’s interesting to note, two bicycle retailer/manufacturers known as the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Before that, street traffic consisted of horses, wagons, and some streetcars. The concept of “jaywalking” through traffic didn’t exist, since a horse-drawn carriage could be easily avoided. It wasn’t uncommon for a mother of the time to tell her children to go play in the street, because there were no cars.

This all changed during the Roaring ’20s, the heyday of the affordable Model T Ford. Many more cars came onto the roadways and gradually gained supremacy, despite widespread backlash from pedestrians and others alarmed by the redefinition of what streets were customarily recognized to be. Automobiles arrived on the scene as intruders onto thoroughfares designed for slower vehicles, and streets became more dangerous. This new motor age gave people effortless access to speed, but also gave birth to traffic cops, congestion, parking problems, and all the other things that take the pleasure out of driving.

In the decades that followed, and especially from the 1950s onward with the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System—which was designed in part to efficiently move military forces around the country’s interior should the need arise—and the ensuing suburbanization of America made possible by expressways from cities to “bedroom communities,” the idea of life without a car became more absurd. Bikes aren’t even allowed on our limited-access Interstates, all 47,000 miles of them.

The bicycle as a legitimate form of transportation became marginalized. Kids were shown bike safety films that let them know the rules they were learning were mainly important for the day when they would start driving cars. In the US, bicycles were increasingly marketed and perceived as children’s toys to be outgrown, rather than the elegantly functional human-powered vehicles they truly are. Motordom’s victory was complete.

Times change

Viewed this way, it’s easy to see how bicycle use in the US atrophied, along with our collective muscle tone. Public mindset was stacked against cycling. Very little thought and even less money went into bike infrastructure, aside from bike paths here and there—which can be safer places to ride in terms of traffic, but too often have limited practical value in terms of getting anywhere people really need to go. Cut off from the street grid, stretches of these types of trails can also be dangerously isolated areas, as residents of Western New York have horrifically come to understand.

There are signs, however, that this trend might be changing in several American cities. Last year, a study entitled “Costs and Benefits of Bicycling Investments in Portland, Oregon” showed the return on investment for bicycle infrastructure projects (which leads to increased use of bikes) to be quite impressive. From the report:

By 2040, investments in the range of $138 to $605 million will result in health care cost savings of $388 to $594 million, fuel savings of $143 to $218 million, and savings in value of statistical lives of $7 to $12 billion. The benefit-cost ratios for health care and fuel savings are between 3.8 and 1.2 to 1, and an order of magnitude larger when value of statistical lives is used.

Portland is always around the very top of bike-friendly American cities. Over six percent of commute trips there are taken by bicycle. This is the first study of its kind, and is an attempt to quantify the return on investment for those who may be skeptical of using public money to improve transportation conditions for cyclists. The 2030 bicycle master plan for Portland would boost that city’s bicycle use to levels we see in northern Europe today.

Cycling back home

Justin Booth is the director and founder of Green Options Buffalo and chair of the City of Buffalo’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Board. Both groups advocate on a wide range of bicycle and pedestrian issues, ranging from bicycle workshops to transportation obstacles facing the handicapped. He explains, “I can’t tell you how many streets you walk down and there’s a light pole in the middle of the sidewalk. How is a person in a wheelchair supposed to get around that?”

Booth is an avid cyclist and a knowledgeable champion of the “Complete Streets” movement, which is dedicated to improving the livability of neighborhoods for everyone—including motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users, and bus riders. Thanks to his group’s efforts, there is now a citywide ordinance and countywide resolution that should help increase the visibility of bicyclists.

As streets are improved in the city, safety features such as bike lanes need to be considered and, whenever possible, included. The language of the ordinance does leave an “out” for the city: If the cost of adding a proper bike lane comprises 20 percent of the overall project cost, it doesn’t have to be added. In some instances, they’ve been able to compromise in the form of “sharrows,” which are arrows painted on the right side of the street to help alert drivers of the possible presence of bikers. The cost of doing this on Connecticut Street was only $5,000. It’s a start.

“Sometimes you’re limited by the width of the right of way,” Booth explains. “The shared lane marking is probably at the bottom of the list in terms of the type of facility that’s going to be safest for the cyclist. A dedicated bike lane is great. We’re also trying to look at opportunities for a cycle track—things they’ve been doing in New York City, Portland, Seattle, and DC—where they’ve either physically separated the bike lane by curbing, or planting strip, or simply pulled the parking out into the street, and the parked cars then serve as the buffer. They call it a floating parking lane, and they put the bike lane next to the curb.”

There will be a Complete Streets Summit at 5:30pm on Thursday, April 19, at Asbury Hall (341 Delaware Avenue). Anyone interested in learning about the transportation challenges facing the region is invited to attend.

The road ahead by bike

As Einstein said: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” It’s encouraging that these issues are gaining the public discourse they deserve here because Buffalo—or New Amsterdam, as it was originally named—has great bones to become a top cycling city once again. The flat topography is ideal to navigate by pedal-power, and the same loss of population we routinely bemoan translates to less congested streets. With a little preparation and care, you can get anywhere you need to be around town by bike while working in some exercise in the time you might ordinarily spend looking for a cheaper parking space.

Also, our winter weather is not the obstacle to cycling that it’s often made out to be. Mountain bikes perform surprisingly well in the snow, and with a few modifications to your riding style, your commute to work or the store can be as much fun as a trip skiing, without the cost of the lift pass. They do it year-round in Alaska, so that myth should be busted.

Everyone who rides will notice health benefits in reasonably short order, which is good for individuals and better for the community as a whole. As gas prices continue to creep higher this spring and summer, it will be an ideal time to try out the cycling alternative. Frequently, people who start biking again begin to see how much more convenient it is for a variety of trips they ordinarily would have made by car. They even smile to themselves as they burn calories gliding past drivers in line at the pump. It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize how that makes them richer, in more ways than one.

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