Chances are, many of you responded positively to that question. If I could get everyone in the U.S. who purchased an adult-sized bicycle in 2008 to read this blog, there would be more than 13 million hands raised at this moment.
America’s love affair with the “dandy horse” goes way back. After its initial wave of popularity in the 1880s, the bicycle experienced a resurgence in the wake of the Great Depression. In 1936 the magazine Popular Science provided a summary of biking in the states. "Four
Early twentieth-century bikes (from Wikimedia Commons)
But wait, there’s more! Changes in fuel economy during this half-century have been incrementally slow. Between 1960 and 1990 the average mileage (for all vehicle classes combined) crawled upward from 12.4 to 16.4. Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards determine the mileage for passenger vehicles and light trucks, and they tend to represent the higher end of the mileage spectrum. Even so, the 25-year period beginning in 1980 saw only a 7 percent increase in fuel economy, reaching 24.8 mpg in 2000 and remaining near that level thereafter. New CAFE standards were passed in May 2009. By 2016 passenger vehicles must achieve 42 mpg and light-duty trucks 26 mpg. But poor fuel economy is only part of the problem. Data from the 2007 American Community Survey (a tool used to collect demographics between the 10-year national surveys) reveal that 76 percent of Americans drive alone in their cars to work. I’ll spare you the statistics on the gasoline consumption that results from this behavior. Suffice to say that it’s a lot.
Because you're savvy, I'll bet you can predict the next fact. A single gallon of gasoline emits 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (The number is slightly higher for diesel.) Burning fossil fuels has been linked to climate change, but also to increasing rates of asthma and other respiratory conditions. Meanwhile, millions of Americans experience heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and the precursors to these life-threatening conditions. Why? Because we don’t get enough exercise.
The National Institutes of Health have a simple solution. To promote a healthier lifestyle, and to protect our environment, NIH recommends biking and walking. (You knew I’d come full-circle eventually, didn’t you?)
“The European countries with the highest levels of walking and cycling have much lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension than the United States. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, for example, have obesity rates only a third of the American rate, while Germany’s rate is only half as high… Walking and cycling also help alleviate traffic congestion, save energy, reduce air and noise pollution, conserve land, and produce various other environmental benefits.”
What would that entail, and what would be the environmental benefits? A study commissioned by the Rails to Trails Conservancy clarifies these questions. It suggests that half of all the outings we take in a car are so close to home that we could bike there in 20 minutes. Twenty-five percent of our errands are significantly closer—accessible on foot in 20 minutes. Rails to Trails determined that “modest increases” in biking and walking by Americans “could lead to an annual reduction of 70 billion miles of automobile travel… equivalent to cutting oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles by 3 percent.” Doesn’t sound like much? Here's a little perspective. The U.S. Senate just worked for months to agree on a complex cap-and-trade scenario that might reduce GHGs by 20 percent (below 2005 levels) between now and 2020. Losing 3 percent by an immediate behavioral change looks pretty good by comparison.
The wobbly economy was a good prompt in that direction for some folks, a process that has been aided (in some places) by infrastructure. The City of New York has constructed approximately 200 miles of bike lanes and plans more. Bike traffic has already increased by 35 percent. And despite its harsh winters Minneapolis is ranked as one of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities (second only to Portland, Oregon), offering more than 120 miles of bike lanes and trails, bike-friendly commuter trains, and more. Even Los Angeles, one of the most sprawling cities in the nation, has invested in a detailed plan to encourage and accommodate biking among its population.
Whatever form it takes—from a rusty old Schwinn to the sleekest racer or the most advanced electric model—the bicycle is more than a toy, exercise machine, or vehicle. Albert Einstein claimed to have thought of the theory of relativity while cycling. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony saw the bicycle as a source of independence for women. And author H.G. Wells wrote, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” In 2008 U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared, “The place of cycling in our society is set to grow, and I am committed to doing everything possible to encourage that.” The statistics show that Americans also love biking. But are we willing to put on our helmets and ride as a solution to what plagues us?