Here she is, my $85, Chinese-manufactured, used mountain bike. OK, I have replaced the rear wheel, chain, and rear derailleur, but that happens with all bikes. I bought it before I began my MPH program in 2010, so I would not have to worry about my wheels being stolen (who wants an $85 bike?) while I was in class or in my apartment, where I had to lock it outside. Since its purchase, I guess we have cycled more than 4,200 miles (mainly to and from the University of Washington campus, and around Seattle). She is my testimony to the marriage of health, policy, convenience, and common sense (all very American ideas in my book). In public health, I think it is critical practitioners practice what they preach, and this is testimony to that.
More than 4,000 miles for less than the price of an iPhone
We are passed all the time on the Burke Gilman bike trail, but that is OK. I am still getting the benefits of a ride, 10 miles every weekday, when class is in session. There are simply few things in life that produce so many positive effects for such little money and with practically no environmental impacts. Here is why biking makes great sense, particularly in cities in the USA, and a few reasons why we have to do better, particularly with infrastructure and investments to make it safer.
Safety: We know that there are fewer accidents to pedestrians and bicyclists when there are safe areas for them to travel. Studies have shown that changes to our cities that make it safer to bike and walk help improve our health.
But in Seattle and elsewhere in the U.S., walking and cycling are much more dangerous, on a per-trip and per-mile basis. Compared to other countries such as Germany and Netherlands, where biking and walking are encouraged by changes in transportation designs, travel by biking and walking were six and eight times greater than the U.S., mainly because of real dangers. What’s more, in the U.S. a pedestrian is 23 times more likely to be killed than car occupants, and bikers 12 times more likely. On a per-kilometer/per-trip basis, U.S. walkers were three times more likely to get killed than German walkers, and six times more likely than Dutch pedestrians. Biking is healthy, but without infrastructure and numbers, we are greatly exposed. One reason German and Dutch cities are safer for walkers and bikers is because they provide safe and attractive corridors and crossings for them. We fail to do that in this country, even in “bike friendly” United States. We must do better, at the local and national policy levels.
Health: Biking literally makes you skinnier and it is great for your health. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that adults engage in 30 or more minutes of physical activity a day – and barely half of all Americans engage in more than 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week. Currently, more than a two-thirds of all Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are obese or overweight. Medical expenses associated with health issues related to obesity , according to the CDC, accounted for nearly 10 percent of total U.S. medical expenditures, totaling over $80 billion dollars annually. By contrast, in European countries, those with the highest rates of walking and cycling have much lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Type 2 diabetes alone is estimated to cost the U.S. $180 billion annually. In short, making it easier to bike makes health sense and fiscal sense. Including here in Seattle.
Car Trips Can Be Reduced: In the United States, more than 40 percent of all car trips were less than 2 miles, and 28 percent were less than 1 mile – and we know that biking can easily cover such distances. Americans need to get on their bikes for short trips, even in winter cities. It’s doable. Winter cities in Europe are filled with bikers. Addressing the safety barrier is a hurdle we have to overcome with designated bike corridors, to help encourage exercise levels needed to help reduce prevalence of some chronic diseases.
Two Great Reasons: New bicycle commuters can expect to lose 13 pounds their first year of bicycle commuting. [Bicycling Magazine]. If that wasn’t enough, we know that biking is cheaper than driving, a fact that make sense as we are seeing a spike in oil prices because of instability in the Mideast and North Africa.
Good Ideas: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed transportation policy proposals that could improve health. The CDC’s recommendations call for “healthy community design elements”—transportation networks, street designs, land use policies—that can mitigate adverse impacts from air and noise pollution and reduce injuries. The proposals also call for policies that protect pedestrians and bicyclists, which in turn can have a profound positive impact on health. These include designing streets to reduce vehicle speeds and pedestrian and bike injuries and correcting hazards in infrastructure to make it safer for walkers and bicyclists.
I do not know if I will reach 5,000 miles with my cheapo bike, but think of the low-cost impact this kind of tool could have if just 1 percent of all Americans who did not own a bike found one on Craigslist, purchased it, and started to transform themselves and their neighborhoods. It is practically revolutionary as an idea, and good for the economy too.
Pucher J, Dijkstra L. Promoting safe walking and cycling to improve public health: lessons from the Netherlands and Germany. American Journal of Public Health. 2003; 93:1509 –1516.
Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-Being, and Sustainability. Eds. Dannenberg, A., Frumkin, H., Jackson, R. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2011.
Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. CDC recommendations for improving health through transportation policy. 2010; http://www.cdc.gov/transportation/.