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Why Cycle? A Comprehensive Sustainability Solution.

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Posted: 3:44PM September 26th, 2014 | Comments

Put simply, cycling brings joy to the soul. After a long day at work or school, the fresh air in your face, the sights and sounds of your city, your community, around you, the rush of blood flowing through your veins as you pedal to sustain your speed, revitalizes, clears the head, and warms the stiff muscles. I have this notion that the soul knows what is sustainable; it feels good and healthy and just all at the same time. It fosters a healthy planet, fosters economic prosperity, it fosters a just society. Finding solutions that not only sustain, but enhance all three aspects of society is challenging; that's why organizations such as Sustain Dane exist. But biking is one of those low hanging fruits, ripe and ready for picking, a beacon of sustainability in all aspects of the word. Definitions of sustainability can be ambiguous, they can be long winded, they can be different depending on who you talk to. My definition is simple... bike.


Healthy Planet

The environmental benefits of cycle commuting are a given. The bike commute is an emissions, pollution, and fossil fuel-free form of transport. In our current state of global warming and rising concerns over urban air quality, these facts are of substantial significance. While the environmental predictions can be daunting, biking provides a concrete and manageable practice for individuals to implement. By replacing a daily car commute of 20 km (about 6 miles each way) with a bike commute, one individual can save 1500 kg (about 3,300 lbs) in greenhouse gasses annually (1). By reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, bikers are also reducing the demand for oil, and arguably “de-fueling” the fire behind fracturing and drilling initiatives.


Not only is biking one of the cleanest forms of transportation, but it is actually the most energy efficient form of transportation. Whereas cars are made for luxury, status, and seduction, bikes are made for it's one purpose...to move people, especially within a city. Likewise, the physical road space required for bike infrastructure is also more efficient than that of the car. The shift away from auto transport and toward bike commuting results in less pavement and construction emissions, not to mention fewer annual road repairs, and less physical pavement intrusion into the natural ecosystem. Finally, bikes themselves embody far fewer emissions in their construction, do not require toxic batteries or motor oil like cars do, and result in less waste when they are no longer useful.


In a world of increasing population and urbanization, biking is the natural solution to the efficient use of increasingly scarce resources and space, maintaining a healthy planet without compromising (and likely enhancing) our quality of life and quality of cities. 


Strong Economy

Often the loudest arguments against environmentally-minded solutions is the economic one. This is what inspired my double major in Economics and Environmental Studies. The dichotomy of the relationship is a fascinating one, and when an environmental solution can be framed for economic success, it is truly invigorating.


A culture of everyday bike commuting creates a more productive workforce, increasing both everyday efficiency and productivity as well as contributing to a longer productive lifespan. Even without the ability to drink coffee on the commute (although this is highly debatable for bikers with above-average balance), I can account for the increase in productivity first hand. Turns out I'm not the only one; according to studies done by the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition (2), exercising before work increases employee productivity by 15%. Not only does biking provide an outlet for exercise, but it actually saves time during rush hour commutes (3).


The increased productivity goes hand in hand with the health benefits of daily bike commuting. Economically, these benefits translate into massive savings in healthcare costs on both the macro and micro scale. Employers statewide save an estimated $36.7 million for each 1% increase in employee cycle commuting, due to increased productivity and fewer sick days (4); similarly, 30 minutes of daily cycling saves individuals an average of $544 in medical costs annually (5). 


In today's political arena, the underlying economic test often boils down to “is it good for business?” The answer to that question, although perhaps counter-intuitive to traditional business mindsets, is yes. Naturally a culture of bike commuters will contribute to the prosperity of bike businesses, although admittedly at some cost to the auto industry. Perhaps less obvious is the strengthening of local economy and small business that comes with a strong biking culture. 


As a biker, you are far more engaged with the community you are passing though. The smells, sounds, and sights of the family owned bakery are suddenly part of your everyday commute. Not only are bikers more aware of the small businesses around them, but they are also more accessible. It is much easier for a biker to hop of their bike to indulge in a freshly baked pastry than it is for a driver to pull over and find parking on the notoriously parking-sensitive isthmus. In fact, 20 bikes (aka 20 customers) can be parked in just one car stall. 


The numbers confirm this theory; several city studies show that bikers more regularly frequent (and spend more overall) at local businesses than all other modes of transport (6). It follows that enhancements to bike infrastructure then lead to increased prosperity to local business. After adding extensive bike lanes in Seattle, businesses located along the bikes lanes reported an astounding 300% increase in sales after the completion of the project. (7). While neither of these studies can claim biking as the direct and only cause for the total increase in small business sales, there is definitely a correlation, and it is safe to assume at the very least that favoring biking at the sacrifice of automobiles does not hurt business. 


Just Society

While the environmental and economic benefits of a bikeable city are encouraging in themselves, biking would not be a comprehensive sustainability solution without its encouragement of just societies. A bikeable city is a democratic one, giving equal opportunity and freedom to citizens of all income levels. With programs such a B-Cycle , bike ownership is not even necessary for daily bike commuting. Even without such innovative programs, bikes are pretty easy to come by thanks to organizations such as DreamBikes and Wheels for Winners, which tune up donated bikes and give them to deserving teens from disadvantaged areas. Personally, my bike is from a rummage sale and has served me faithfully for the past 3 years. 


It is important to note that public transportation is also a great tool in creating democratic cities, but it cannot provide the freedom that a bike does... to come and go as you please, independent of bus schedules and bus stops. To create a truly livable community, we need a continuous and flexible network of transportation options, allowing users to use a combination of busses and bikes to fit their unique physical, geographic, and socioeconomic needs.


Not only is a bikeable city a democratic one, it is also a livable one. A bike-centered city is human scaled. It allows for human interaction, an exchange of greetings as you pass your neighbor. It creates a sense of ownership toward one's physical community that cannot be paralleled. It facilitates a better quality of life within communities and minimizes the invasive impact of heavily trafficked roads to the surrounding urban fabric. 


A bike friendly community is far safer for children, pedestrians, and residents. There are fewer accidents when roads increase bike modal share (8), and the air quality benefits are priceless with nationwide asthma on the rise (9). Cycling's contribution to preventative healthcare increases quality of life for all, especially those living in areas of compromised environmental quality or healthcare availability. While biking itself may exclude the elderly or disabled, and efforts need to be made to address this issue, these demographics can benefit from the positive externalities a bikeable city, including the decreased traffic, increased public transportation, improvement of pedestrian infrastructure such as paths and road crossings, and the more human-scaled environment.


Again, regardless of age, race, or income, biking is good for the soul. It encourages strong mental heath, reportedly reducing depression and anxiety by forcing its riders to be outside, to engage in the community around them, and to fill their lungs with fresh air for a fraction of their otherwise demanding days. It connects you to your community in a way unparalleled to any other, giving you the speed and freedom to cover ground without compromising the connection. It strengthen's personal health and the local economy while doing what is best for the environment. There are many things each of us can do to sustain Dane County, but if nothing else, we should bike. 

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