It was not that long ago that a drivers' license was a coveted status symbol and a sacred right-of-passage to adulthood. Meanwhile, the car's two-wheeled predecessor, whose popularity had ebbed and flowed since well before the car was invented, was being disparagingly marketed as a surrogate car to children. Bicycles were even designed to look like cars, with wide tires, streamlined front headlights and faux gas tanks. That was an era of manicured front lawns, black and white television sets, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Today's mobility environment bears little relationship to the 1950s, as users of all stripes take advantage of pedaling's inherent benefits.
Bicycling is comfortably affordable. Simply by choosing one less car, a family can accumulate over $130,000 in savings by the time their child enters college. And bicycling makes a good fit for one-third of the population who lack access or choose to forego auto ownership. For many users, the motive is sustainability: bicycle riding eliminates carbon emissions, favors compact neighborhoods over sprawl, and fosters a balanced transportation system with parity among different travel modes. Last year, 35 million Americans saddled a bike at least six times, according to the National Sporting Goods Association; other data indicates that over 100 million Americans cycled at least once.
And what about the health benefits?
Cycling makes for great brain food. Every morning neuroscientist Brian Christie hops on his bike, goes to the gym, and then rides the rest of the way to work. Says Christie, "When I get to my desk, my brain is at peak activity ... I can double or triple the production of neurons — literally building my brain capacity." Despite a sprawling landscape, half of our nation's labor force still lives within five miles of employment according to the most recent National Household Transportation Survey. That's a totally doable 25-minute ride. By pedaling this distance four times per week, one can burn up to 6,000 calories — or two pounds of fat — each month.
Cycling for health is a natural fit:
- Cycling helps muscles and joints. Cycling improves muscle function with little risk or strain. It strengthens leg muscles and is great for the mobility of hip and knee joints.
- Cycling improves cardiovascular fitness. Cycling makes the heart pound in a steady manner. Cycling uses the largest muscle groups, the legs, raising heart rate to benefit stamina and fitness.
- Cycling makes for healthy hearts. According to the British Medical Association, cycling for only a couple of hours per week can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 50 percent.
- Cycling helps coordination. Cycling is an activity that involves the whole body. It improves arm-to-leg, feet-to-hands and body-to-eye coordination.
- Cycling cures the blues. One need not be a long distance rider to know that cycling can reduce stress and help relieve symptoms of depression. Cycling clears the mind of stimulus overload. It rejuvenates the soul.
A national leadership network has blossomed in recent years to advance the bicycling for health agenda. It includes AARP, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the American Heart Association, and Safe Routes to Schools, a federal program funded since 2005 at about $100 million annually. Last January, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued his "Mayors' Challenge", a checklist of pro-active bicycle friendly goals, many with health ramifications. Foxx is well known in bike circles, having been a staunch advocate as a city councilperson and later as mayor of Charlotte, N.C.
What this all means is that success for bicycle riding in the 21st century must be redefined in more diverse and inclusive terms than ever. The goal now is healthy, safe, fun and convenient mobility for all Americans regardless of age, income level or socioeconomic background.
The League of American Bicyclists (LAB), via a competitive Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFC) program, ranks cities and towns in five broad categories: Education, Encouragement, Engineering, Evaluation and Enforcement. LAB's award levels — Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and a new level, Diamond — provide a clear incentive for communities to continuously improve. Sixty-nine million people now live in a bicycle friendly community ranging in size from Crested Butte, Colo.,(pop. 1,497 / Gold) to New York City (pop. 8,337,000 / Silver).
The LAB makes awards every year to new applicants and every four years for renewals. Last June it announced 42 new and renewing awardees. They join 350 other communities in all 50 states that have demonstrated significant gains. Since the program's rebranding in 2003, more than 800 communities have applied. A community can reapply on each cycle to retain its status, or better yet, move higher in the rankings.
Davis, Calif., (pop. 63,722), considered the mother lode of community bicycling since the mid-1960s has implemented bike-only roundabouts, bike signal heads to improve traffic flow, and technology that automatically detects cyclists and stops traffic for them to increase efficiency and safety, and is now gearing for the Diamond award. Its competitors will no doubt include the three other Platinum level communities — Boulder and Fort Collins in Colorado and Portland, Ore. Daily bike trips in Davis, currently at roughly 20 to 25 percent of all local travel, are among the highest in the nation. But that is not good enough. As Davis' 2014 Bicycle Action Plan notes, this figure must increase for the town to become world-class on the European model and also meet its own climate action objectives. That means targeting to a 30-percent bicycle mode share by 2020.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio, (pop. 46,121) is part of an inner ring of Garden-City-era suburbs largely developed before World War II. It received a Bronze award in 2013 with the help of Mary Dunbar, a retired financial communications executive. Dunbar holds dual roles as president of the nonprofit Heights Bicycle Coalition and member of the city council. Ongoing local initiatives include pending passage of a "Complete Streets" resolution, investing in better crosswalks, crossing guards and safety patrol gear for the Safe Routes to Schools program, and more innovative street markings on par with the 2013 "buffered" bike lane, the first in Northeast Ohio. The lane carries hundreds of commuters daily uphill from the University Circle district, home of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Case Western Reserve University, and a wide array of other world-renowned cultural and medical facilities. Dunbar hopes that by increasing the number of street savvy cyclists, "We can get the Silver."
Buffered lanes — or lanes that are separated by space from motor vehicle traffic — belong to a toolkit of protected infrastructure solutions meant to overcome the safety shortcomings of the standard one-size-fits-all bike lane. Buffers mark an increasingly popular street design approach intended to attract a large segment of bicyclists who have never felt safe on conventional lanes. Pilot projects from coast to coast are popping up to test this premise.
It takes skill to ride a bike even when the infrastructure is supportive, and many local bicycle advocacy groups are expanding their education venues. "Bike Easy", a New Orleans advocacy nonprofit whose mission is to make cycling fun, easy and safe, now offers classes for children, women, and commuters, that educate on bicycling safety and the rules of the road. Instructors have also taught a special seniors class in conjunction with AARP called ‘Bicycling for Boomers.'
Private enterprise also plays an important role. The Meredith Corporation, a media and marketing services company headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, began a comprehensive wellness program in 2006 with the support of Chairman and CEO Steve Lacy. Lacy believes that wellness should be a priority for all employees. The bicycle component includes a $240-annual-cash reimbursement for commuters. According to Tim O'Neil, Director of Employee Benefits and Wellness, "We were one of the first companies to qualify for this Federal tax reimbursement program." Meredith also offers bike racks, showers, locker rooms and free towel service. Bike skills classes are available during Bike Month in May along with bike buddies mentoring assistance. O'Neill estimates that 5 percent of the workforce participates.
Steve Clark has traveled to hundreds of large and small communities as the technical liaison for the Bicycle Friendly Communities program. Clark admits that "in most cities it is still faster and more convenient to use a car than to choose a vehicle that does not pollute, conserves energy, promotes health and is low on the injury and fatality scale. But the people I'm meeting — the elected leaders who care, the tireless advocates who keep pushing and pushing, and the city/county staff who are given the task of trying to improve the bicycling environment are all incredible people who are doing marvelous things."
Clark has learned that, "More than ever, the momentum is in our direction. People want choices. People want to live in bicycle friendly communities. They want to be able to safely ride bicycles to work, for fun and for good health."
Martin Zimmerman is a transportation planning consultant and former executive director of the Charlotte (NC) Area Bicycle Alliance. He does not own a car.