Live Longer, Ride a Bike

Riding bicycles is safer than most people think, and a whole lot healthier, argues bicycle commuter and activist Tom Bowden. With modest investment, biking could become even safer.

by James A. Bacon

Tom Bowden has heard all the bicycle-accident horror stories -- the unprotected collisions with 4,000 pounds of automotive steel, the vaults over the steering wheel and the head plants on cement curbs -- but he still believes that riding on two wheels instead of four will lengthen most peoples' life expectancy.

The 56-year-old Richmond attorney and cycling enthusiast cites two reasons for that counter-intuitive claim. First, the likelihood of injury or fatality on a bicycle is no more than in an automobile for riders taking basic precautions. Second, riding bicycles offers tremendous benefits for weight control and cardio-vascular fitness that people can't get driving a car.

Building walkable and bicycle-friendly streets and trails, Bowden argues, is one of the best investments that government, business and civic leaders in a metropolitan region can make. They create recreational amenities that make a region more livable, they reduce traffic congestion and they contribute to the general health. There is a lot of resistance in Virginia to making roads more hospitable to cyclists, he says, but the momentum is shifting. "A lot of forces are coming together ... promoting cycling as a bona fide transportation mode."

Bowden has long been active in Virginia's burgeoning grassroots cycling movement. A co-founder of Richmond's CyCor professional racing team in 1994, he chairs Bike Virginia, which organizes a five-day biking tour and raises money for bicycle advocacy, and serves on the board of the Virginia Bicycling Federation. He also rides his bike to work on a near-daily basis.

Yes, there is a risk of injury riding a bicycle, says Bowden. In 2006, according to the Networks of Employers for Traffic Safety website, 773 cyclists died in accidents in the U.S. and 44,000 were injured. The fatality rate per trip was twice that for cyclists as it was for automobiles. But even if you accept these numbers -- and Bowden says the statistics 'are all over the map" -- it's not a justification for keeping cyclists off the road.

A high percentage of accidents can be attributed to bad cycling. A quarter of all cyclists killed in accidents that year were riding while alcohol impaired (blood levels at 0.08 or above). Others were riding at night without lights, while others ran red lights, rode against traffic or rode at excessive speeds. "If you don't ride recklessly or at high speeds, it's extremely safe."

What the accident statistics don't measure, he adds, is the impact of cycling on health. How do cyclists and non-cyclists stack up, he asks, in measures of weight and cardio-vascular fitness? How many non-cyclists could avoid chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes if they were more physically active?

Finally, Bowden argues, the high rate of fatalities results mainly from bikes colliding with cars. Shift more people from cars to bikes, and the dynamic changes. "The chances of cyclists killing others is much much lower. ... When more people ride bikes, the overall death toll will plummet because there will be so much less carnage from automobiles killing other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists."

Injuries and fatalities constitute an argument for better bicycle infrastructure and paying more attention to bicycle safety, not discriminating against cycling. Bowden suggests that local governments can do a lot to encourage safe cycling.

Carve out bicycle lanes through restriping. Localities can spur ridership and promote safety by marking more bicycle lanes. That creates space for cyclists and it signals drivers to be alert. If accomplished through a "road diet," creating the space by narrowing automobile lanes, the cost is minimal. Drivers might have to drive a little slower in the narrower lanes but their real travel time will be little impaired. Drivers typically drive over the posted speed limit then wind up waiting at red lights. Moreover, getting people out of cars and onto bicycles will reduce congestion.

Build dedicated bicycle lanes. This is more expensive because it may require local governments to acquire right of way and to build/maintain paved surfaces that did not exist before. Critics of bicycle lanes make the observation that people use them mainly for recreation, not "utility" travel such as commuting. That argument may be true in the early phases of building a bicycle network, Bowden argues, when bicycle lanes and trails are disconnected. But as the bicycle network fills out, more people will use it. Experience in European and American cities has shown that bicycle ridership builds over time when bike lanes are built.

Engage business. Businesses and employers can encourage cycling through small measures such as installing showers for employees who cycle to work, or setting up bike racks. Local governments can carve out a few parking spaces in business districts to set up bike-sharing stations. It doesn't have to be expensive, says Bowden. It's more a matter of changing the culture and making micro adjustments, what he calls "tactical urbanism."

Allow more density. Local governments can encourage cycling by permitting more compact development. Bicycles allow individuals to travel greater distances than when walking, but going from Point A to Point B in scattered, low-density suburbs typically takes too long to be worth the effort, even if bike lanes existed.  In denser, bike-friendly European cities, people typically cycle only two or three miles between home and work.

Making these kinds of changes in a region the size of Richmond would require spending only modest amounts of money yet potentially could take thousands of cars off the road. By easing traffic congestion and reducing the need for spending on roads, highways and mass transit, bike-friendly initiatives could more than pay for themselves. If the health benefits were taken into account, investments in biking infrastructure arguably could be a fiscal plus for government.

Observing the changes that have taken place like Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore., Bowden suggests more people, especially women, take up cycling when they perceive it as safer. When more cyclists are on the roads, drivers become more alert to them and accidents decline. As awareness changes, accident rates plunge. Thus, in bike-crazy countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, fatality rates per kilometer ridden are half or one-third the U.S. rate.

Build the bike lanes, Bowden argues, and the cyclists will come.

This article was written under a sponsorship of Bon Secours Virginia Health System.


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