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.

Cycling enthusiast Tom Bowden. No lycra, no clip-on pedals. Just regular street clothes and an Australian bush hat. (Click for bigger image.)

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. Continue reading.

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0 responses to “Live Longer, Ride a Bike.

  1. well..kudos for writing the article ! I’ve become a bit of a pessimist on bike transportation infrastructure.

    I’d love to see it. I’d love to be able to go to the post office, doctor appointments, even WalMart on a bike because, yes it does burn those calories and trim those muscles but VDOT seems to be a veritable Jekyll and Hyde on it and at the local level – if you try to take a penny away from roads, they all get the Heebie-jeebies.

    Our locals had a great idea (I thought) to use utility corridors for trails – walking and bike but the “antis'” came out of the woodwork and the planners (and the utility dept) won’t touch it with a 10 foot pole anymore.

    so in Spotsy, we’re dead in the water these days.

  2. What possible objection could the “antis” have against using utility corridors for trails?

    • Beats me but the same thing happened in Great Falls. Plenty of gas pipeline rights of way that are kept clear of trees, etc. They would be perfect for jogging / biking paths. They could even connect a couple of great paths (like W&OD) that already exist. All I ever heard was that the people who live near the rights of way (own the rights of way?) don’t want trails.

    • These guys have been trying for years …

      They even raised $2M

      They have the right goal:

      Install natural surface trails in gas pipeline areas

      But they get resistance from somewhere.

  3. Here is a similar idea that generated controversy back in the early 1990s in Chicago. Not sure how it turned out …

  4. People worry that bicycle/walking trails will bring a criminal element near their homes. As if someone is going to steal your big screen TV, load it on his bicycle and make a getaway down the bike trail!

    I bet it’s old people mostly. Younger people would view a bike trail as an amenity that increases property values.

  5. some worry about “criminals”.. they simply do want the public walking near their land – have the “right” to walk near their land.

    this goes to why people want to live in a cul-de-saced subdivision ..

    …. and their concern about the safety of their kids and strangers who could be abductors/child molesters,etc.

    It’s old people but it’s also families who simply see it as yet another worry about strangers in close proximity to them.

    I’m probably not articulating as well as the opponents who are passionate and adamant about it.

    They have completely pushed back the utilities dept who see the dual-purpose easement as a direct threat to their ability to expand/improve the utility system.

    Yes.. young people love these amenities and in turn companies that want young highly-educated workers.

    It is what it is.

  6. Fairfax County has been making major efforts to integrate bike paths into the County’s transportation and land use plans. The effort concerning Tysons is significant. One of the major problems though is getting “through” the Beltway and the Dulles Toll Roads. Personally, I think the auto traffic volumes will make biking to and from Tysons challenging.

  7. this is part of what changed Spotsy – we’ve never really gotten over it.

    Slaying of sisters “has changed everyone”

  8. Good idea, but. . .

    Where I live in the wilds of Chesterfield County there are ancient roads that curve around big trees and properties. There is absolutely no shoulder. The curves make it impossible to see far ahead. A couple of months ago, a young man in a huge pickup truck ran off the road at about 2 a.m. one Saturday morning, flipped several times and was killed when his vehicle smashed a tree. They even brought out the police helicopter for that one.
    Still, cyclists in their brightly colored outfits pedal these roads. They are a true hazard because they insist on their right to the treacherous road. They force cars to brake to quick stops or risk pulling into the other lane. Amelia County next door has plenty of beautiful roads that have shoulders and on which motorists can see far ahead. But the bikers stay here.
    There’s no way in hell that Chesterfield can fix all of these roads. Hasn’t got the money. Popular sympathies go with the bicycle riders, but in some cases they are selfish, dangerous idiots.
    But I glad to see you are dreaming on, as usual.

  9. Peter is correct for Spotsylvania also. We have old civil-war era roads that basically follow old ridge-lines, up and down, left and right and on weekends we get the city-folks out for a scenic bike ride on roads with no shoulders and no sight distance.

    You pop over a hill at 45 mpg and there’s a fool wearing leotards on a bike with his ugly citified butt waving in the breeze.

    You can’t pass him…without risking a head-on and the cars behind you want to know why the hell you have slowed to 10 mph.

    Now, the advocates say they are advancing the debate and bringing more people on board but I can tell you that there’s another side to it which is not very supportive at all and perhaps it engenders opposition.

    the only way to give legitimacy to the bike movement is for bikers to pay a tax of some kind. It could be levied on bikes at purchase or it could require all bikes to be licensed but without any skin in the game – they are viewed as parasitic kamikazes playing lemming games.

  10. Two points in response to Larry. First, it’s critical to draw a distinction between recreational bikers and utility bikers. Your beef is with recreational bikers. Fair enough, I see your point (and Peter’s point) about the hazards these guys create. But don’t hold that against utility bikers and the desirability of building supporting infrastructure for them.

    Regarding your point that bikers should pay to use public roads. I have to say that I agree…. in theory. The user-pays principle should extend to all modes of transportation. The question is how. Do we apply a user-fee surcharge to the purchase of a $100 bike that an 8-year-old will ride around the cul de sac? Probably not. Should we ask someone who bicycles to work along a bike lane sharing the same street as automobiles? Yes. Again, the question is how. I’m open to suggestions.

  11. I agree with both Peter’s and Larry’s comments. We see the same biker behavior in Fairfax County. Many old, curvy, narrow roads without shoulders. Some won’t even pull right when the road widens.

  12. Realty check.
    “Utility” bikes sound great but are extremely limited in where they can be safely operated. Maybe DC or downtown Richmond. Not anywhere else. Instant roadkill.
    The only place in my working life where I could actually bike to work was in downtown DC and Chicago.

  13. There is tremendous hostility to bikers in western Loudoun County. The problem is that the bikers think they have the right to use the roads, whereas the auto drivers think they have the right to drive at full legal speed or more, even on curvy roads (speed limits on the smaller roads that bikers use are not enforced except in town). Increasing population increases demand for both uses, but also increases frustration and hostility. The ways to reconcile are either 1. bikers don’t use the roads, or 2. drivers slow down. Neither group is willing to give up its”rights.”

  14. we’ve had a similar (but smaller) issue with recreational access to rivers. The paddling community urges VDOT and DGIF to build access points but hunters, fishermen and drivers point out that they pay and the paddlers want a free ride.

    A few years back the state proposed that each boat be licensed and that the fees would help pay for access points.

    the paddling community was outraged and fought it hard even as some inside the paddling community argued that a license fee would give them legitimacy when asking for access points.

    the result? very few new access points. one or two here or there but not many.

    I think for transportation utility biking – you need some skin in the game before your advocacy for facilities is going to have any real resonance with both agencies and voters.

    And the “in your face” bikers are doing a disservice to everyone.

    you cannot go to a govt meeting to support a proposal when the people listening remember the “in your face” types they encounter.

    it’s a losing strategy, a demonstrable losing strategy.

  15. It is interesting to see the widespread hostility toward bikers, especially on “country roads.” The antagonism is worse than I imagined. Something needs to be done, but I’ll let the bike enthusiasts sort that out.

    I’m much more interested in promoting biking for “utility” travel, and that’s only practical in more compact, densely settled urban environments. Southern Chesterfield, western Loudoun, Fairfax and Spotsylvania County are not well suited to the biking revolution.

    I would be interested to hear what people living in Arlington or the City of Richmond have to say. I would hypothesize that the level of hostility toward bikers is much lower.

  16. OK – you guys are pushing my buttons now. First off – if you think that cars pay the full cost of streets, dream on. Yes, the gas tax goes into the highway trust fund and pays for federal and some state highways, bridges etc., but most local roads are paid for with general taxes and bond issues, paid for by cyclist and motorists alike. Given the vanishingly small impact of bikes on roadway maintenance costs, in reality, cyclists are subsidizing motorists. Plus, virtually all cyclists own cars too, and pay plenty of gas tax.

    As for any increased cost of bike lanes, the savings from reduced car traffic and therefore reduced road maintenance can easily offset the initial cost of the lanes if you take all costs into account over the life cycle of a road project. Here is an article that also addresses the fallacy of the canard “Bikes should pay their own way.”

    Plenty more where that came from.

    Let me put it this way – when drivers pay the full cost of their chosen mode of transportation, including excess deaths due to environmental factors, distracted and reckless driving, etc., not to mention the cost of maintaining hundreds of thousands of our finest young men and women on ships and planes and in military bases all over the middle east, you can come talk to me about a bicycle user fee. In the meantime, do some research. Facts are stubborn things.

    As for safety on country roads – another false issue. It”s not the roads or the cyclists – it’s the drivers who are unsafe. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lycra clad cyclist, a deer, a pedestrian, or a tractor that lies ahead around a blind curve – a good driver is prepared to deal with these normal and legal (or natural) obstacles. If you are driving in a way that puts other legal users of the road at risk, you are the problem. Yes, cyclists should obey all traffic laws and ride single file to avoid impeding traffic – no argument there. And all drivers should strictly obey speed limits (as if). But the notion that someone out for some exercise is totally out of place because they might slightly delay joe pick-up truck’s daily run to 7 eleven for beer, smokes and lotto tickets is absurd. I mean, it’s not as if all motorized traffic is strictly business and extremely urgent. There are plenty of drivers who just want to go out for a little aggressive sport driving or to see the sights. They have no greater right than cyclists or pedestrians. It may come as a surprise, but the first paved roads were paved in response to the demands of cyclists in the late 19th century. Look it up. And you are welcome.

  17. No one is more supportive than I for biking both utility and recreational but I’m also a pragmatist who tries to understand the obstacles.

    No.. most local roads are not locally funded except in cities/towns and two countries in Va. In the rest of VA, it’s VDOT funding (now dried up) and some referenda but the referenda almost never INCLUDE biking facilities in the proposals – and if they did, it would be problematical in some places and may actually result in the defeat of the referenda.

    in terms of country roads – yes.. there are tractors, deer, etc and you are correct that drivers should be alert but deer and tractors are not the same as a squad of bikes… 2, 3, sometimes 10, 12 spaced out over a couple of miles wreaking havoc ( in the minds of those who are repeatedly slowed by them).

    You can claim the “right” – but you will lose the battle unless you acknowledge the issues and seek solutions IMHO.

    You have to have skin in the game if you want to really have credibility in your argument for facilities. Otherwise, you’ll win the moral argument but you lose the functional one and the result will be no real forward progress.

    When citizens show up to oppose bike facilities on a road improvement, VDOT listens to the local BOS and if they want to bail on the ped/bike, VDOT usually agrees.

    For myself, I refuse to get on a country road with my bike because I think it is not only just plain dumb making me much like a deer but it aggravates drivers… who then show up to oppose bike facilities.

    This has been going on for a long, long time and if you are really honest about it, you have to admit that attitudes are not getting better just more locked in.

    That is a losing strategy in my view. It’s not that you’re right – you are – but you lose – is that what you really want ? to be right and to lose?

    I’d like to see the bike WIN so I’m interesting in what it takes to get WINS even if bikers have to bend over backwards to get those wins.

  18. Larry: When I hear the argument that cyclists need to pay a tax, by extension, should we make everyone display a tax sticker on their sleeve when they walk down the sidewalk? Sidewalks cost a lot more than bikelanes to build.

    Tom is right; gas taxes pay for about half the cost of roads and we all pay the balance through property taxes, bonds, etc. (And for the record, most cyclists own cars and houses so don’t fret too much; we’re paying.)

    If we made drivers pay the true cost of the higheway infrastructure, there would be far fewer cars on the road. I’ve seen one estimate that a single parking place on the street costs ~$12 – $15k to build and maintain. Should we put parking meters on every street or just send every driver the bill?

    Ironically, if it weren’t for cyclists, the development of a road network in the US would have been set back thirty years. Google, “Good Roads Movement” and smile next time you see a bike on one of those country roads.

    As Tom states very well, there are many benefits far beyond transportation that cycling brings and we should do all we can to encourage people to get off their couch (or out of their Yukon) and go on two wheels. Around 2/3 of Americans overweight, so encouraging our ever fattening citizens to get out and get some exercise by foot or bike is an easy place to start addressing a number of problems facing America.

  19. Well said Walkman!

  20. I don’t like the term “tactical urbanism” because although it is supposed to sound like sexy urban planning language it is quite confused and meaningless. In this context there is nothing inherently urban about a road or bike lane or bike rack, those are components of a transportation system. There is also nothing particularly “tactical” about testing transportation system components in different areas of a given region to see how they function. So if we are planning a rural bike path and want to test locations for a rest area with racks and a toilet and we are looking at this field or that field is it “tactical urbanism?” No of course not, but somehow if you do the same thing in a city the trendsetters get to call it a chic name. The result (or maybe the root cause) is confusion in America about the meaning of urban, rural, or suburban and how those places should work and what belongs where. Fact is, we know very well how to make functional bicycle infrastructure and there is no need to be “tactical” about building it. There are standards and precedents galore and we should conform to them when building out the system. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel with these haphazard “tactics.”

  21. Squier – Use whatever term you like – the Tactical Urbanism moniker came out of an urban environment, but there’s no magic in the name. If you want the full download go to:
    and check out the materials under “Boosting Economic Vitality in Cities” and feel free to peruse the rest of the literature there as well.
    The concept, however, is less about infrastructure and more about winning the hearts and minds of businesses and their customers. Once they experience the joy of getting around and shopping or servicing their customers by bike, they will demand whatever infrastructure is appropriate for their community. One-size-fits-all standards are not the answer, because the question is not “What should we build” but “How do we get people to experience what utility cycling has to offer?” Hope this helps. Also might want to check out my article at Commute by Bike, where I elaborate a little further:

  22. Hi, Jim. I’m in Arlington now (as nanny for my grandchildren). The bike trails up here are wonderful. And very well used. There’s an off road trail that runs along I-66, another that follows Four Mile Run Creek, another along the Potomac. Miles and miles of off road trails make it safe to bike. There are lots of bike lanes on roads too. I used a trail just across the creek from the I-66 one to walk the children to nursery school in the stroller and it was like being out in the woods, even though I-66 and the Metro train were close by. The mature shade trees on the creek made it pleasant to walk (and for those on bikes, to bike). For Richmond, I wonder if the Kanawha canal could be used as a trail along the river. There’s a downtown canal walk on it. Could it be extended westward into Goochland for bikes? Who owns the canal?

    • Hi, Becky, Good to hear from you. I didn’t realize that you’d moved. Speaking of Arlington’s bike trails, one of my goals is to get up there and profile a community that does it right. … I’ve heard talk of running a bike trail along the Kanawha Canal — like the C&O in Washington — but apparently nearby property owners are not thrilled with the idea. (Strange people could use the trail, you see.)

  23. Strange people drive down the street too, don’t they? I would imagine if a trail were built, it would have lighting and could be fenced off from private property. Arlington has a website on biking: If you come up here to do a profile, I’d suggest taking the train to Alexandria and Metro from there. The Amtrak station is right next door to the Metro station so it’s easy to go from one to the other. If you get tickets two weeks or more in advance, the cost for Amtrak can be as low as $40 round trip. I-95 is a nightmare. My son-in-law regularly bikes into work in DC. He keeps dress clothes at the office and takes showers when he gets there. For bike commuting to work, businesses have to have somewhere to park bikes and for bikers to shower.

  24. Becky – you’re right, strange people drive down the street all the time, and if they do bad things, they can get away a lot faster than cyclists and pedestrians! Studies have also shown that property values adjacent to bike paths have higher value. It’s just the fear of the unknown that makes people resist.
    You’ve also put your finger on a key point. Bike parking and showers are the two main things businesses need to have to encourage commuting.

  25. I would posit that there is a mindset difference between people who live in a urban environment in close proximity to lots of other people and people who live in subdivisions in exurbia.

    People in suburbia tend to be xenophobic about “strangers”. Down my way, the larger developments will actually add trails but they are internal to the development – stop at the boundaries and have no public parking for cars that are not from that development.

    In places like NoVa, you just cannot easily get yourself apart from strangers. It comes with the territory and you learn to adapt to it.

    In suburbia – the mindset is to keep strangers out rather than accommodate them.

  26. On one hand, the law requires you to wear a seat belt when riding in a car, but you can ride a bike or a motorcycle on the road. You people are out of your minds. I might ride a bike in a residential area or on the sidewalk, but no way would I ride on the street where the speed limit is over 25 mph.

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