Encourage Bicycling? Really?

My recent statement “Here are the keys that, in my opinion, need to happen to get people bicycling” raised a quite logical question in comments and on twitter: “why do we want to get people riding bicycles?” Why, as a society, would we want to encourage this? One person added: “if people want to ride bikes they can ride bikes, why encourage it”?

To that last point, there are many people, I’d guess between a quarter and half of our population, who want to ride but cannot because they do not have a safe place to do so.

To the bigger question.

First, this is not about cars being bad. Encouraging people to ride bikes is not about banning cars. It’s also not about wearing spandex or foam helmets. And, it’s not about long sweaty commutes.

It’s about average people riding a mile to Panera in everyday clothes on regular bikes. And, it’s about dealing with some critical problems we face.

MorningCongestionCongestion – Traffic Congestion is frustrating and comes with high costs of wasted time, wasted fuel, concentrated pollution, and higher consumer goods prices. It lighten’s our wallet (about $2,000/year), but adds considerably to our bum.

Congestion is somewhat a space issue. We put our little bodies in big cars and then wonder why our arteries are clogged. Conservatively, cars require about 17 times as much space to operate as bicycles and maybe 200 times as much as people (cars, and sometimes bicycles, require separation, queuing, and parking space, people do not). In winter, one 10’ plow creates a path for over 17 times as many bicyclists as one 14’ plow does for cars.

Congestion is also not a linear function. A roadway that can handle 400 cars per hour with little slowdown might come to a near standstill with just 20 more. Or not, if those 20 ride bicycles?

In 80 years of trying, we’ve never built our way out of automobile congestion. Nor are we likely to ever do so.

LM300x-0089Monetary Costs – Ramsey county estimates that the reconstruction of a quarter mile of Lexington Ave in Shoreview to relieve congestion at County Road F will cost $3.9 million, or about $4 million per lane mile (this is cheap, no bridges or other expensive elements). Annual maintenance for city and county pavement runs about $5,700 per lane mile every year.

Pavement is expensive. Whether for a roadway, bicycle path, or parking lot. Each mile of cycleway however, can carry about 17 times as many people as each mile of roadway.

Perhaps worse, at these current rates of spending we are not keeping up with increasing congestion and we need about another $2 per gallon in fuel tax to keep up with maintenance that we’ve fallen behind on. Weight is the demon of road maintenance so every mile we ride instead of drive prolongs the life of our roads, reduces maintenance costs, and reduces congestion due to construction.

If just a few of the people who work near Lexington Ave and County Rd F and who live within three or four miles, bicycled to work instead of driving a car, there would likely be no need for that $4 million project.

Boris and ArnoldPoor Health – At about $8,200 per person, 17% of every dollar we spend, we have the highest healthcare costs in the world. We spend over twice as much per person as other OECD countries. Of that extra $4,500 per person we spend each year, about a quarter is of some value—better outcomes such as our world leading cancer treatments. A third is our higher waste than other countries, from unnecessary testing and higher administrative costs to Medicare fraud.

And about half of the extra money we spend compared to other countries, about a third of our overall healthcare spending, appears due to our poor health, with obesity and lack of activity the leading causes.

Our current high cost of healthcare is not sustainable. We need a healthier population and I’ll not hold my breath for people to begin driving to the gym more often (nor does that appear to work very well anyway).

Bicycling for shorter trips can have a dramatic positive impact. QBP in Bloomington is perhaps the best example. Starting with an employee population that was healthier than the state average in a state, Minnesota, with the healthiest population and lowest health costs in the nation, they still managed to reduce their already low healthcare costs by 18%—by encouraging employees to bicycle more[1].

U.S. Traffic Deaths Per CapitaRoad Kill – When I bring up our high rates compared to other countries I always get a number of people saying “if other countries drove as much as we do they’d have high fatality rates too.”

Well, that’s kind of the point[2].  No matter how you look at it, cars are deadly. People driving cars kill about 30,000 people in the U.S. every year—over 10 out of every 100k. Drivers in Germany (yes, autobahn Germany) kill less than 5 per 100k, less than half our rate of killing. The Netherlands is 4 people per 100k. Sweden is 3.

On average, each of the over five million crashes we cause each year costs about $19,000 in vehicle and other property damage as well as police and fire personnel. Even a very minor fender-bender costs about $4,500.

Each of the 2.5 million injuries we cause each year costs us about $82,000.

We all share in the $300 billion annual cost of these crashes through insurance premiums and taxes. On top of this are higher costs of products[3]. And the costs of ‘gawker’ congestion.

MorningSchoolCongestion2Our Children – Of 29 of the wealthiest countries in the world, the U.S. now ranks 27th for child well-being[4] .

While that may be surprising, this won’t be. Except for Greece, our children are the fattest in the developed world (33rd out of 34 countries)[5]. Over 35% of our children are overweight or obese while much of Europe is under 15%.

Walking and bicycling to school will not solve all of our children’s problems, but it will help. The increase in activity will lessen obesity and health problems, and possibly, incidences of ADHD. Children who walk or bike to school are also considerably ahead of those who come by car or bus in their ability to concentrate.

The freedom and independence gained from walking or bicycling to school also helps to develop responsibility and maturity, two elements that play a key role in success.

White Bear Schools boasts “Our fleet of almost 70 buses will travel more than 1 million miles this year and consume more than 158,000 gallons of fuel.”  Most of these bus riding students live within a 15 minute bike ride of their school. What if instead, they gained the benefits of bicycling to school? And, reduced the damage to streets done by buses, the diesel fumes that concentrate around schools, and we could apply the cost savings to something else, like education?


Riding a bicycle 1.2 miles to Chipotle will take about 7 minutes at a leisurely pace, instead of the 5 minutes it takes to drive. For that extra couple of minutes a bicycle rider will burn about 85 calories (each way), get to say hello to a neighbor or two, and enjoy a bicycle ride.

Each trip by bicycle, to the grocery, hardware store, school, or cafe, reduces congestion, and wear & tear, maintenance, reconstruction, and expansion expense for our roads, and construction delay. Each trip reduces the amount of parking lot space and maintenance expense required for cities, shopping centers, employers, churches, and others, which reduces costs for all of us.

Each trip reduces the crash, injury, and fatality risks for all of us, improves our health, and lowers our healthcare burden on our neighbors. And then there are the benefits of less air, water, light, and noise pollution.

I know that some children cannot safely ride to school on some of our current roads, but many can, and think of the benefits if we get to a point where all children can safely ride to school.

A car is often the best option for getting somewhere, but not always. Investing in good bicycle infrastructure offers a high return on investment and improved quality of life—even for those who never ride a bicycle.


[1] Minnesotans are our own best example. Minnesota’s lowest in the nation healthcare costs are largely attributable to three things; the efforts of employers working with healthcare providers and The Minnesota Health Action Group to lower costs and improve outcomes, safety net programs that have helped people improve their health before they became significant cost factors, and our active and healthy lifestyle. Even so, we still look quite awful, health-wise, compared to healthier countries.

[2] True, but even so, that statement is not wholly correct. That we drive so much more than people in other countries is certainly a contributor, but even on a per mile driven basis you are still about 30% more likely to be killed in the U.S. than western Europe.

[3] Due to loss of worker productivity from injury and companies higher insurance and taxes.

[4] http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc11_eng.pdf   Measured on Material Well-Being, Health & Safety, Education, Behaviors & Risks, and Housing & Environment.  Our highest rank in any of these is 23rd.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN