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

34 thoughts on “Encourage Bicycling? Really?

  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Excellent post. My only quibble is the assumption that congestion costs us what the numbers say – it’s the same logic used to lobby for more lanes, freeways, interchanges, etc. People may be willing to pay $X/hour to save time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the time lost is hurting the economy (per se.. I’ll admit congestion does affect delivery and freight which hurts productivity. I’d be curious to see other concrete. direct ways congestion costs us money). There are definitely technological solutions to wasting fuel while fully stopped n traffic (auto shutting off engines or electric motors, etc), but that is a fair point.

    Overall, great rundown.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Thanks Alex. Yep, the cost numbers for congestion are all over the map. One plumbing contractor working in our house said that it costs him about $7/day/employee with each spending about 15 minutes per day “ON THE … CLOCK” in congestion. Anecdotal, but seems somewhat reasonable. For personal time I’ve not actually considered it too expensive since my brain is still chunking through stuff while I’m in congestion and whether it’s chunking through stuff or not isn’t worth much anyway 🙂

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        I should have clarified that people whose job requires moving around beyond simply delivery or freight are certainly affected by congestion – the service roles like you mention, most of which could not reasonably be done by transit, walking, or biking. Obviously there is a good reason to have a street and road network that accommodates business travel by auto/truck. However, I would guess that the % of travel on roads, even at peak hours, of these folks is quite low.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          I agree. And, in full disclosure, I’m a bit of a fair weather bicyclist. 20f seems a pretty hard lower limit for me for even 1 mile trips. There are many times I’ll choose to drive instead of ride due to some combination of temps, precip (today was actually quite nice to ride though), distance, darkness, and time available. This all completely aside from needing to carry stuff beyond what my bike or bakfiets can handle.

          1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

            If a sufficient number of destinations are within 1 mile of a person’s home that they can bike, I would wager a strong bet that there is also good/reliable/frequent transit to make the journey in poor weather. At least there should be, IMO. And if people want to drive, that’s great too. With a sufficient number of mode choices and nearby destinations, many might choose not to own a car, while others do.

          2. Adam MillerAdam

            I’m bigger on walking for transit than biking, and a less than one mile trip, assuming the infrastructure supports it, is doable at significantly lower temps (at least for me).

            1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

              That’s kind of interesting to think about, that for 1 mile trips it may be more comfortable to walk during really cold (or hot) weather than ride…

              1. Dave

                It is also more safe to walk versus bike. You don’t have to worry about falling mixed in with traffic and you can walk through much more adverse conditions than you can operate your bicycle (e.g. a few inches of snow).

                1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

                  Excellent points. However, you’re also exposed to dangers for a longer period of time and if next to traffic you’ll interact with about 12(?) times as many vehicles (assuming walk against traffic @ 3 mph / bicycle with traffic @ 12 mph). 🙂

                2. Rosa

                  Crime seems less of an issue on a bike, though. I know I feel safer in the road, on my bike, than (for instance) walking down Chicago or Lake in South Minneapolis at night. Partly because I’ve been mistaken for a prostitute twice when walking in the neighborhood at night, and never on my bike.

  2. Edward

    Excellent post! Thank you. Though not a resident of the Twin Cities I’ve been a huge fan of streets.mn for some time. The content is always spot on. I’m continually sharing with my fellow urban planning-types. Keep up the excellent work.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Thanks Edward. I’m quite new to the Streets.MN crew but am very honored to be included among them. The collective knowledge and ideas of everyone who writes and comments here is truly inspiring.

  3. Sarah Hagstrom

    Wonderful post. I’m always amazed that it isn’t more intuitive for more people that carrying a 10 ft x 5 ft x 4 ft (or much larger) piece of luggage around with you everywhere you go is going to create crowding and other unfair externalities for other people. Of course we should encourage people to leave those things at home or not buy them to begin with.

    I think it’s important to add fine particulates and road pollution to the list of the harmful externalities of driving. A recent study from MIT shows that even more people die from road pollution than are dying in car crashes:


    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Thanks Sarah. I love the luggage analogy. I intentionally only made a passing reference to pollution (and it was difficult to not say more). I think most people are at least somewhat aware of that aspect of bicycling and most have also become tone-deaf to it.

      BTW, quickly browsed your blog. Great stuff!

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Thanks Adam. For you and I an explanation isn’t needed, but for many people it is. Not because they’re stupid, but simply because we all only have so much resource in our head to learn and think about things (and this goes double for those of us w/ ADD) so sometimes we have to kind of prompt folks brains a bit. 🙂

  4. Becca Vargo Daggett

    A very good article.

    I have noticed a recent theme of encouraging people to use bicycles for short trips and errands near home. It seems to me the choice to bicycle commute (to work or school- wherever one goes on a regular schedule) has more impact both on personal habits and on our shared infrastructure. Thoughts?

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Nearly everyone can ride one, two, or maybe three miles and back. Three (about 15 minutes) may sometimes be pushing things from a time standpoint vs car though for people making a choice. Realistically, things will drop off pretty quick beyond three and I think very few will, routinely anyway, ride more than maybe six miles. This is the pattern in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Your thoughts?

      1. hokan

        People ride bike largely because it’s advantageous — faster and more convenient. Cars take some time to prepare and to park, but once moving are faster than bikes. Bikes take less time to prepare and park, but typically travel slower. There is a time balance, then, that can favor bikes for shorter trips. Make biking relatively more advantageous and more people will bike and be willing to bike further.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          Maybe (why people ride)? For me, there are many trips that from a time & convenience standpoint would be better in a car, but I ride because I enjoy it and I like getting a bit of exercise.

  5. Eric SaathoffEric

    In St. Paul, the bike is often faster than transit unless you are going to or from downtown. I almost never take the bus but ride to/from work about 4 miles each way. The time difference is about 7-10 minutes, but I feel noticeably better each day when I ride. I hate to exercise for the sake of exercising – won’t do it, period.

    I haven’t recently needed to take any trips near the 6 mile distance, but when I was looking for a different job I was hoping against the one about that far.

    I think the hills are worth mentioning, as well. 2-4 miles going uphill may be more of a barrier than 6 flat miles. My brother doesn’t bike as much as he might simply because he lives at the top of a hill and doesn’t enjoy his ride home.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Bicycling the 4 miles to work is 7-10 minutes faster or slower than transit? Either way, very cool. You’re absolutely correct about the hills. I’ve climbed up to Selby & Western, from downtown and from the Capital area (coming off the Gateway Trail) and it’s significant. Would an e-bike be a good option for people like your brother?

      1. Eric SaathoffEric

        Biking to work is 7-10 minutes slower than driving.
        Driving – around 12 minutes
        Biking – around 20 minutes
        Bus – 40-60 minutes

        For some reason I have a very strong resistance to e-bikes. It seems to take away the great feeling of being completely human-powered. It also adds a significant cost/maintenance issue regarding batteries. I’ve heard sad stories of very expensive batteries to replace.
        He might like it, but I’m sure he can’t afford it.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          I’m kind of a moderate fan of e-bikes and agree with your points. We don’t have one now and I hope it will be a long time before we need one, but I do foresee a day in the future where a bit of extra power for heavy loads on our bakfiets would be necessary or maybe even a bit of extra help on our city bikes. I also know of a few folks who view the primary benefit being that an e-bike allows them to get to work without getting sweaty.

          The batteries are a concern (a debate I have often over the benefits of BEVs). Though for perspective, think about how many fewer batteries an e-bike requires than a Leaf or Volt.

          For your commute, 20 minutes of enjoyment vs 12 minutes of frustration and boredom? 🙂

  6. Gary

    In many west coast cities cycling is a necessity, you have NO choiuce but to ride your bike. It is purely market driven and thus does not need to be encouraged or helped along nearly as much by city government. It helps but it isn’t nearly the driver of cycling that say, not being able to afford 35 dollars a day to take a ferry round trip in Seattle is, or pay afford to park or drive in super dense neighborhoods, ridiculous traffic jams, etc..SF and Seattle are like Uptwon on a busy day everywhere though. Necessity is the mother of invention. You don;t want to ride a bike, good luck getting around! It is thus a more sustainable lifestyle than Minneapolis will ever be just given there is plenty of space to sprawl and build more suburbs highways, parking lots Mcmansions etc. in Minnesota and by far and away most people want that. just go look at any mall parking lot vs downtown St. Paul on any night. The fact is for the majority of people you do not have to ride a bike in Mpls or STP, it is a choice for most people. A good choice and one that should be applauded but I can tell you, after 20 years of riding on the west coast, rain sleet snow etc it was not a choice it was a necessity just to go shopping, get to work etc..Very different.

    1. Walker

      Great points Gary. I think that, out of necessity, things will change in the Twin Cities (and already are). One is that we will likely not be able to continue to afford the road and parking that we currently provide so parking will likely get considerably more expensive, making walking, bicycling, and transit more appealing alternatives. And, as infrastructure improves and walking/bicycling become less scary and more appealing, many people will choose walking and bicycling to save money (not to mention enjoyment, improved health, looking cool, etc.)

  7. Gary

    I just got back from working in Seattle again for several months and I have to say, Saint Paul is so far behind the times in terms of cycling infrastructure it has actually caused me to STOP riding altogether and I am the most die hard cyclist in the city, gauranteed. There are no bike lanes, no sharrows, pot holes everywhere (had 3 broken wheels in a year in STP) dozens of flats from the street sweepers pushing the glass and debris onto the shoulder, people drive like they have never seen a bike on the road before, on and on nowhere to lock your bike up, So Saint Paul as a city is actually doing the opposite, it is creating more motorists and less cyclists and given there is no natural market driven reason for people to not drive, like the sea, mountains, super dense neighborhoods, this will never change so just accept it.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      I don’t know that St Paul is quite as bad as you make it out to be, but I agree that it’s certainly far behind Minneapolis and Seattle and perhaps it is as bad as you say. HOWEVER, I think things will improve. Reuben Collins is driving the planning process for pedestrians and bicyclists now which I think will help considerably. I also think that there are natural market driven reasons that many people will choose to ride bicycles, once they have safe places to ride, including personal monetary savings, health, and enjoyment. I think many will do so to encourage their children to ride which will improve their health and academics. More to come…

      1. Eric SaathoffEric

        With SPPS’s shift to more neighborhood schools I hope this will cause them to promote more riding to school. I work at a magnet which discourages biking. Most children bus, and there are some busy streets nearby – a child was recently hit by a car walking to school.
        There is a Wellness coordinator with the district, but I’m not sure she sits in a very powerful position.

        One thing that I think mentally keeps people from going forth with bike commuting is the winter. Potential riders need to be educated on how to make it work. The other obvious problem is lack of infrastructure at employment centers. If it’s scary and unthinkable it won’t happen.

        St. Paul is edging up the density in downtown, perhaps, but the rest of the city doesn’t seem to be making any big gestures, such as we recently heard from Mayor Hodges.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          Eric, I assume you’re aware of the Danish study on riding to school and improved concentration? I agree with you about the winter thing. This is another area where I think segregated (and the more barrier/distance the better) provides huge benefit over non-segregated like bike lanes. Do your kids come from all over the city/metro or fairly close in? Any idea what percent are within about 3 miles?

          1. Eric SaathoffEric

            My students come from all over the city. Within 3 miles? Not sure, but I can say of 28 in my class only 1 walks home, and a couple more are occasionally picked up.

            1. Walker

              I think magnets, that pull from all over, are a tougher nut. I think a lot of Dutch high school kids ride 5 to 8 miles each way to school, but they have better infrastructure. I would think that with better and safer infrastructure, a gob of the kids in your school could likely ride?

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