When people hear that biking is the main way I get around the city, I usually get a similar response: “That’s great! I’d do it if it weren’t so dangerous.”
People who bike can shed pounds, save money, and reduce their carbon footprint. However, cycling in the United States is riskier than in countries where biking is more popular. American cyclists “are 8 times more likely to get injured than German cyclists and about 30 times more likely than Dutch cyclists,” according to an article in the American Journal of Public Health.
Much of this risk results from the design of cycling infrastructure in the United States. This video by Mark Wagenbuur, a Dutch cycling blogger, sums up the main challenges I experience while biking around town. Cyclists often have to compete with cars on the road, and most drivers are unfamiliar with cycling infrastructure (e.g., sharrows). Bike lanes can easily be blocked by turning or illegally parked vehicles, and in many cities, protected bike lanes are few and far between.
As a result, biking is often viewed as a hobby or sport in the United States, rather than a mode of practical transportation. “Even in Minneapolis, named the No. 1 bicycling city in the U.S. by Bicycling Magazine in 2012, only 4 percent of residents bike to work,” writes Susan Perry in a column for MinnPost. “Compare that to Amsterdam, where 30 percent of the residents regularly bike to work and another 40 percent occasionally do so.”
Data from a study presented at The Obesity Society Annual Meeting last month supports the assumption that improving cycling infrastructure would encourage more people to use their bikes to commute, and would also improve public health. Led by the University of North Carolina, this study examined how infrastructure changes affected bike commuting in Minneapolis.
The researchers found that workers who lived near the Greenway—an “off-road trail system linking major residential and employment centers”—began using their bikes to commute at a much greater rate than those who didn’t. During the 10 years of data collection, bike commuting near the trail increased 89 percent, while it only went up 33 percent for those living six miles away.
“This study reinforces the idea that the way our environment is constructed has the potential to positively impact community health,” said John M. Jakicic, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh in a press release about the research. “As proposals are designed for new developments or the renovation of existing infrastructure, we call on architects, engineers, and city planners—among others involved in the process—to consider designs that make physical activity safe and accessible for the community.”
As the number of bike commuters continues to grow, I look forward to more friends joining me on the road. Focusing on constructing safe environments for cyclists as part of overall transportation infrastructure projects will greatly encourage more people to pedal to the office, and will ensure more commuters get to spin their way to a healthier and greener future.