Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Commuting by Bicycle

Every so often, I commute from home to my office by bicycle. I almost always really enjoy the ride, and I have an almost entirely pleasant route to take. I ride from my house through some beautiful neighborhoods for a few miles. Then, I hop onto a bike trail that takes me along a creek for seven or eight miles. The worst part of the commute (worst = most dangerous and unpleasant) is the one mile between the bike path and my office.

That first part of my route is in the city. The second part is on a dedicated bike path. The final part is in the suburb.

I'm no expert in the history of urban and suburban development, but here's what I think. Urban areas, which were designed and engineered in the days when more people would walk to where they needed to go, are easier to navigate on a bicycle. Suburban areas, though, were designed in the days when 'regular' people were beginning to be able to afford cars; and more recent suburban areas were designed in the days when having a car is the norm, when it's unusual to not have access to an automobile.

Suburban areas were designed with cars in mind ~ to ease the traffic flow for cars by creating fast-moving arteries that could handle lots of traffic. These arterials do a great job of moving automobiles very efficiently. However, they make it considerably more dangerous to navigate on a bicycle.

We've built our road system around the assumption that everyone will have a car, and that those who don't will work to get a car.

Recently, social media has provided for me some interesting food for thought. I've been learning about the new(ish) bicycle superhighway system built in the city of Copenhagen. It may be because I've lived my whole life in USAmerica, but it's somewhat inconceivable that a government would invest so heavily in infrastructure for cycling.

It turns out, though, that at one point, Copenhagen was just as clogged with automobile traffic as any other city. A few decades of investment in cycling infrastructure has led to 50% of people in the city using a bicycle all the time for transportation.

One difference between Copenhagen and most cities in our country is that they've decided to value cycling; and further, they've decided to value the health of their citizens. We don't do either.

When we assume that everyone will, by default, commute by automobile, we're assuming that most people will be overweight and unhealthy because they sit in their cars for far too great a percentage of the day.

We further exacerbate the problem of obesity and early-onset diabetes by the ubiquitous access we provide to ridiculously cheap and ridiculously unhealthy “food” (a topic for an entirely different post).

Copenhagen has chosen to invest in cycling infrastructure. The result is that more people cycle. The result of more people cycling is that fewer people are obese or overweight (which leads to reduced healthcare costs). I would suspect that Copenhagen's investment in the health of its population is also paying off in lower prevalence of mental health problems, decreased dependence on foreign oil, and a greater sense of individual and communal satisfaction and well-being.

We in USAmerica have made the default assumption that most people will be unhealthy. We make the default assumption that there will be a continuing increase in the prevalence of asthma and other respiratory ailments caused by the increase in pollution from tailpipe emissions. We make the default assumption that because more people can afford to travel by automobile (and pay for the requisite insurance, upkeep, and fuel costs of an automobile), that we're better off.

I'd like to challenge those assumptions. Of course that may well mean challenging everything we hold as sacred in our society.

Of course the solution to our problems is more complex than simply getting everyone to ride a bike. I mean, cycling isn't some sort of magical activity. Though, when I first learned to ride, it felt like it … in fact, sometimes cycling feels magical even today.


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