If you’re going to write a book called How Cycling Can Save the World, it’s only fair for people to ask: Okay, how does that work? It is explained in full – I promise – in the book, but as a sort-of précis, here are seven reasons why cycling is the best way to make short, local trips.
Most people know living a sedentary life isn’t ideal, but quite how much peril people put themselves in by existing largely between the couch and the car is still often not fully appreciated. An estimated 200,000 Americans a year die due to conditions connected to insufficient activity – everything from diabetes to heart disease to various cancers.
Luckily, even relatively small amounts of moderate exercise have what doctors routinely call a miraculous effect on people’s health. Cycling is seen as especially effective, as it tends to involve occasionally greater exertions than walking. The most famous study into the subject charted the lives of 30,000 people in Denmark over fifteen years. It found those who cycled to work were forty percent less likely to die during that period, even accounting for all other factors.
It’s not just cyclists who benefit.
Such is the global dominance of motor traffic that even its third-greatest peril – after sedentary living and crashes – still kills an estimated million people a year globally. That danger is vehicle pollution. The VW emissions scandal illustrated how bad the problem is, even in nations like the United States. But the overuse of cars blights neighborhoods in other ways – they create noise, bring gridlock, and dominate a local streetscape that should be for humans, not anonymous, one-ton metal boxes.
You won’t kill someone.
That’s not strictly true: It is possible to kill someone by striking them with a bike, but barring a turn of events less likely than winning the lottery, you won’t. Get into a car, however, and it’s probably the only occasion in people’s everyday existence when they could take a life. This can sound like moral posturing. It’s not – people don’t change personality as they switch modes of transport. It’s nothing more complex than physics. Strike a pedestrian at thirty-five miles per hour in a mid-sized SUV and you impart about 200 times more energy than you would at twelve miles per hour on a bike. It’s a very different impact.
Your kids will see more friends; your parents will be less isolated.
One of the lesser-known benefits of safe cycling is improved equality. Children can ride to school or to see friends, giving them both independence and exercise. At the other end of the demographic scale, studies have shown older people who are unable to drive tend to be more socially isolated. But, particularly with the advent of electric-assist bikes, many people can still use bikes. An amazing twenty percent of over-eighties in the Netherlands still cycle.
Your local shops will do better.
One of the main arguments against bike lanes is that removing parking harms local businesses. There’s only one problem: It doesn’t seem to be true. A study in New York City found takings in shops that had separated bike routes built alongside them rose faster on average than those on streets which didn’t. Yes, cyclists can’t carry as much as those in a car. But they tend to shop more often – no need to search for a parking space, just lock up the bike outside.
You’re in touch with your environment.
One Danish charity has volunteers take older people who can no longer ride a bike on trips in cycle rickshaws. Its motto is: “Everyone has the right to wind in their hair.” This shouldn’t be underestimated. In a car you’re sealed off. On a bike you feel the grip of the changing seasons firsthand; you can observe your town or city as you go, stopping at shops, smiling at children and dogs. This is travel on a human scale.
You could save the world.
To return to the book title, cycling is almost emission-free. One U.S. study found that even a relatively modest increase in bike use globally could reduce overall the amount of greenhouse gases produced by around ten percent. So why not cycle for fun, and help save the planet and humanity as an extra?