Bikes may be simple machines, but don’t let that fool you: the growth in bicycling is an economic powerhouse. Author Elly Blue crunched the numbers and put them together in her new book Bikenomics. She found that bikes contribute more to our economy (and our health, environment, and well being) than she ever expected.
We asked Elly to tell us about her book and the ways that cities around the country are waking up to the significant and tangible benefits of bicycling.
Why is it important to think of bicycling in terms of economics?
Economics can be a useful way to look at just about anything that's usually seen as a cultural or lifestyle choice. Especially something like bicycling, which comes with all these contradictory layers of assumptions about who bikes, who it serves, what ideals go along with it. When you follow the money, you can see where the power is and, more importantly, the possibilities for where it can be.
You make a distinction in the book between a transportation expense and a transportation investment. What do you mean by that?
I borrowed that terminology from Greg Ballard, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, who has gotten a lot of recent attention for championing investments in a network of bicycle trails in his city. Here's the difference: An expense implies something one-time or disposable, or that will continue to cost you more money over time, which is how we are used to thinking about transportation, since both public roads and private cars entail escalating expenses over decades. An investment is when you buy something with the expectation that its value will increase over time and come back to you many-fold; that's what buying a house meant up until about a decade ago. That's what bikes and bicycle infrastructure do now–you put in a small stream of cash and you reap broad economic rewards, from local retails and values to health, safety, and happiness.
What are some of the "invisible" costs of a transportation system designed primarily for cars?
They are anything but invisible once you start looking at them, that's for sure. I'd say health is the biggest. All of today's chronic diseases, from diabetes to heart disease to stroke to cancer can be traced back to our transportation system—sitting, stress, breathing fine particle pollution, and even the food system that's shaped by autocentric planning—all of these things are not just killing us, they are breaking the budget.
I could go on—traffic crashes account for tens of thousands of deaths and millions of disabilities each year in the US alone. The human cost of that is high enough, but the economic cost is staggering, which is one reason that new initiatives like Vision Zero are really heartening to see.
There are many, but I'd say the most common misconception is "I could never do that." It actually doesn't take much to tip the scales, whether it's the sudden will to dust off and air up the rusty bike in your garage, the influence of a friend, or a simple fix to your local city streets that suddenly make cycling seem like a fun idea rather than a death wish. It is always entertaining to see how quickly people forget that they were ever anything less than enthusiastic about bicycling, once they start.
Why are hospitals and workplaces spending money encouraging people to bicycle?
It comes back to investments. One large company started paying employees cash incentives to bike to work; they commissioned a study from their insurer and found that the $45,000 in incentives they paid out in one year earned them $200,000 in health insurance savings. That isn't even taking into account the savings in parking, improvements in productivity by employees who hop off their bikes ready to rumble, and the public image boost a company inevitably gets.
Some business owners in Portland have replaced car parking lots with bike corrals and racks. Why?
This is a city initiative -- there are now 100 bike corrals (on-street car parking spots replaced with bicycle staples) in Portland and there's something like a two-year waiting list of businesses that want them. Because of how the corrals are designed, they represent a tenfold or more increase in parking capacity right outside a business's front door. The only thing that would make this not compelling is if you had the idea that bicyclists don't come to your business; seeing the opposite happen to the competition is a quick way to turn this thinking around.
When a city does finally support bike infrastructure, it often overlooks the communities that need it most. How can we make bicycling more equitable?
This is one of those frustrating political realities right now. There are community groups in cities throughout the country who have been demanding better transportation systems as a part of their fight for equity and social justice for decades... but their neighborhoods still tend to be neglected by decision makers when it comes time to start making changes that make city streets more bikeable, much less basics like filling pot holes. Meanwhile, active transportation advocates who have successfully gained the ear of city leaders often don't even know that these initiatives have been going on. Often times advocates even assume that people outside their own social and class sphere don't want bike infrastructure. I would say to anyone who cares about bikes—look around, talk to people, listen, go out of your way to find out what's actually happening in your city. If some communities' voices aren't being heard, make it your job to help change that, even if it means you need to step aside for a moment, yourself.
What can individuals do to make their communities more bike-friendly?
First: Ride your bike! Second: Invite others to ride with you. Be someone's "bike angel," showing them the ropes and riding with them. Organize a social group ride—nothing athletic, just a chance for people to slow roll together to a movie, a park with kids, to the bar, or to a city council meeting. Research and take advantage of every opportunity for public input into city transportation projects that might affect bicycles. Write letters to your city leaders, thanking them when things are working well, and asking for changes when things aren't. Talk with your neighbors. Most of all, have fun.
Elly’s book is available from Microcosm Publishing. To learn more about the benefits of bicycling, read this report from EarthShare member organization Rails-to-Trails Conservancy or follow Elly on Twitter at @ellyblue. And be sure to read our green tips on getting there by bike.