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Nov 022011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

If Americans substituted biking for just half of their daily short car trips they’d enjoy extensive health benefits, while contributing to cleaner air, which would enhance health in their entire community, according to a study by University of Wisconsin researchers released today.

A biker in a bike-friendly city in the Southwest.

The study takes the conventional wisdom  – that biking can displace pollution and improve health – and quantified it for a set region under certain circumstances in order to project what the real outcomes would be if Americans moved out from behind their steering wheels, at least some of the time.

To project actual benefits, the UW research team measured the potential effects of replacing short car trips (under five miles round trip) with bike trips, at least half of the time and only on good weather days, in urban areas in the Upper Midwest.

They found that parking the car and taking the bike in their scenario would prevent 1,100 premature deaths and save more than $7 billion in healthcare costs annually in the six states that comprised the study area.

The researchers explained the benefits of replacing half of the car trips under 8 kilometers (about five miles) with bike travel as a four-way win, saying it would:

  •  Reduce air pollution and the greenhouse gases that are fueling climate change.
  •  Reduce asthma and respiratory diseases for everyone in the community because particulate and ozone pollution would be lessened.
  • Increase the health of bicyclists who would suffer lower rates of diabetes and heart disease.
  • Save personal expenses for the bicyclists, who could forgo more expensive car travel, at least part of the time.


These major, measurable benefits should be considered when policymakers are deciding whether to create bike lanes or biking/walking trails, says lead author Dr. Jonathan Patz, the professor & director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

“When we talk of changing policies. We’re always looking at the cost of the trails or whatever. But rarely do we look at the flip side, the benefits,” he said. “There are huge public health benefits to be gained if we continue to promote safe streets.”

As if to verify Patz’ contention, the public benefits of bike trails have seemingly been absent from the discussion this fall over whether to trim federal support for bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

A serious biker spotted miles from town.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Rand Paul (R-Kty) have both suggested cutbacks in money for bike trails and bike lanes, arguing that the money could be better used to repair aging bridges.

The League of American Bicyclists doesn’t deny the problems of poorly rated bridges, but calls this argument a red herring because some states have left federal money for bridges on the table.

League president Andy Clarke argues in his blog that federal support for biking and pedestrian pathways, which is less than $500 million, represents a good investment in green transportation and safer pathways for bicyclists.

And it’s a tiny part of the Federal Highway Administration’s budget for road and bridge repair, which Obama has penciled in at $70 billion for 2012.


The University of Wisconsin study looked at the urban areas of the Upper Midwest, a study area of 31 million people. It calculated the potential for saved air pollution and added health benefits if people substituted biking for half of their short car trips in the study states of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. It considered mainly urban regions, acknowledging that bike travel would be cumbersome in rural areas.

The effects were calculable because the EPA and the World Health Organization already have established models that project the impact on humans of reducing air pollution (the purview of the EPA) and increasing exercise levels (WHO).

The multi-state region would enjoy a reduction in 400 premature deaths caused by air pollution, which aggravates asthma and other respiratory illnesses; with another 600 lives saved because of the projected better fitness profile of the biking residents of these communities, the team found.

Patz, has served for 15 years as a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) – the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, considers these figures to be conservative.

The study only considered the benefits of replacing short car trips for the 124 best weather days of the year, allowing that winter weather doesn’t accommodate bike travel, he said. In addition, the remaining days, during which people could walk and use mass transportation,  thereby getting exercise and putting a dent in air pollution, were not factored into the study, he said.

Parameters for the research project were based on normal behavior in Europe (and to a degree in bike-friendly American cities) that show people can and will reasonably travel the distances posited in the study if they feel the route is safe for biking.

In the U.S., the study notes, 28 percent of all car trips are under 1 mile (or 1.6 kilometers), “a distance that a typical European would walk,” and 41% of all trips are less than 2 miles (or 3.2 kilometers), “a distance that many Europeans would be as likely to bicycle as to walk”.

The study did not delve into the psychology of how to wrestle people out of their cars and into greener modes or travel. That is the province of the League of American Bicyclists and other advocacy groups.

League spokeswoman Meaghan Cahill says some good-natured cajoling is in order.

“What is going to get people out of their cars and bicycling is simple encouragement, and that can be a co-worker or a friend saying, ‘hey, it’s healthy, come join me and have fun.’”

It also helps when communities and businesses encourage biking, by installing bike trails, bike racks and putting incentives into place, Cahill said. Some businesses, such as Microsoft, now offer employees financial help with their bike expenses. Other employers have created safe rooms for bike storage. Cities are installing more bike racks, putting conveyances for bikes onto commuter rail cars and buses and in a few cases, have set up bike sharing in central business districts, such as in D.C., Cahill says.

Once communities create safe biking lanes or pathways, they notice an uptick in biking, she said, citing cities such as Charleston and Columbia, S.C., which were not known as big biking areas, but became bronze rated “bike friendly cities” once the city government took action.

Patz also sees that policymakers at all levels should elevate biking (or walking) as a priority, and promote it as an alternative to cars.

“Our study showing tremendous health gains shows we should be building cities for people and not just automobiles,” he said.

(Other researchers on the study include Maggie L. Grabow, Scott N. Spak, Tracey Holloway, Brian Stone Jr., Adam C. Mednick.)

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