Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “bikes and health”

Bikes and Sustainability

Turns out, the UN likes bikes.  Well, not explicitly, but pretty darn close.

The most recent report from the UN’s Working Group on Sustainable Development (WGSD) affirms 17 ambitious and interrelated goals for sustainable development it hopes will be attained by 2030 (that’s just 16 years away).  The WGSD urges governments to address these goals together, what they call “holistic and integrated approaches that will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and will lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the earth’s ecosystem.”  The report lists a wide variety of goals for sustainable and equitable development that are laudable and avoid isolating environmental and social issues in separate silos:

1. End poverty everywhere

2. End hunger, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

3. Attain healthy lives for all

4. Provide quality education and life-long learning opportunities for all

5. Attain gender equality, empower women and girls everywhere

6. Ensure availability and sustainable use of water and sanitation for all

7. Ensure sustainable energy for all

8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

9. Promote sustainable infrastructure and industrialization and foster innovation

10. Reduce inequality within and between countries

11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and sustainable

12. Promote sustainable consumption and production patterns

13. Tackle climate change and its impacts

14. Conserve and promote sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources

15. Protect and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, halt desertification, land degradation and biodiversity loss

16. Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective and capable institutions

17. Strengthen the means of implementation and the global partnership for sustainable development

Category 11, “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, and sustainable,” is particularly relevant to bicycle transportation, calling on societies to prioritize “access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport for all, and expand public transport.”

Take a look at each of these categories.  Which form of transportation is safe?  Bicycles, or the one that kills approximately 35,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands more around the world every year?  How about goal no. 3 “attain healthy lives for all”?  What’s more likely to achieve that, sitting in traffic for hours a day or riding a bicycle to get to work and school?  Affordable and accessible?  Bikes win hands down.  Sustainable?  As we’ve discussed before, there’s no such thing as a “green” car, notwithstanding the auto industry’s attempts to paint itself green to make first world consumers feel better.  And goal no. 13 “tackle climate change and its impacts.”  Think cars for the world’s 7.5 billion people are going to bring us closer to addressing climate change?

The group calls on societies to “reduce urban sprawl” and “ensure universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible public spaces, particularly for women and children and people with disabilities.”  Designing cities primarily around automobile access runs contrary to this goal.  Cars are synonymous with sprawl, even if they’re electric, and they are the major hogs of space in cities, destroying safe public space in the name of parking lots, freeways, highways, and other urban “dead zones” suitable for nothing but the car.  Cars create danger for pedestrians, especially the young, old, and persons with disabilities.  In fact, if you wanted to create an extremely inequitable and unsustainable form of transportation, you’d invent the automobile and design your cities around it.

I realize these sustainable development goals are a long way from being met, but when you think about the larger issues human society faces, the UN has the right idea, and though it doesn’t explicitly endorse bikes, the handwriting is on the wall:  we can keep driving, or we can get on the simple bicycle and live sustainably.

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Bikes and Exercise

Last week, a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine documented the longevity benefits of regular exercise.  The study noted that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise adds an average of 3.5 additional years of life, and 4.2 years for those who do an hour a day of “brisk walking or its equivalent.”  While these findings are not particularly surprising, what is surprising is the fact that such exercise benefits even those who are overweight or obese.  In other words, it’s not primarily how much you weigh that determines health, but how frequently and how regularly you exercise.

In our culture obsessed with thinness, this study helps us understand the overall importance of regular physical activity, rather than simply weight loss, as a marker of physical well being.  “We have to get people to understand that it’s not all about weight,” Dr. Robert Sallis of Kaiser Permanente commented on the study in the Los Angeles Times.  “Not everyone can lose weight, but everyone can get fit.”    Public health specialists said the study offered “very conclusive” proof that what the Times called “our widespread laziness,” is at least as much a problem as the obesity epidemic in the United States.

When I read such stories, it reinforces for me the critical necessity of public investment in bicycle infrastructure such as cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, and bike paths in our cities and suburbs.  Such infrastructure will encourage more people to change their sedentary lifestyle by making it safe and convenient for people of all ages and fitness levels to ride a bike for everyday transportation.  Many people lack the time, money, or will to join a gym and stick with an exercise regimen, but everyone needs to get to work, school, the store, or other nearby destinations.  If we designed our roadways to make it safer and more convenient for people to ride bikes to these destinations, more people—not just the relatively small proportion of hard core road riders—would use bikes as part of their everyday lives, improving their health and well-being at the same time.  Making it easy and safe to get from point A to point B on a bicycle (or by walking) will do more for public health in our communities than all the earnest exhortations to exercise, which tend to reach those already inclined to exercise.  The study also underscores the fact that the exercise need not be strenuous to offer widespread health benefits.  The belief that one must be on the latest carbon fiber race bike and train for a 100-mile ride intimidates many people who might otherwise ride to school, the store, or to a friend’s house.  We must design bike infrastructure to be welcoming to that vast majority of the population that are not elite athletes.

Add public health to the many reasons we need to shift our transportation design priorities away from the automobile and toward “complete streets” with protected space for bicycles and pedestrians.

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