How do you get home at night? Odds are, it’s not on a bicycle, and stories such as this are part of the problem. Two weeks ago a D.C. resident had just finished dinner with friends. He hopped on a red bike from Capital Bikeshare — which like most U.S. bike sharing services doesn’t offer helmets for riders — and started his commute home. He never arrived.
On his way a car side-swiped him on a busy road and sped off. His parents — avid cyclists — received the news about 1:30 a.m. that evening. Instead of driving to a cycling event in New York, his mother found herself racing to a D.C. hospital.
Her son spent 11 days in a medically-induced coma. Thirteen days after the accident, he remains sedated and in an intensive-care unit as his family stays by his side. Doctors have yet to make a prognosis.
“We’re cautiously optimistic everything is going to be okay,” said the victim’s father, who asked the names of his family remain private.
Cycling to and from work remains a rarity among Americans despite the positive impact it could have on two of the country’s pressing problems — global warming and obesity. Forget the celebration of a recent uptick in cycling. U.S. Census Bureau data overwhelming finds commuters travel via cars, trucks and vans. Biking ranks dead last behind even “other means.”
The truth is, America is anything but bike-friendly. Our infrastructure generally discourages cycling in favor of other alternatives. Bike lanes and cycletracks are the exception, not the rule. Roads that are shared by motorists and cyclists come with a fear factor for cyclists. A typical car weighs about 4,000 pounds, while your typical road bike is maybe 25 pounds. In the event of the collision, this is a dangerous mismatch. A car will need minor body work, but a cyclist could be dead. Given every human’s natural aversion to risks, it’s obvious that cycling will remain a niche activity as long as “Intersections of Doom” remain.
While the gains are small in the grand scheme of things, there’s been an uptick in American cycling. Washington D.C., for example, has seen the number of commuters biking to work double in a decade. Every American city trails Portland, where 6.1 percent of commuters bike to work.
But that pales in comparison to arguably the world’s most bike-friendly city, Amsterdam, a place that knows how to incentivize biking. In the heart of Amsterdam 43 percent of trips are made on bike, and 29 percent of all trips in the city are made on a bike. Watch a few seconds of this video and you get a sense of how different the biking culture is:
Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic cars are part of the American dream. The United States has birthed sprawling cities such as Houston, which were built with car transportation in mind. The value of bikes is overlooked, even mocked. It’s no coincidence that Steve Carrell’s character in the 40-Year-Old Virgin rode his bike to work.
Global warming should be a top priority in the wake of recent reports. The United States is already facing wide and severe effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, heat waves, flooding, droughts and wildfires. Without changes in how we live, things will only worsen. If American commuters biked as much as those in Amsterdam, our future would be brighter.
What we desperately need is more people living in dense areas and traveling in ways that don’t burn fossil fuels, as Edward Glaeser explains in the Triumph of the City:
Manhattan and downtown London and Shanghai, not suburbia, are the real friends of the environment. Nature lovers who live surrounded by trees and grass consume much more energy than their urban counterparts. …. If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heel size 6 Jimmy Choo. Traditional cities have fewer carbon emissions because they don’t require vast amounts of driving.
Bike commuting can also tackle another American woe — obesity. Between office jobs and commuting via cars, American lives are sedentary. Embracing bike commuting would make the country more active and healthier.
Cycling awareness street art by Peter Drew pic.twitter.com/8a9nasWmKn
— Brilliant Ads (@Brilliant_Ads) April 20, 2014
On Friday some of us will hop on bikes and take part in Bike to Work Day. But one day isn’t enough. If we want to combat climate change and obesity we need commuters biking to work every day, and an infrastrucure that makes us all feel safe enough to do so.