By Daphne Stanford
Bicycles are good for our bodies and our quality of life. Urban air quality suffers as a result of congestion from vehicular exhaust and factory smoke emissions, so it’s always in our best interests to utilize alternative forms of transportation with zero emissions. Here are three major benefits bicycles offer as a way of helping to minimize our carbon impact, as well as benefiting our bodies and our quality of life.
About six months ago — two weeks before my 38th birthday — I decided to get a jump-start on the next two years of my life. I figured that since I would soon have only two years until I turned 40, I wanted to take steps toward achieving the goals I’d set years ago.
One of my goals was to publish a chapbook or collection of poems. Another was to stop feeling disgusted whenever I saw a picture of myself. Somehow, my weight had climbed to 176 pounds. Considering the fact that I’m about 5 feet, 5 inches, the extra weight was decidedly unflattering on my small frame.
I began working out with a personal trainer in earnest. My goal was to lose about 15 pounds by the end of the summer. I figured that if I worked out earnestly in the gym five or six times a week, my work would pay off come September. I began an intensive workout schedule that included at least an hour of aerobic activity — ideally, cardio-level aerobic activity — six times a week. At first, I hit the gym six times a week and got in closer to 90 minutes combined time on either an elliptical machine, the Stairmaster or a treadmill. Sometimes I would use a cycling machine, as well.
During this time, I learned that my father was dealing with some serious health problems, so I decided to visit my family in California. Because the trip was so last-minute, I made the decision to sell my ailing car, which had broken down and needed $600 worth of repairs.
The decision to sell my car was a scary one: After I returned from my trip, the reality of no longer owning a car began to sink in. I could no longer drive up into the foothills on a whim, or make large shopping trips in which I would buy a few weeks’ supply of groceries. In addition to becoming familiar with the bus system in Boise, Idaho, I began riding my bike all over town. At this point — in July — I’d already lost about 18 pounds. However, after I began riding my bike everywhere and commuting to work twice a day, the rest of the weight seemed to simply fall away. As of this month, I’ve lost 25 pounds without really trying.
I credit my daily bicycle riding and walking for much of the weight loss, as well as for helping to dramatically lower my stress levels. Psychology Today recommends regular physical activity for reducing our daily cortisol levels, which tend to be relatively high here in the United States. The irony of the daily drive to the gym hasn’t been lost on me, since — although I haven’t had as much time to bike or bus to the gym — I’m convinced that my daily bike commute helped me remain at what is a more normal weight for me, around 150 pounds, without having to give it very much thought.
We should all do whatever we can, then, to reduce our daily stress levels: Whether it’s riding our bike to work, meditating at least once a day or free writing in our journals. According to Ohio University: “Side effects associated with chronic stress can become severe, leading to unhealthy coping habits, mental health disorders, or the development of other chronic conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes.” In other words, stress is no joke.
It’s important to balance daily tasks and avoid taking on too much. It can also be helpful to start a gratitude journal and focus on positive accomplishments, rather than simply worrying about what you wish you’d had time to fit into your schedule. In this way, rather than fixating on what could have been, you can begin and end each day in a positive manner.
Quality of life, livability and urban planning benefits
In an op-ed in Sustainable Cites Collective, Kasey Klimes waxes poetic on the various benefits that widespread bicycle riding can have for a city, arguing: “The most vital element for the future of our cities is that the bicycle is an instrument of experiential understanding.” I happen to agree. He argues that when we bike to work, rather than drive, we notice characteristics of our neighborhoods and business districts that we’d otherwise speed past without a glance.
Klimes also points out that the modern freeway system with its related suburban sprawl has made it all too easy to ignore or put aside any interest in urban or city planning: out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. Also, bicycle riding is more liberating than restrictive: it can help open our eyes to more of the cities in which we live, rather than failing to notice details usually visible mostly to those who live within a few city blocks. If we pay more attention to our surroundings as a result of immersing ourselves more fully in the world around us, we may not only become more involved with city planning efforts, but also feel more alive as a result of feeling more connected to seasonal elements and the physical sensation of each passing moment.
To give you a sense of the rate at which cycling can be incorporated into a city’s infrastructure, as well as its business model, take Amsterdam. Virginia Tech’s Ralph Buehler and Rutgers University professor John Pucher published an article, “Cycling to Sustainability in Amsterdam,” that demonstrates the number of ways in which cycling conditions may be improved and encouraged via social and cultural acceptance, street and traffic design, and public infrastructure — among other factors.
The high rate of cycling in Amsterdam goes to show that people will ride their bicycles more often, weather notwithstanding, if there are the support structures in place—including cultural acceptance and adequate safety standards—that encourage people to opt for two rather than four wheels. In addition to roads designed to accommodate both bikes and cars, residents of Amsterdam voted, in 1992, to further reduce car parking in and around the city center (the number of car parking spots has been steadily reduced since the 1970s). Buehler and Pucher write, “When parking is sparse and costly, it discourages car trips to the city.”
Many U.S. citizens in more rural Western states might consider any parking penalties an anathema to their values of free and open roads. However, if we think of such parking regulation and guidelines as something limited to more urban, densely-populated areas, the improved quality of life begins to outweigh the momentary inconvenience of biking, carpooling, or utilizing public transportation.
Sustainable business benefits
Sustainable and renewable energy sources — as well as the related business and utility opportunities that are cropping up everywhere because of them — are booming. And the upward trend is likely to continue, considering the growing popularity of the triple bottom line standard for corporate social responsibility.
Marylhurst University points out that, when compared to similar roles in a non-sustainability focused field, green jobs enjoy a number of advantages, including a median wage of at least 80K: “In addition to high pay these positions offer room for advancement and the security of being in demand.”
If you think about this burgeoning sustainability and renewable-energy industry as it relates to bicycles, business opportunities abound: From bike-sharing programs, to manufacturing, to retail distribution of newly in-demand products (e.g. electric and tandem bicycles, tall bikes, creative LED lighting, and bicycle carts), the opportunities for entrepreneurship and small business startups are tremendous.
Here in Boise, for example, a small but burgeoning bicycle community is thriving in the downtown area, with bicycle cooperatives and community groups like the Boise Bicycle Project and the Treasure Valley Cycling Alliance springing up all over town. Bicycling makes a lot of sense on a simple economic level, too: Riding a bicycle costs nothing, save upkeep and maintenance on a bike. Compare that to the numerous expenses related to owning a car: In addition to auto insurance, there’s the cost of gasoline, upkeep and maintenance, repairs, as well as the risk of getting into a collision with another vehicle — a potentially life-threatening risk.
All the above factors cost thousands of dollars a year. That’s a lot of money to spend for the privilege of driving a motorized vehicle that’s not likely to last forever. Plus, there’s the fact that most cars run on gasoline — a non-renewable resource that contributes to excess C02 levels, pollution, and wars that do little to support our economy, quality of life or the human race.
The bottom line
If I haven’t convinced you of the benefits of bicycle riding for health, happiness and improved quality of life, here’s another statistic for you: According to Bike Radar and Neil Shah of the Stress Management Society, “Over four times more GPs [general practitioners] now prescribe exercise therapy as their most common treatment for stress and depression when compared to three years ago.”
So wheel your bicycle out of your shed or garage and give it a little tune-up love. Even if you only bike to work once or twice a week, you’re likely to reap numerous benefits from pedaling around town, on occasion. Who knows? You may even opt to ditch your four wheels for two, permanently—or at least come to see your bicycle as a legitimate and exhilarating mode of transportation, rather than merely an occasional, fair-weather pastime.
Image credit: Vivera Siregar
Daphne Stanford has lived in four states and six cities, and she plans to visit the Basque country sooner rather than later. She writes nonfiction and poetry, and since 2012 she’s been the host of “The Poetry Show!” every Sunday at 5 p.m. on Radio Boise. Find her on Twitter at @TPS_on_KRBX or on Facebook.