Biking for change

Biking makes people happy. It’s proven by science, and this fact is at the root of why biking makes so much sense at every level. Even two centuries after its invention, the bicycle continues to delight users across ages, genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Biking in the U.S. is an $81 billion industry between retail, supplier, and services. There are many cases that show that improvements in biking infrastructure can also improve local economies, not only from increasing activity for businesses, but also in the savings afforded to bikers. According to Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition, an advocacy group that works to make communities and neighborhoods better through improvements to infrastructure, says

People living in Dallas, TX save an average of $9,026 annually by switching from driving to taking transit, and those in Cleveland, OH save an average of $9,576. The total savings from biking, walking, or taking transit instead of driving can really add up across a city, ranging from $2.3 billion in Chicago to an astounding $19 billion a year in New York City.”

In my home city of New York, I have personally saved an estimated $1,000 per year since I started riding my bike instead of taking the train, which allowed me to spend a little more on rent, in a neighborhood that’s close enough to my office for the daily commute to be bearable. Importantly, the economic benefits of biking are not necessarily about growth in the traditional sense. Rather, they are about an improved quality of life for bikers, pedestrians, and drivers alike.

Infrastructure is key. Globally, there are now well over a billion cars on the road, with the most per country in the US and China. In Beijing, the past twenty years have seen a total transformation from being mostly bikes with just a few cars, to being mostly cars with a few bikes. Car use of course is a complicated issue, with other factors weighing heavily on the continuous growth of the auto industry, like oil and gas prices, and technology developments in hybrid or electric vehicles. Nonetheless, biking is impacted heavily as car use changes, and it is imperative that infrastructure be developed with bikers and pedestrians in mind, as well as cars.

In New York City, we still need a greater cultural shift before biking can truly be embedded in our way of life, but we’re making progress. Compared with bike-friendlier cities like Copenhagen, one big difference is that most drivers in New York don’t know what it’s like to ride a bike in the city; in Copenhagen, a majority of drivers also ride bikes, so have a greater awareness of bikers, which helps to keep the streets safer for everyone.

In developing nations, biking can have an altogether different kind of economic impact. Though biking is an activity that is performed by people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, the reasons that people ride can vary greatly. Generally speaking, middle and upper class riders tend to do it for enjoyment or exercise, whereas lower-income riders rely on biking as an affordable means of transportation. Organizations like Bikes Not Bombs and World Bicycle Relief recognize that bicycles are also tools of empowerment and mobility—both physical and economic—and are working to provide both bikes and mechanical skills to people who need them most. The Earn a Bike program, started by Bikes Not Bombs and since adopted at local bikeshops, other nonprofits, and community centers globally, teaches young people to retrofit a bike, which they get to keep when they’re done, learning invaluable mechanical skills in the process. Similarly, World Bicycle Relief not only donates bikes to people in Africa, but also provides training so that riders can keep their gear working well. They’re now distributing about 50,000 bikes each year, and continue to mine the connections between biking and social enterprise, microfinance, education, mechanics, and the environment through their work.

The benefits of biking are many. Whether you’re in a rural or urban environment, the right bicycle infrastructure can have a powerful impact on mobility and development, be it through better access to education or work opportunities, or a more fun way to get to the farmers’ market. As our populations and cities continue to grow, biking should play a big role in making more sustainable choices for the future.

Written by Sarah Bodley, BardMBA ’15