What is one thing that almost any individual can do to have an impact on climate change? According to today’s guests it’s getting around town by bicycle. Bike commuting grew 60% nationwide from 2000-2013, in places ranging from chilly Minneapolis to steamy New Orleans.
“We’re seeing exponential growth when compared to other modes in terms of private auto trips even relative to transit and walking,” says Brian Wiedenmeier, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. While acknowledging that the overall numbers remain small – less than 1% of commuters take a bike once a week – Wiedenmeier is optimistic about the continued growth of cycling as transit.
“I think sometimes we forget that biking after walking is the second most affordable way to get around,” he says. “In a time when there is increasing costs of living in our cities bicycling can be a lifeline for people to hang on and survive.
Among those who haven’t yet chosen to bike commute, Wiedenmeier notes that the number one answer about what’s preventing them is safety concerns. Amy Harcourt, co-founder of Bikes Make Life Better, was in that camp until she took a bike safety class with the SFBC.
“That’s what turned me into a bike commuter,” she recalls. “I rode to the class, I was terrified, I left the class three hours later and I was so comfortable in the street because I learned all the ways to be safe just within three hours.
Harcourt now works with works with companies to help them provide the services that will encourage their employees to bike to and around work. But why would companies want their workers biking more in the first place?
“There are all kinds of financial benefits, the wellness benefits, the productivity gains, the savings in transportation parking alone,” Harcourt says, adding that “having a strong transportation program and a really solid bike program actually becomes one of those draws as they’re recruiting and trying to attract top talents.”
Caeli Quinn, co-founder and Executive Director of Climate Ride, sees a similar role in promoting her organization to employers. “Companies see a real opportunity to do employee well-being and also philanthropy,” she says, “and so encouraging their employees to take on a life-changing experience that really is transformational for everyone involved.”
Although Climate Ride is a bicycle touring organization, Quinn is adamant about the importance of everyday riding as a climate solution. “The figures are astounding,” she points out. “If we can get to a 20% to 30% rate of people bike commuting in this country, we’re looking at 11% to 15% reduction in transportation emissions. And that’s huge from taking something that's very inexpensive to do.”
But bikes are not only a climate solution. “Bikes mean jobs,” Brian Wiedenmeier stresses. “All of the studies that have been done on the economic impacts of cycling, on commercial corridors, people who bike to shops spend more money on average than people who drive. So if an environmental argument isn't resonating, there’s an economic argument to be made too.”
Caeli Quinn adds that the economic benefits are not restricted to urban centers. “With bicycle touring especially in rural America, it can revitalize towns,” she says, explaining that “a bike tour comes through with several hundred people and all these people are overnighting, they’re eating, they tend to spend I think it’s $70 more every couple of days than a regular tourist does.”
Ultimately, the success of the bicycle movement will be measured, as Amy Harcourt puts it, by how many butts she can put on bikes. “It becomes unremarkable and that's what I think we’re striving for.”
– Devon Strolovitch
Photos by Ed Ritger