Biking and Mass Transit Increases Health Benefits and Saves Money

shutterstock_32160760We’ve all heard about the cost savings involved in cutting GHG (green house gas) emissions, investing in renewable energy and doing eco-friendly things around the home or office. But, have you ever thought about how much money it would save to interleave mass transit into your transportation routine? What about cutting out short auto trips and replacing them with biking?

Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Maggie Grabow, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute conducted a study involving 11 of the largest metropolitan areas in the upper Midwest of the U.S.  What they found, was that adopting a routine that alternates driving with mass transit and/or biking results in health benefits and substantial cost savings.

The study, recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, shows that replacing half of your short trips with bike trips – even if it’s only during the warm or comfortable months of the year – saves roughly $3.8 billion per year.

How? This incredible savings comes from avoided mortality and reduced health care costs for conditions like obesity and heart disease. Particulates, small particles suspended in the air we breathe, enter our lungs and can cause asthma, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. Even a small reduction in particulate matter in the air can result in improved health.

And it doesn’t end there, the study also concluded that this simple act of occasional biking and taking mass transit instead of driving would save about $7 billion annually, including 1,100 lives each year due to better air quality and improved physical fitness.

Grabow claims, “In a busy daily schedule, if that exercise can automatically occur while commuting to work, we anticipate a major benefit in stemming the obesity epidemic, and consequently a significant reduction in type II diabetes, which is a deadly epidemic in its own right.”

What should also be considered, which was not incorporated into the study’s calculations are the cost savings of reduced car usage – for example gas and wear and tear maintenance. That means more cash in your pocket – pretty enticing if you ask me.

It is recommended that just 5 mile-long round trips using bikes instead of cars could be enough to improve health, reduce pollution, reduce asthma cases, and have beneficial effects in terms of air quality even for areas outside of your city – considering that polluted air moves around the Earth regardless of county or state lines.


How can the individual help?

These little initiatives are important for our health and the environment because by lessening our use of fossil fuels, we are lessening our emissions from fossil fuels – which directly relates to human health.This alternative style of transportation would be a lifestyle change for many people, and in some cases, may be difficult due to distance, geography, infrastructure, or climate. However, the task is definitely not impossible. In some cities in Europe, about 50 percent of short trips are done by bike – think Amsterdam. Granted, European cities might have more bike-friendly areas, higher gas prices, and their cities may be smaller, but that doesn’t mean we can’t replicate to their efforts in our daily lives as well. Instead of driving down the street to grab a coffee – take the bike. Instead of jumping in the SUV to go to see a movie – take the bus or train. These changes don’t have to happen all at once either; we can take it one step at time. For example, we can challenge ourselves to bike or use public transit to get where we need to go once a month for 6 months – then increase this number as we see fit.

“Transportation accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, so if we can swap bikes for cars, we gain in fitness, local air quality, a reduction in greenhouse gases, and the personal economic benefits of biking rather than driving. It’s a four-way win,” Patz says.

How can cities help?

By investing in bike paths and infrastructure that is geared more towards pedestrians rather than cars, cities will encourage and support the use of bikes and mass transit. Instead of building parking lots or providing free street parking, cities can invest in improving their public transportation system. These changes would be important to individuals who want alternatives, but do not have access to them, and to inspire those who simply have not considered an alternative to driving.

Some cities that have been proactive in building bike-friendly communities are Minneapolis, Portland, Boulder, and Seattle – just to name a few. A list of the top 50 bike-friendly cities can be found at Bicycling.com. Even a city like New York, which is typically jammed with car traffic, is taking steps to build more bike paths. Check out their initiatives here, and look up bike paths in or near your city on Traillink.com.

Image Credits:

(Top) karnizz/Shutterstock

(Bottom) Amy Johansson/Shutterstock

by Sara Stefanski

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