Experience Life Magazine

Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy

A community manifesto.

4Z7C7264-1140 This book’s subtitle is a vast understatement: Author Elly Blue believes bicycles can also save us from healthcare woes, global warming, the energy crisis, community disintegration, and maybe much more.

She’s not alone: As H.G. Wells is believed to have stated about a century ago, “Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race.”

Bikenomics isn’t sci-fi, however. Nor is this fun and fluffy beach or bedtime reading. Blue details and itemizes the bicycle’s super-hero potential in well-reasoned, well-researched prose.

Blue is a writer and bicycle activist living in Portland, Ore., whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Grist, Bicycling, and Bitch magazine, among other publications. She blogs about bicycling and empowerment at TakingtheLane.com.

With Bikenomics, she’s written a community manifesto, summed up in her maxim: “The bicycle may not be able to save either the economy or the world that we have now. But it is one means by which we may be able to get through whatever comes next with grace and meaning. And it provides us with the opportunity to build ourselves lives, communities, and an economy that we can truly afford for the long run.”

And if you’re feeling inspired by Blue’s Bikenomics, check out her earlier practical guidebook, Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle), also from Microcosm Publishing in Portland.

 Q&A With Elly Blue

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Author Elly Blue at work.

Experience Life: Many critics of bicycling complain that bikes don’t pay for roads and thus an infrastructure of bike paths and lanes is too expensive to support. Is this true?

Elly Blue: This is the biggest myth about bicycling — that people who ride a bike are somehow not putting their fair share into the road system. In fact, the opposite is true: About half of our roads, nationally, are paid for by gas taxes, and the other half (and more every year) comes from general taxes, paid by drivers and nondrivers alike.

At the beginning of the motor age, the idea was always that gas taxes — plus some other taxes that never really took off, like a tax on tires — would always fund the roads and that it would be a closed system. Many people still believe this is the case. But it stopped being true when the federal government started building freeways in the late 1950s. New roads require a huge up-front investment, followed by decades of maintenance, and eventually must be rebuilt — often before the original cost of the road has been paid off. Our road system is essentially an underwater mortgage, and we keep digging ourselves deeper.

Meanwhile, it costs relatively little to make investments that allow more people to choose to bike for transportation, and the long-term costs of a lot of people bicycling on the roads is tremendously less than the costs of attempting to carry all people and goods by car and truck. The economic benefits multiply outward from there — in terms of health, safety, parking costs, and quality of life, to name a few.

EL: In discussing how bikes can help battle our healthcare issues, you talk about the Minneapolis company Quality Bicycle Products: Can you explain their bike-commuting program and what that’s meant for their health insurance?

EB: QBP is one of a handful of companies across that country that are starting to actually pay employees money to bike to work. After a year of doing this, they found they’d paid out $45,000 to bike-commuting workers and saved about $200,000 on healthcare claims that year. They also estimate that because employees who biked had fewer sick days, the program saved them about $300,000 a year in productivity.

It’s funny, because the standard attitude to biking in the United States is still to make it difficult. This is even reflected in the tax code: There are tax incentives for driving to work (seriously!) and to a lesser extent for taking the bus, but only a very tiny and not very useful little bone is tossed to bicycle commuters. But even so, businesses are finding it pays major dividends to encourage employees to bike.

Don’t even get me started about parking — the cost to build a single structured car parking space is nearly $20,000; a bike commuter just needs a hook on the wall.

Smart businesses are starting to wake up to this economic benefit, and I think we’ll see a huge growth in employer-level programs like this.

EL: And what do we do about inclement weather? Portland has its rain; Minneapolis its ice, snow, and cold. Are there lessons we can learn from the world’s bicycling capitals, Copenhagen and Amsterdam? Do you think new technology will be developed to help us deal with bad weather? Or will bicycle commuting have to be seasonal, except for the most hardy — or foolhardy — folks?

EB: It’s funny, this is the thing I hear most often: “We could never bike in my city because of X weather, or hills, or . . . “ But the most bike-friendly cities in the United States have inclement conditions for a large part of the year — the snow in Minneapolis, Portland’s rain, DC and NYC’s muggy summers and cold winters, San Francisco’s hills, LA’s heat — and an increasing number of people commute year-round. Copenhagen and Amsterdam also have snowy winters.

None of these things have to be an impediment to bicycling — we already have great technological advances, like warm coats and rain pants, that make winter riding pretty easy. Having a bike with enough gears is all you need in a hilly climate, and there’s a growing number of electric-assist options that can help also. In great heat, you need to be a bit careful, but lots of people commute year-round in 100-plus-degree weather — I’ve done it too. You just drink lots of water and take it slow.

If you see your bike as your vehicle, then it’s easier to get prepared to ride it in all weather. Just like with a car, or if you usually get around by bus, you will develop different biking routines and use different equipment in the snow or in the summer heat.

None of these things are major barriers — not in the way that unfriendly roads and huge distances often are. If people are having trouble figuring out how to ride in different conditions, I encourage them to Google around for Internet forums where people discuss their solutions in great detail. As in everything, it’s most helpful to have a community to work these things out with.

Things we learn from Elly Blue’s Bikenomics

  • Less than 1 percent of money spent on transportation infrastructure in the United States goes to anything bike-related.
  • Almost 70 percent of Americans’ car trips are less than two miles in distance, which could correspond to roughly a 40-minute walk or 12-minute bicycle ride.
  • Driving and maintaining a sedan automobile costs an average of about $9,122 per year, according to a 2013 AAA report.
  • Owning and operating a bicycle costs an average of about $100 to $300 per year.
  • The cost to build a mile of urban freeway is about $60 million as of 2013.
  • Modern bike-share programs stem from the 2005 launch of the Vélo’v bicycles in Lyon, France. The concept really took off in Paris with the Vélolib’ system, which turned the city of terrifying traffic into a bicycle-commuters’ paradise. As Blue writes, “Overnight, the city became a place to ride a bicycle; 250,000 Parisians are now members of the system, making a hundred thousand daily trips on bicycle.” With Paris’ success, cities throughout Europe and North America followed the leader. As of 2013, more than 500 cities around the world have similar programs.
  • Bicyclists’ reputation as consummate traffic-lawbreakers only seems to hold true in places where the streets don’t adequately support bicycling. “Infrastructure is safer — and more effective at producing orderly behavior — than traffic enforcement,” Blue writes.

Michael Dregni is Experience Life's managing editor.

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