Celebrating the Health Benefits of Biking

Last May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution naming May “National Bicycle Month,” giving federal recognition to our most efficient form of transportation. Several months later, the Bicycle Commuter Act was signed into law, enabling bicycle commuters to receive tax-free benefits for their unique contributions reducing traffic congestion and air pollution while improving their own health.

These actions could not have come at a better time. Today, Americans are suffering an unprecedented epidemic of obesity. Sixty-seven percent of American adults are overweight or obese; 17% of children and 19% of all teenagers are overweight. Obesity contributes to more than 300,000 deaths each year, making it the 2nd highest risk factor for Americans. And because obesity decreases life expectancy by several years, the current generation of Americans may not, for the first time in history, live as long as their parents.

But obesity does not affect just individuals and their families; it also exacts a high toll on our economy. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that obese employees miss 12 times more workdays than colleagues of a healthier weight. Obesity-related medical expenses cost General Motors more than $286 million in 2003, while Medicare payments to beneficiaries who were obese cost 15% more than payments for other conditions. Clearly, this epidemic affects us all, one way or another.

Obesity is a complex condition caused by a number of factors, including diet, genetic makeup, environmental influences, and lifestyle choices. But one thing is certain: an active lifestyle is essential to maintaining a healthy weight, building and retaining muscle tone, and ensuring sound circulatory and healthy respiratory systems. Sadly, more than half of all Americans do not get the 30 minutes per day of moderate activity recommended by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our dependency on cars reinforces our sedentary lifestyle. Half of all car trips taken in the United States are three miles or less, while trips of one mile or less account for almost a quarter of all car trips. What if we decided to get out of our cars and onto our bikes for these short-distance trips? It’s not rocket science. A two-to-three mile bicycle commute, for example, takes only 15 minutes – but the round trip satisfies the CDC requirements for an individual’s daily level of physical activity.

Would such a simple change make a difference? Absolutely. A multi-year study of bicycle commuters in Denmark concluded that people who spent an average of 3 hours cycling to work each week decreased their risk of mortality by 40% when compared with a sedentary control group. Closer to home, the Portland, Oregon, Opera Company recently made bicycles available to cast members traveling to Portland for a production, committing to improve their employees health and to fulfill their mission.

Increased bicycle use not only improves personal health; it also provides important safety benefits. According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Active Transportation for America campaign, communities designed to foster walking and biking are safer – not only for pedestrians and bicyclists, but for all roadway users. A recent study of bicycle crashes in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, found that the increase in bicycle facilities and bicycle use over the past 18 years has seen a corresponding drop in the crash rate.

The link between bicycling and better health is abundantly clear, yet we are a long way from making bicycling a safe and efficient transportation choice in our communities. What will it take to make this happen?

We need more educational programs. The Safe Routes to School (SRTS) National Partnership established SRTS networks in nine states and the District of Columbia, bringing together stakeholders from diverse fields to work with state Departments of Transportation to increase physical activity in students and remove policies that restrict walking and bicycling to schools. In just a few short years, SRTS has shown significant benefits. In Portland alone, the city’s Safe Routes to School program increased bicycling and walking to school by 38% of school commute trips in 25 different schools. To support these obviously successful programs, I am currently working on legislation in Congress to increase federal funding for SRTS and ensure that high schools are included.

In addition to educational programs, we need better facilities. Although hard core, experienced bicyclists are not often deterred by the lack of safe bicycle lanes, we cannot expect parents with children, novice cyclists, or senior citizens to brave city traffic without safe bike facilities. Unfortunately, few American cities offer even the most basic of bicycle facilities. If we want more bicyclists on the road, we need to make sure they have safe and convenient facilities.

Additional funding also would provide significant improvements. Educational programs, signage, and bicycle facilities all cost money, which is in critically short supply these days. The good news is that investments in bicycle infrastructure provide an amazing “bang for the buck.” Portland’s 275-mile network of bicycle facilities, for example, cost a total of only $50 million – the cost of one mile of urban freeway! Think of what cities across the nation could do for bicycling if they each had $50 million – a drop in the bucket compared to other infrastructure costs – to devote to bicycle lanes, paths, and parking. With increased funding, cities and communities across America would discover that investing in bicycle programs and facilities is one of the most cost-effective transportation investments that governments at all levels can make. All we need is the political will to make it happen.

Which brings me to my final point: we need more political clout. If we want more Americans to reap the benefits of bicycling, we need strong advocates from all spheres. Health care professionals need to highlight the health and safety benefits of bicycling; advocates concerned about global warming and our oil dependence can showcase bicyclists’ ability to burn calories instead of carbon; citizens who promote livable communities can illustrate how bicycles contribute to the vitality of neighborhoods and local economies through their small size, clean and quiet technology, and the ability for people of all ages to get out and ride, discovering their communities as they rediscover their love of bicycling. Now is the time to get involved. With your help, we can create healthier, more livable communities for our children, our families, and our country.


As a leading nonprofit health care research and consulting institute dedicated to improving human health, Altarum encourages open discussion and debate about the many challenges in health care today. All postings to the Health Policy Forum (whether from employees or those outside the Institute) represent the views of the individual authors and/or organizations and do not necessarily represent the position, interests, strategy, or opinions of Altarum Institute. Altarum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. No posting should be considered an endorsement by Altarum of individual candidates, political parties, opinions, or policy positions.

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