More bikes, healthier cities (and advocating with statistics)
Fri, 11/04/2011 - 5:43pm | by nmhood
The Star Tribune ran an article recently regarding the benefits of biking more (“More bikes, healthier cities“):
If half of all short trips during the summer months were done on two wheels instead of four, the Twin Cities would prevent nearly 300 deaths each year and save $57 million in medical costs, according to a study on biking and air pollution published Wednesday.
If trips of 5 miles or less were conducted by bicycle during the 124 best weather days of the year, 11 major cities in the Midwest would prevent 1,100 deaths from lung diseases, obesity and heart disease and save $7 billion annually ["More bikes, healthier cities"]
I do not doubt increased rates of bicycling will make us healthier, happier, safer, less congested and less polluted. In my mind, these are self-evident. What I don’t understand is why we always need to assign seemingly arbitrary numbers to these benefits? Will biking prevent 300 deaths per year? Will it save $57 million in medical costs? Will it save $7 billion annually?
I don’t know if any of these benefits can be quantified in any meaningful way. It will reduce mobile carbon emissions 30 percent? How do you accurately get to that number? I’m a bicycle advocate who actively promotes the development of additional bike-friendly amenities, and furthermore, I can’t say I’m disappointed when a new study backs-up a claim I’ve had for years. However, I can’t get over the feeling that our society is obsessed with advocating with numbers, whether it’s for bike lanes or bridges or interstate highways.
The figures plugged into the algorithm probably withstand the standard rigor of academic critique, but they don’t help me better understand the importance of more people biking. Why don’t they help me? Because the answer is self-evident. The study was showing that if all trips below five miles were taken by bike on good weather days, there would be sizeable benefits. Unfortunately, anyone who doesn’t already think biking is beneficial is unlikely to be converted from these numbers.
Even for something as basic as biking is good, it seems these studies are needed to thwart the opposition. If you’re looking for examples of this, check out the newspaper’s online forum and you’ll find argument after argument of opposition. Here’s a small sample:
“You guys can keep your bikes. America is about freedom so my choice is a car. It is faster, comfortable, relaxing, safe, and the most important factor it gives me freedom. And freedom is what liberals hate the most.”
“Yeah, and if everybody stayed home and lived off the Gov’t there wouldn’t be any traffic deaths.”
“Its not the amount of bike paths you have to change. It is people. You can make all the bike paths you want. But if I dont want to ride my bike to the store, guess what I am not going to do.”
“Studies like this, based on estimates with questionable prior assumptions, are full of confirmation and other biases, and pretty much worthless.”
“Bikes are not helping to save planet. People get mad because the majority of us drive and people are tired of money wasted on bike lanes when our roads and bridges crumble.”
“With all these new bike lane ideas and the cost associated with them; those who choose to use them should be required to register their bike and have an identification plate on it like a car does. The cost of the registration could hopefully find its way back to the account that would fund repairs and expansions of these lanes and the I.D. plate could help law enforcement just like it does a car.”
And, I’ll end with my favorite comment …
“Freddie Mercury was right: get on your bikes and ride!”
You can read more on my blog @ Thoughts on the Urban Environment.