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Why ride a bicycle?
Bicycling is a lot faster than you might think, even if you don't bike very fast. That's because cars are slowed down on short drives inside the city (the most common use for a car) by lower speed limits and traffic congestion.
Perhaps the best reason to ride a bike is because there are so many problems with driving cars -- such as energy use, pollution, cost, danger, and the destruction of old-fashioned neighborhoods. Check out what's wrong with automobiles.
If this motivates you to do something about it, then check out the League of American Bicyclists' guide to How to Cycle. They cover Beginning Cycling, Commuting, Touring, Tandems, Riding with Children, Maintenance, and more.
Bikes are just as fast (or nearly as fast) as cars on short trips (<5 miles) inside the city -- which are a majority of all trips. (More than half of Americans live less than five miles from their jobs.) For all the examples below, we'll use 5 miles as the commuting distance.
Cars have a very high top speed but that's irrelevant for most commutes, since most are slowwed down by rush hour traffic, or can't drive fast because they're on city streets and not highways. If a commuter is lucky enough to average 35 mph, their commute takes 8.5 minutes. A 25 mph average trip takes 12 minutes. On a bicycle at 12mph, the trip would take 25 minutes. Is it really that big a deal that a bike takes a whopping THIRTEEN extra minutes for a 5-mile commute?
And if you look a little deeper, you see that biking might not take even those thirteen extra minutes when you add it all up. Do you ever have to spend time looking for a parking place? And when you get one, is it a long walk from the end of the parking lot to the building? If so, add that to your transit time.
Do you spend 30 minutes a day exercising like you should? If you're driving, you get no exercise while you're commuting, so you have to spend 30 minutes after work exercising. But if you were biking, you'd already have gotten your exercise just going to and from work. Transit time with a car both ways (35 mph average) plus 30 minutes of exercise time is 47 minutes. Transit time on a bicycle (12pm), which includes the exercise, is 50 minutes. It's about even.
But there's yet another aspect of cars that eats up your time: Cars cost a lot of money, and time is money. Let's say your car costs you $4,400 a year. (See the next section for more on costs.) If you make $30,000 a year, then 1.2 hours of every 8-hour work day goes towards paying for your car. By that measurement, cars are much less efficient than bikes.
You can save a ton of money by biking instead of driving. (I retired at 30, which I was able to do partly by investing the money I would have spent on a car.) Of course, you'll save the most money by getting rid of your car, but you can still save some money by simply driving less (less money on gasoline and maintenance. You might also be able to get a break on your insurance if you don't drive much; talk to your agent.)
You can get a good, brand-new bike for $300 or less. (You can get an excellent one for $750.) Even if you don't do any of the maintenance yourself, you're unlikely to spend very much per year by having a bike shop do all your maintenance and tune-ups.
Cars, on the other hand, are big money-suckers. The typical American family spends almost $8000 a year to own and operate a car, when you count the car payments, gas, oil, maintenance & repairs, licenses, parking, and insurance. If you took the money you'd save by getting rid of your car and invested it you could have $2.3 million by the time you retired. (more...)
If you consider that time is money, then that $8,000 a year costs you you 3.2 hours per workday if you make $10 an hour. And if you make more than $10 an hour, you're probably driving a more expensive car, so you're still probably spending well over an hour a day to support your car. Drive to work, work to drive.
If you can't give up automotive travel completely, then consider taking a taxi for those trips you can't make by bicycle. With an extra $8,000 or so per year to play with, you could take a lot of taxi trips and still come out way ahead.
And remember that this $8,000 or so per year doesn't include the hidden costs that all of us pay, since private automobile use in the U.S. is heavily subsidized. We pay for these costs through higher taxes, reduced wages from employers who provide "free" parking spaces worth thousands of dollars a year, societal costs resulting from car collisions and pollution, etc.
Statistically, you're unlikely to experience a serious injury when cycling. The catch is, if you are involved in a collision, it will probably be worse for you if you're on a bike than if you were in a car. Fortunately you can eliminate most of your risk by learning How to Not Get Hit by Cars.
You can help make our air cleaner by riding a bicycle. It's no secret that cars are a principal cause of dirty air. And the effects of dirty air on human health are unsettling. A study of U.S. cities found that mortality rates were 17-26% higher in cities with the dirtiest air compared to those with the cleanest air. Not surprisingly, the study also found correlations between bad air and lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease. The risks translate roughly to a two-year shorter life span for residents of dirty-air cities. On a global basis, estimates of mortality due to outdoor air pollution range from about 0.4-1.1% of total annual deaths (World Resources Institute. 1998-99 World Resources: A Guide to the Global Environment New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 63-64). In the U.S., 30,000 people die every year from automobile emissions ("Bicycling and Our Environment." Austin Cycling News Aug. 1998: 1.).
Cars also emit carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping gas. In fact, they emit a lot of it: 20 pounds per gallon of gas burned (NRDC 12, Zuckermann 29). Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased by 30% since preindustrial times, and much of that increase is directly related to the burning of fossil fuels. According to the Worldwatch Institute: "CO2 levels are now at their highest point in 160,000 years, and global temperatures at their highest since the Middle Ages". The effects of this global warming are frightening: rising sea levels, dying coral reefs, spreading of infectious diseases, and extreme weather conditions, including droughts, rare forest fires, historic floods, and severe storms. Even more frightening, these events are not just predictions&emdash;they're happening right now (Brown, Lester R., et al. State of the World New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1999).
The amount of energy used by automobiles is staggering. Transportation of all types accounts for more than 25% of the world's commercial energy use, and motor vehicles account for nearly 80% of that (WRI 171). In numerical terms, the figures are hard to comprehend. The world used over a trillion liters of motor gas in 1995. And the U.S. accounted for 46% of that total (WRI 266-267). In fact, America's gasoline consumption easily outstrips its production. The U.S. currently imports over half its oil (52%) even more than it did before the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. This dependence on foreign oil has significant economic consequences, and many observers feel that protecting "our" right to oil was the real reason for the U.S./Iraq war of 1991.
You get exercise automatically when you cycle
Biking helps keep you in shape, and saves you time because you don't have to exercise after work -- you get your exercise automatically while you commute. If you drive your car to work and then spend 30 minutes after work exercising, then biking to work can SAVE you time over driving. And if you're driving and not spending 30 minutes after work exercising, then you're setting yourself up for all the major health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. By cycling, you can exercise while you get to work. (And by the way, a leisurely bike ride burns nearly twice as many calories as walking for the same amount of time.)
Extra clothes needed?
One of the biggest excuses I hear about why people won't cycle to work is that they'd be hot and sweaty by the time they got there. But this "problem" is so easy to address.
First, you're biking to work, you're not in a cross-country race. Who says you have to push yourself to the limit? Slow down and have a nice ride.
You may also be able to make do by simply bringing an extra shirt. I routinely biked to work in slacks and a t-shirt. When I got to work, I traded my t-shirt for a dress shirt. In the warmer months, I biked in shorts, and put my slacks on when I got to work.
Here's a super tip, soak the top half of your t-shirt in water before putting it on. The wet shirt will keep you nice and cool throughout your ride. This trick is my secret weapon and works great in the Texas heat. It's a shame more people don't know about it.
Social costs of cars
One of the worst things about a culture dependent on cars is that it encourages urban sprawl, which destroys communities and keeps us isolated. The Dec. 28, 2000 Los Angeles Times summarized the findings of Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, as detailed in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community:
[T]here is strong evidence that people today are more isolated and, therefore, more selfish than in the 1970s and earlier, Putnam said. His evidence: lower rates of participation in community groups, fewer family dinners, less socializing at bars, fewer blood donations, fewer picnics--and fewer organized bowling leagues.