August 30, 2010

Why bikes are good for Vancouver

Bikes in Vancouver

Cyclists on Robson St. Photo by cabbit via Flickr.

As Vancouver’s City Hall proposes another separated bike lane, this time on Hornby Street which currently has just a regular bike lane, the usual bike vs. car debate fires up again. I don’t see it as a choice of one over the other; we all have to get along. But as a cycling advocate and addict (and the daughter of another — I like to joke that my father was practically born on two wheels), I’d like to share some ways in which bikes make our city a better place, without getting too much into the anti-car realm here. Certainly thinking of these benefits makes me even more resistant to ever using my driver’s license for its primary purpose. The last time I used it was to hand it over so I could test ride a bike!

1. Bikes are the ultimate zero-emission vehicle.

I think we all understand that clean air is vital. Cycling contributes to cleaner air by taking pollution-emitting vehicles off the road. Having fewer cars on the road results in less traffic congestion, which should in turn reduce pollution further. Because bikes require no fossil fuels to operate (let’s not get into a debate over what fuels the human because everyone eats regardless of their mode), there is reduced strain on our non-renewable resources. We all know oil extraction has catastrophic environmental impacts even without oil spills.

Bikes are extremely efficient and use less materials. On the other hand, “These 1,300-kilogram metal boxes carry on average one-and-a-half people, approximately 130 kilos — a mere 10 per cent of the vehicle’s weight” (Yves Engler, The Mark) and require 1,860 calories per mile, compared to 35 for a bicycle, according to the WorldWatch Institute.

2. Bikes take up less space.

Whether they’re parked in an apartment or on the street, riding on the road or a trail, bikes require less physical space than cars. And when you have more space available, this makes room for more useful and pleasant aspects of a city: restaurant patios, parks, street food, community gardens, street performers, art installations, and so on. A parking space is private space, not public, when a car is on it.

3. Bikes make for healthier people.

Reducing air pollution has a positive effect on lung diseases and associated medical costs. Cycling on a regular basis increases longevity, strengthens the immune system, and “reduces cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and arthritis” (Treehugger, The Welcome Return of the Bicycle). The regular exercise also enhances the body’s endurance, lung capacity, and metabolism, and reduces the risk of diabetes and obesity. I personally find that although I need to consume more calories when I cycle 25 km or more per week, I have fewer cravings and can go for longer periods of time without food during and after biking. I know for a fact I’ll eat more on a four hour road trip than a four hour bike excursion. Sitting around promotes snacking, as does, I find, lack of energy. Ask around and I bet you’ll find cyclists feel more energetic after a ride. How does this all translate into energy, mental focus and therefore productivity at the office, I wonder? Really well, I would bet. I also wonder, dollar for dollar, how investment in safe cycling infrastructure translates into health care savings costs on personal and provincial levels.

4. Bikes make for healthier communities.

Bike in the grassCycling is an enabler of conversation — just consider for a start that you and that other cyclist already have something in common. Cycling allows us to slow down, stop nearly anywhere, participate in the city. On a bike you’re physically, emotionally engaged with the city, its inhabitatns and features (art, architecture, animals, shops, etc.). You can explore new neighbourhoods, stop for coffee at a whim and take a detour through a park. Were I driving, it’s unlikely I would speak to the person in the vehicle next to me, even in a parking lot. There’s a huge physical barrier there that blocks contact and even a good view of the other person. On a bike, however, I have engaged in several friendly encounters stopped at a traffic light or while unlocking my bike at a corral. And I remember most of them, regardless of how mundane it may have been. It’s easy to start, too: “Nice bike!” Even if you’re riding alone, you may find yourself some company. I heard a man ask, “how was your swim?” from behind me as he noticed my wet ponytail, and we ended up having a nice conversation for the next 10 minutes until I stopped to meet a friend.

The cycling community here is robust, well-connected, and incredibly diverse. Events that foster our own community are common.

5. Bikes are quiet!

How many times have you tried to listen to birds chirping, the wind in the trees or even the friend next to you and keep getting interrupted by the noise of passing vehicles? We’re so used to it, but if you’ve ever been to a car-free day you’ll realise just how unpleasantly loud a car-filled street is. The fewer cars we have, the less noise pollution — and the more we can listen to what really counts. So get on a bike, skateboard, foot-powered scooter or strap on some rollerblades or sneakers and enjoy this fantastic environment. Heck, if you can, hop in a kayak!

6. And finally… Cyclists have more sex appeal.

In a city of singles, which also boasts a nude beach and one of North America’s “sexiest beaches” (not sure if I’m proud of that designation of Kits Beach?), the toned calves and rears acquired from cycling are not-too-shabby assets. I confess to enjoying the view when a fit young male rolls by. And, just as I wouldn’t marry a smoker, a potential partner who is fit and healthy enough to live a good long life (see longevity above) gets them real brownie points.

A few more for good measure…

  • Bikes are long-lasting. My friend has been riding his bike for over 15 years. It still rides like a charm… and looks pretty sweet.
  • Bikes cause less wear and tear on roads. (Yes, cyclists do pay for road maintenance through property taxes.)
  • Bikes cost way less money. Consider your annual auto insurance fees alone.
  • Free parking. ‘Nuf said.
  • Bikes can be a great source of creativity.
  • Cycling supports small businesses through both bike shops and bike-friendly businesses. You can even buy Canadian.
  • I can get from Kitsilano (4th/Vine) to Burrard Station in 12 minutes in rush hour without even breaking a sweat.
  • Cycling promotes awareness of your surroundings; your physical body; environmental issues like pollution and energy; time and each other.

Why do you think bikes are good for Vancouver?