Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike. — John F. Kennedy
What was true for our 35th President is definitely true for me. It’s hard to imagine a more invigorating or magical way to travel. Gliding along bright green bike lanes with life all around—you can smell, hear and feel the world. As a child, bicycling provided freedom and independence. In college it meant a cheap way of getting around. It still does, but today the reasons I bike are many. Because I work at the EPA, you might expect that my main reason is because it’s pro-environment. In reality, the green aspects of biking aren’t even among my top three.
My home is five miles from my office in downtown San Francisco. To get between the two on public transportation is achievable but not quick. It requires two buses and is hard to do in less than 40 minutes. If I hop on my bike I don’t need to wait for a bus and I get to work in 25 minutes. San Francisco is the nation’s third worst congested city (top of the list is Los Angeles, followed by Honolulu, both in Region 9), where driving can take even longer than public transit. So the first reason I bike is that it is the fastest way to commute.
My life is fairly sedentary, so to stay in shape I need exercise. The gym I signed up with had really cool equipment that promised to transform me into my environmental hero. Unfortunately, even though my credit card got billed every month, I couldn’t seem to get to the gym. Call me unmotivated, but I am sure I am not alone. The great thing about commuting to work on a bike is that you wake-up on the ride in and de-stress on the way home. My second reason for biking is that it takes me on two journeys a day, building exercise into my schedule. Researchers have found that adolescents who bicycle are 48 percent less likely to be overweight in their adult life – maybe that’s why I’m keeping it together.
I love living in San Francisco because of the diverse community of people from all over the country and world that live here. Biking to work brings you in direct contact with everyone from people collecting your recycling and compost, children on their way to school, skateboarders, people walking and other bicyclists. As the chart below highlights, nationally the community of bike commuters is growing by leaps and bounds.
The more people that bike, the safer it becomes. One reason folks are getting on their bikes is that last year alone the number of dedicated bike lanes in our country nearly doubled. It also turns out that striping bikes lanes helps bring more money to adjacent businesses. And speaking of business, bike sales brought more than $6 billion into the economy last year, with more than 30 million bicycles sold in the U.S. (more than 120 million bikes were sold globally in 2012). The third reason I bike is that it helps me become a more integral part of my local community.
It is getting more expensive every year to own a car and that doesn’t include the 36 hours Americans were stuck in traffic last year. This congestion wasted nearly 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline, with the total financial cost of congestion a startling $121 billion in 2011. This translates to $818 per U.S. commuter. You can buy a really nice bike for $818. And if that weren’t reason enough, a recent tax law helps you get $20 per month to ride your bike to work! Call me cheap but, biking is still the least expensive option for getting to most places, including to work.
Which brings me to the environment. As President Obama reaffirmed recently at Georgetown, the time to act on climate change is now. The transportation sector is responsible for approximately 27 percent of our country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 71 percent of all U.S. petroleum use. In addition to cars, trucks and buses causing carbon pollution, our EPA region has nine of the top 10 most polluted cities for fine airborne particles – most of which comes from the transportation sector.
The major climate reductions will come from new efficient, less polluting vehicles that are already transforming the automotive sector—helped by new EPA standards that will lead to cars achieving 54.5 MPG by 2025. Advanced technologies in the goods movement sector will also play a key role in solving air pollution issues around the country.
So against this backdrop, what can bicycles do? Well, in addition to being the most efficient vehicle ever created, it turns out that a relatively small shift of commuters from cars to bikes (or public transit, ridesharing and walking) can make a huge difference. In 2008, when the number of miles driven in the U.S. dropped by just 3 percent, the traffic congestion declined by a whopping 30 percent. These reductions can also have a large impact on decreasing ozone concentrations and asthma hospitalizations.
Today, most of the automobile trips we take are short—the majority less than five miles. So by helping local organizations, businesses, universities and states make bicycling safe, fun and easy, we can transform our health and the health of our environment. But the most compelling reason to get on a bike is the one that motivated us as children—pure joy!
Jared Blumenfeld is EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest (Region 9), home to more than 48 million people in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific Islands and 148 tribal nations. Mr. Blumenfeld has spent two decades on the front lines of environmental protection both at home and internationally. His priorities at EPA include strong enforcement, environmental justice, protecting and restoring our air, land and waters, building strong federal, state, local and tribal partnerships, and taking action on climate change.