Cyclists ride for a lot of different reasons. For some, it’s for the love of sport. For others, it’s is an economical way to stretch a tight budget. There’s also the environmental benefit.
And of course, many people ride for their health. A new study, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, identifies physical inactivity as one of the leading causes of premature death. How bad is it? Consider these statistics:
• Inactivity causes 5.3 million deaths per year—from diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and breast and colon cancer.
• That’s more than the number of deaths caused by smoking.
• Inactivity is the cause of 1 in 10 deaths.
• People in higher-income countries are the least active.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Adults should engage in moderate exercise—for example, brisk walking, cycling, or even gardening—for at least 150 minutes each week. In the U.S., 43 percent of us don’t meet that minimum requirement. In Europe, it’s 35 percent. Worldwide, one-third of all people live a sedentary lifestyle—and for teenagers, the number rises to over 80 percent.
Pedro Hallal, a professor who led the Lancet study, said “The global challenge is clear—make physical activity a public health priority throughout the world to improve health and reduce the burden of disease.”
Which brings us back to—what else?—bicycling. Want to get some exercise in every day? Try bike commuting. If someone you know wants to ease into getting around by bike, the 1-Mile Solution is the perfect way to get started.
But despite cycling’s many benefits, there’s one big problem we must contend with when we’re trying to get people off their couches: The roads we ride on can be a hostile environment. There are several reasons for this.
First, road infrastructure is usually biased towards the automobile, and often fails to take cyclists into account at all. Even though it is legal to ride on most roads, the more biased towards automobile traffic the road infrastructure is, the more intimidating the road will feel to all but the most intrepid of cyclists. As Professor Lindsey Davies (president of the UK Faculty of Public Health) observed in response to the study on inactivity, “We need to do all we can to make it easy for people to look after their health and get active as part of their daily lives. Our environment has a significant part to play. For example, people who feel unsafe in their local park will be less likely to use it.” The same goes for our roads.
Second, our laws are usually biased towards motorists. Consider, for example, the driver who passes dangerously close to a cyclist, and injures or kills the cyclist. In too many states, the motorist will at most be ticketed for a relatively minor offense, like making an unsafe pass. And that only happens when an officer is concerned enough to write a ticket.
When a motorist is severely injured or killed in a traffic “accident,” the circumstances are usually so extreme that serious charges may be filed. But all it takes to injure or kill a cyclist is a moment’s inattention, a bit of bad judgment, a careless act. An “accident.” The message sent to drivers and cyclists alike is that our lives are worth little to nothing. “Was the cyclist wearing a helmet?” people ask, subtly shifting the blame from the careless driver to his victim. In contrast, in countries where cyclists’ lives are valued, the law places the burden of safety where it belongs—on the driver. This makes the roads safer for cyclists and drivers alike, and is one factor in getting more people on bikes.
Third, too many motorists, including many law enforcement officers, have only vague notions of what the laws on bicycling are. They may, for example, think you are breaking the law by riding on the road instead of the sidewalk, or by taking the lane. This confusion raises the hostility level of motorists, and too often results in unjust law enforcement by officers who aren’t really sure what the law is.
Finally, many motorists feel entitled to threaten us, and even jeopardize our lives, with hostile and aggressive behavior, simply because they do not believe that we have any right to use the roads.
Many motorists will suggest that a local bike path would be a more appropriate place to ride. From their perspective, the roads are for automobile transportation. Of course, this belief ignores the fact that motorists often use the roads for recreation as well. In reality, the roads are a public space—something that ciclovias in cities across the nation are attempting to reclaim.
And yet, when we use the roads as they are intended to be used, our lives are endangered, sometimes intentionally. Imagine, for example, if somebody participating in a sport on a public athletic field had to dodge motor vehicle assaults because some driver objected to people playing on “his” field. Imagine if somebody at the gym was issued a ticket for violating an imaginary law? It’s far-fetched, but this is the kind of hostile environment cyclists must contend with.
We can change that hostile environment. We can make our infrastructure more user-friendly for cyclists and pedestrians. We can do a better job of protecting all road users with our laws, and we can do a better job of educating everybody on the law. By making our roads safer, more people will ride, and with more people riding, our roads will become safer still. When bicycling is a safe, normal, accepted use of the roads, we’ll be one step closer to addressing the physical inactivity crisis that is affecting the health of so many people.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
This article, A Matter of Life and Death, was originally published on Bicycling on September 28, 2012.