When we first moved to Washington, we rented a cabin at the end of a steep, winding road on the edge of the Bellingham city limits. We first saw the place, with its sweet lake access and wooded hiking trails, at the height of summer. It was one of the few places we’d found that would accept dogs, and the dappled sunlight through the trees was an added bonus. Fast forward a few months and those same trees kept the house in deep shadows and occasionally fell down and blocked our access to the main highway.
That experience took some of the thrill out of country living, so when we decided to buy a house, we looked in town.
When we bought our house in 2010, we had a limited knowledge of local neighborhoods but knew we wanted to be able to walk more than we drove. Although we ended up on a busier street than we’d choose now, the location of our house prompted perhaps the biggest lifestyle change we didn’t expect: bicycling.
We’d both previously been fair-weather bikers, happy to ride downtown to get an ice cream cone or a beer, but not really into anything that required special gear or less-than-perfect weather. Once we moved to our current house, the grocery store was within a two-minute ride and downtown was a seven-minute ride. This was the gateway drug. Initially, I commuted to work by car, but I really dislike driving. I tried the bus, but it took longer and was unpredictable. Which left the bike.
Now, of course, biking just seems like the normal way to get around. Without planning to, we’ve organized our lives so that pretty much everything we need–dentist, doctor, work, groceries, veterinarian–is within biking range.
Bicyclists tend to be a pretty enthusiastic bunch, with tendencies toward the evangelical. Although I try not to be too pedantic about it, it really is a superior way for us to do most of our errands: biking is usually more convenient than driving and parking, and often faster as well.
But it’s not all about me. Encouraging non-motorized forms of transportation is worthwhile in terms of community wellbeing and public health, particularly in terms of improving health outcomes, reducing urban congestion, and decreasing wear and tear on the infrastructure that all of us pay to build and maintain. More people walking and biking means more people engaging in at least a minimum of daily exercise, which reduces the risk of illnesses such as diabetes. Diabetes cost the United States $244 billion in 2012; if you add in the cost of lost productivity, the total rises to $322 billion. Fewer cars on the road also reduces emissions and improves air quality, as well as lowering costs for road construction and maintenance. Although vehicle emissions aren’t the only source of air pollution, poor air quality also brings its own economic costs.
If people needed to drive less, they might start to question the need for buying and maintaining expensive vehicles above and beyond a car’s actual useful value–and the driver’s financial means. As this article points out, “People forget about all the fun things you can do when you don’t have a car payment.” We had, for many years, two cars, one that we used for highway driving and an ancient Civic that we kept around just because. As we biked more and more, the Civic mostly sat in the driveway, under-utilized. It didn’t cost us much, but it still felt like a waste, so we sold it on Craig’s List this spring and put the money toward new bikes. The space it occupied is now part of the garden.
By making it possible for more people to utilize more non-motorized forms of transportation more often, we’d all be better off. Cars are useful but they should be reserved for contexts in which they make sense. Instead, we’ve designed our cities so that all of us are paying a lot for the privilege of buying expensive tools that are ill-suited to most of the uses to which we put them.
To be clear, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by individuals alone. Homebuyers and other consumers can vote with their dollars, but they’re constrained by market supply and budget, especially with big-ticket items like housing. Creating bike-friendly, walkable neighborhoods that are also affordable takes coordination and planning, which is why we need urban planners and other local officials who can think about how urban design, zoning ordinances, public health, local economy, and environmental stewardship come together.
Although I appreciate all of the social, environmental, and economic reasons for non-motorized transportation, to be honest, mostly I just enjoy being able to go places and do the things I need to do without relying on a car.
The more time you spend on a bike, moving under your own power, the less likely you are to abide any sort of traffic. It’s a useful life lesson.
Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design
This is one of the best books I’ve read all year; I ran across the recommendation on the blog of Mr. Money Mustache, a staunch advocate of financial freedom through, among other things, biking.
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