Public health

Let’s all oppose anti-cycling bill HF 499

Rep. Quam just introduced bill HF 499 at the state legislature to require anyone who wants to use a bike lane to first take a course, pass a test, and then pay a fee to register. It would also make it illegal for anyone under the age of 15 to use a bike lane. This is the same representative who wants to legalize LGBTQ discrimination in Minnesota. He’s clearly a stand-up guy.

This is a garbage bill clearly aimed to appease angry Star Tribune commenters who shout about cyclists needing to be licensed. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a terrible idea for people to have more engagement and education, but it is a bad idea to force people to complete unnecessary and time consuming tasks before they’re allowed to legally ride a bike. Why don’t we use the money that would be spent on enforcing this to increase Safe Routes to School funding in our schools, or incorporate bicycle training into drivers’ ed courses?

The next step for this bill is to go to the Transportation and Regional Governance Policy. Please write to the members of this committee and ask them to oppose the bill. You can find their contact information here. If one of them represents you, make sure to note that in your email.

Here’s what I wrote in my emails. Feel free to modify and use it yourself:

Dear Representative X,

I’m writing to strongly oppose bill HF 499. Making people complete a course, test, and pay a registration fee to use urban bicycle lanes would serve little purpose except to discourage people from riding bikes. As a public health professional, I know the benefits that come from bicycling, whether that is biking commuting or casually biking around the lakes as recreation.

One of the best things about riding a bike is that it’s equally accessible for all people. Young and old, fit and not-so-fit, enthusiastic rider and casual pedaler. Making people jump through hoops to ride bikes will mean that less people do it. As we’ve seen through numerous studies, the more people out on the street riding bikes, the safer it is. Restrictive cycling laws only serve to discourage people from biking which makes biking less safe due to fewer cyclists on the roads.

Biking is good for individuals and good for our communities. Getting around by bike reduces air pollution while improving individual health and helping folks save on transportation costs.

I implore you not to support bill HF 499 since it will create unnecessary barriers to riding a bike, something that should be accessible for all. Will you plan to oppose this bill?

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Make the right choices easy

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I was talking with an engineer the other day about how she spends a lot of time thinking about how to create machines that make the right choices easy and the wrong choices hard. For example, someone operating a machine that could maim their hands has to press two buttons in two different places, which keeps their hands safely away from the dangerous moving parts. She concluded, “If you make it possible to do the wrong thing, people will do the wrong thing.”

Anthony at Break the Twitch just wrote about how making certain things in your own life less convenient can help you make healthier choices. I’m totally into his suggestions. I removed Facebook from my phone several weeks ago and it’s helped me break some bad internet habits. If we scale up this suggestion, remove it from the individual level and apply it widely, it can be even more powerful. In public health grad school, the main thing I learned is that it’s not easy to get people to change their unhealthy behaviors. People who don’t exercise might decide to start, but a trip to the gym is just one more obligation to fit into a busy week. They might keep up with it, but many people do not. People might decide to eat healthier, but if they lack cooking know-how or access to fresh, healthy food, this healthy habit may not last either. The list goes on.

This is why I give a shit about biking. If people can use their own muscles for transportation, it suddenly becomes easy and convenient to get enough exercise. Biking is better for the environment than driving and saves people money. Really, it’s all the things I care about wrapped up in one pretty, two-wheeled package. One way to support active transportation is by making the wrong things harder and the right things easier at a higher level.

Make the wrong things harder

Parking: Finding parking is much too cheap and easy. If your car is parked right outside your house, what’s to stop you from hopping in it every time you need to go somewhere? If parking at your destination is free, why would you bother with other transportation options? People get so angered by the idea of removing parking for bike lanes because it makes parking less convenient or means they might have to pay for parking. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that person who lives five blocks away will choose to walk instead. Maybe that person who lives a mile away will bike now that there’s a bike lane and parking is a little harder to come by. We should embrace the inconvenience of fewer parking options. Removing parking can encourage healthy behaviors by making the healthy choices more convenient and the unhealthy choice less so.

Wide streets: Wide streets with lots of travel lanes are very convenient for motorized traffic. People get mad when you even think about removing traffic lanes. What’s convenient for motorized traffic during rush hour is detrimental to the health of the city and its people overall since “high-speed roads destroy walkable cities.” When traffic is speeding through an area at 40mph people in cars do not stop to support local businesses, it’s harder for people on foot and on bike to get around, and it’s much less safe.

Make the right things easier

Protected bikeways: Biking for some people isn’t an easy choice because they’re afraid of biking so close to fast moving vehicles. Implementing great bike infrastructure can make it a much easier decision to ride a bike. As we expand the bike network, it makes it easier for people to get to their destination using bike facilities, which makes biking a more attractive option.

road dietRoad diets: A road diet is when you narrow or remove lanes from a street to create overall improvements. A very common road diet is called a 4-to-3 conversion, which you can see pictured at the left. This diet removes two travel lanes and exchanges them for a center turn lane. Four-lane roads can be very dangerous. Cars are often weaving unpredictably to pass traffic waiting in the left lane to turn. Many pedestrians and cyclists have been killed when one driver waits at a crosswalk to wave them through while another driver weaves up to pass and hits them. 4-to-3 conversions greatly improve safety on a road by making traffic speeds more uniform and predictable. These diets also provide extra room that can be used for bike lanes. When lanes are narrower, people feel less comfortable driving fast, they’re encouraged through the environment to make the right choice.

Density: Dense neighborhoods are walkable neighborhoods. People walk when they have a reason to walk. In my neighborhood, Whittier, I can walk a few blocks to the co-op, coffee shops, clothing stores, an art supplies store, and many bars. I can easily walk a little outside my neighborhood to the dog park, book store, library, hardware store, UPS store, two other grocery stores, and a lot more bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. Building denser neighborhoods makes both walking and biking fun and pleasant ways to get around. Density also builds community. When there are reasons to be out and about, it’s much more likely that you’ll see and get to know your neighbors. Several weeks ago I took a walk with my 10-year-old cousin who lives in the suburbs. After the walk, I asked him what he thought of my neighborhood. He said, “It’s really cool! You can walk everywhere!” Even kids like density.

Open streets: It’s not convenient to drive when the street you want to drive on is closed. Open Streets events close large sections of major roads during the summer so people can experience their streets and neighborhoods in a new way. These events encourage community building and active transportation, while creating opportunities for people to support local businesses. It’s an all around win, and if it makes driving less convenient? All the better.

Summary

Convenience is a problem. When unhealthy choices are the easiest choices, people will make them. Everyone is better off when we design our cities to make the right choices easier.

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How people get started biking

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In the five months since I started this blog, I’ve done a number of interviews with Twin Cities area cyclists. I like to ask them for the details on how they got started biking in the first place. A consistent theme has emerged over time. One major way people first start biking is simply because they see other people doing it.

From the interviews

“I saw people with bikes and I was like, well maybe I could [bike] to go up to the coffee shop or go to the video store or things like that.” – Dana DeMaster

“Seeing how many other people were doing it. At first I thought it seemed unbelievably impractical to ride your bike downtown and then after awhile I was like, I think I could do that. Then I started trying to ride downtown. After that I saw people riding in the winter and I was like, no way. A year later, I was riding in the winter.” – Jessica Baltzley

“We saw people biking around there all the time and I thought it would be a good thing to get out and do together.” – Justin Wallace

“I think I’d been living there for maybe a month and I realized I needed a bike. My friends had bikes.” – Nick Sandstrom

Self-efficacy

This trend doesn’t really surprise me, because seeing other people doing something is a well-documented way to improve someone’s self-efficacy. I’ve talked about self-efficacy before, but as a refresher, self-efficacy is simply the confidence you have to do a particular thing if you set your mind to it. This premise is a major foundational component of many behavior change theories. If someone’s self-efficacy goes up, they’re more likely to engage in the behavior.

So then, how do we make someone’s self-efficacy go up? There are three main ways: mastery experiences, vicarious learning, and social persuasion. The other two are important, but I’ll just be talking about vicarious learning here. Vicarious learning is the idea that seeing someone who is similar to you doing something can make you feel more confident in your ability to do that thing. That’s exactly what I’ve seen through these interviews. People notice others riding their bikes around town and think something along the lines of, “hey, that looks doable and fun, I should try that.” Sometimes the hardest barrier to break is just that barrier of doing something the first time. When it comes to biking, vicarious learning can help someone overcome that first time barrier.

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Promoting cycling through vicarious learning

St. Paul Women on Bikes recently released a summary of five focus groups they conducted to learn about barriers to cycling among women in St. Paul. They specifically focused on hearing from “women of color, women who don’t consider themselves bicyclists, and others who often get left out of conversations about biking in St. Paul.” One theme in the focus group conversations was that there are cultural perceptions that biking is for other (white) people. The authors recommend “seeing more people like me” on bikes as an important insight for promoting new bike ridership.

While cycling is becoming more normalized in certain populations and certain parts of the city, it’s not equal across the board. Just because people in my neighborhood may be encouraged to start biking because they see me on a bike, doesn’t mean that someone who is from a different cultural background would. That’s why encouragement of all people to bike is so important. Even as a few people in a community start biking, their cycling behavior is subtly influencing others.

Summary

I think it’s pretty cool that just by doing something you love to do, you might be part of a communal fabric that’s encouraging your friends and neighbors to bike. Perhaps we’re about to see an explosion of cycling over the next few years, as more and more people start biking due to this influence, and their presence on the road influences more and more people to start biking too. I’m looking forward to it.

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Six reasons riding a bike is the best


There are so many benefits to riding a bike. It’s easy to explain all of these reasons to someone, to appeal with well researched arguments including statistics on health gained, CO2 reduced, and money saved. But, while I love the fact that biking is so beneficial in so many ways, laying out all the reasons doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. The true reason I love biking so much is the pure, unadulterated joy it brings me. It’s that childhood rush of feeling free and invincible and like you can take on anything. That said, the other reasons are pretty compelling too. Let’s explore them.

1. Health

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: biking is really good for you. Building exercise into your daily life is a practical way to ensure that you continue being active, regardless of life circumstances, obligations, or lack of motivation. Most of us don’t get enough exercise, even though we know we need it. Regular physical activity prevents against chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers. When exercise is just another chore to be fit in to a busy schedule, it’s easy to forget about it or lose motivation or tell yourself it’s okay to skip it because that event tonight is totally a better use of your time. When exercise is completely integrated into the fabric of your life, you don’t even notice how much you’re getting. I can have a completely packed and busy day, but because I bike 11 miles round-trip to work each day, I’m pretty well set for activity even if I don’t do anything extra.

Biking isn’t just good for your physical health, it’s good for mental health. Physical activity can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I have an overactive mind. I tend to overthink. Biking is a reprieve. While on my bike, those thoughts lose less of their power. The exercise clears my head. When I get to work I’m more focused, creative, and productive.

2. Environment

Taking into account the entire life cycle of the vehicles involved, driving releases 271g of CO2 into the atmosphere for every kilometer driven while taking the bus releases 101g and biking releases 21g. Did you see that? Biking produces a mere 7.7% of the carbon that driving does. This is a very important reason for me. I know it’s important because even when I’ve gotten enough exercise and I have enough money to drive, there is still this part of me inside that feels guilty and unhappy about taking out my car.

It’s easy to think that the actions we take in our daily life are so insignificant that there’s no way they could impact the climate crisis we’re now in, but we can’t think that way. Sure, you’re one piece of an overall puzzle, but here in Minneapolis we can be proud that we’ve chosen to live in a walkable and bikeable city. Large segments of this community value transportation modes that are good for the environment. If we think of it as a community of people working together locally to do what we can to decrease our consumption and CO2 emissions, well that seems a little more hopeful to me.

3. Money

Let’s talk about how bike commuting saves you a ton of money. Hold on to your butts, I’m about to lay down some statistics:

  • The average commute in the US is 25.4 minutes, and average gas mileage for a small sedan in 2013 was 23.4 mpg. If we assume a 50.8 minute commute is 30 miles round trip, and we take this comprehensive estimate for wear and tear of 66 cents per mile, that means car commuting will cost you $19.80/day. 
  • Riding a bike, by contrast, costs about $300 a year in maintenance, which means bike commuting will cost you $1.20/day. You do still have to buy food for fuel. However, you’re probably eating enough food already, so it’s really just helping you work off those extra donuts.

This is only taking into account your commute. If you replace other errands with biking, you’ll end up saving more. Plus, if you get to a point where you realize you’re hardly driving anymore and can get rid of your car, you’ll save even more. This is not to mention the fact that you’ll miss fewer days of work due to illness, you won’t have to spend money or time at the gym, and you’ll be in better shape which has a myriad of benefits including making you more appealing to employers.

4. Friends

Making friends as an adult isn’t easy, but going on a group ride is. On my first few group rides, I didn’t know anyone, and after the rides I still didn’t really know anyone. Little did I know, there were friendships there waiting. There were people who I’d see on ride after ride, at event after event, and whose names and faces I would come to know. Group rides are perfect for this because anyone can join, and by their very nature they make it natural to fall into place biking besides someone and strike up a conversation.

I’ve also met people while simply out on the street riding my bike. In fact, I met the city’s new Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator, Matthew Dyrdahl, last summer when I complimented him on his Brompton. It just so happens that I now work with him regularly as part of my role on the Bicycle Advisory Committee. Getting involved by volunteering or attending public meetings can be a neat way to meet like-minded folks. It’s scary to put yourself out there no matter what you’re doing, but I find biking to be a great way to get exposed to groups of friendly, social strangers on a regular basis.

5. Convenience

Once you get used to riding a bike in the city, it’s the only transportation option you’ll want. Cities are perfectly sized for bikes. It’s a hassle to drive your car somewhere and fight for parking with other cars. Walking is pleasant, but it takes too long if you’re going farther than a mile or two miles. Depending on where you are, public transportation may not be convenient and it’s kind of expensive. Biking is the Goldilocks of transportation options: it’s just right, especially when you consider the fact that driving two miles and biking two miles both take about ten minutes.

I really love the description by the late biker/blogger Ezra Caldwell, who, after being diagnosed with with colon cancer and told by his doctor he wan’t allowed to sit on a bike seat, promptly created an assless bike: “From the start of this thing, the notion of not being allowed to ride a bike has been the biggest problem for me. I’d like to stress that it isn’t a pride issue. It’s purely practical. Once you’ve gotten used to getting around the city on a bike, other methods just seem ponderous.”

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The assless bike.

I can’t agree with this more. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and while recently in the midst of a knee arthritis flare, a brusque on-call nurse told me not to ride my bike. I was at a conference at the time. I went into the bathroom and cried. Biking is one of the best parts of my day. It makes my body feel good, rests my hamster wheel mind, and is the way that I get to everywhere I can’t or don’t want to walk to. If I’m not allowed to bike, I’m at a complete and utter loss for how to get places and how to get exercise.

6. Joy

This item cannot be quantified, even though it’s what really matters on a daily basis. All of the above points would be moot if biking were a horrible chore. Thankfully, it’s not. It’s simple and easy and fun. Riding a bike makes me feel connected with my city and my community. It makes me feel vibrant and alive. When I’m transporting myself using my own leg power, I feel strong and capable. There is nothing like it. Biking just really is the best.

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Why I’m done wearing a helmet

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I’m done wearing a bike helmet.

Now, don’t hold me to that. Maybe I’ll want one in the winter when the roads are icy. Maybe I’ll be required to wear one on a group ride. Maybe I’ll travel cross-country, planning to bike on deserted roads. But when it comes to casual riding, I’m done.

At the conference I attended last week, I mentioned, “I don’t wear a helmet, and I’m a public health professional,” to audible gasps and laughter. I invited people to ask me why later, and many of them did. I’ll share with you what I told them in just a moment, but let me preface this: I think the main problem around making an informed decision about whether to wear a helmet is hard because there isn’t great data around helmet use. Due to the confirmation bias, we’re all looking for information to back up the belief that we already have. Do your own research, use your own brain, and figure out what seems right and feels right for you.

It’s debatable whether helmets are effective.

A 1987 study of helmet use determined that helmets reduce the risk of serious injury by 85%. That’s a statistic you’ll still see all over the place. The problem is, that study was deeply flawed and has been refuted. Governmental agencies have stopped using this number due to issues with the study. Other more recent studies have investigated the question of helmet efficacy, and have found that the benefit is not nearly as high as we used to think. One well-done study that evaluated all the current studies out there (called a meta-analysis) found there to be no benefit to helmet use when you take into account all types of injuries. Helmets protect against certain kinds of injuries (those to the head) and increase the likelihood of other injuries (those to the neck). Any study about helmet use is very hard to do well. You can’t assign one group of people to use helmets and another group of people not to use them. All you can do is look at two groups of people and compare them. The people who wear helmets are likely more safety-conscious than those who don’t, which makes comparing the two groups very difficult and will make it appear that helmets are more protective than they actually are.

People will often put up photos on social media of obliterated helmets and say, “Holy crap, look at my helmet! It saved my life!” But helmets are not supposed to shatter. When a helmet protects your head from a serious injury, the styrofoam inside will be compressed and stay that way. Most of the pictures I’ve seen are of helmets that have broken apart. It’s likely that the helmet did not protect someone from a severe injury.

Most cyclists don’t die from independently falling off their bikes, 92% of cyclists die because they are hit by cars. Bike helmets only protect against certain types of injuries to certain parts of the head, and the evidence is not compelling that they even do that well.

Helmets don’t protect you against crashes

Helmets don’t protect you against crashes, in fact they might make crashes more likely. It’s inevitable that after a motorist-cyclists crash you’ll see every media article mention, “the cyclist was/wasn’t wearing a helmet.” It doesn’t matter if a drunk driver sideswiped the cyclist and broke both of their legs, the news report will say “the cyclist was/wasn’t wearing a helmet.” It’s as if people think that wearing a helmet will save you from crashing in the first place. It won’t.

There is some evidence that cars may pass cyclists closer if they are wearing a helmet. This makes intuitive sense to me as cyclists appear more aggressive and protected when wearing a helmet which may make drivers feel safer giving them less room to ride. Some of the most severe and dangerous motorist-cyclist crashes happen when the driver gets too close and the car sideswipes the bike. I want as much room as possible, thankyouverymuch.

Just because someone wears a helmet doesn’t mean they’re a safer cyclist. It seems like a lot of people use helmet use as a proxy for caring about safety, and that’s just not true. Learning safe riding skills, being visible, and being attentive are the things we all can do to prevent a crash.

Helmet use may deter people from biking

The most protective factor for biking is having more bikers on the road. When there are more cyclists on the road, drivers are more used to seeing cyclists out, and are more likely to be looking for them. However, if potential cyclists see everyone else in their community wearing helmets while riding a bike, it communicates that biking is a dangerous activity that requires special protective gear. Someone may be deterred from riding a bike because they think it’s risky. Someone else may be deterred from biking because they think they have to wear a helmet and they don’t want to mess up their hair. Many more motorists and pedestrians die in traffic collisions per year than do bicyclists. We don’t see them wearing helmets.

The bike share systems are good evidence of how important casual cycling is. In over 23 million trips on bike share bikes, there haven’t been any fatalities and only 40 people have been hurt. Most bikers on bike share bikes do not wear helmets. In fact, mandatory helmet laws make it incredibly difficult for cities to begin bike share systems, even though these systems successfully increase casual cycling and getting more people biking. The people riding these bikes are usually slower than other cyclists and the upright orientation of the bike share bikes may lend to a more casual style of cycling.

The benefits of biking much outweigh the risks

Biking is good for public health, it increases physical activity and reduces air pollution. The long-term benefits of cycling on health outweigh the slight risk involved. When you take into account the long-term health benefits, it’s much more dangerous not to get enough physical activity than it is to ride a bike. If not wanting to wear a helmet deters someone from riding a bike, that sucks, because biking is healthy and awesome.

It’s humanizing not to wear a helmet

I am a human. I have skin that can get bruised and a head that can get bashed in and blood that can gush out in the event that a car runs me over. I don’t want to hide my head behind a helmet, I want drivers to pass me on the street and see that I am a person, a human, just like them. I think of my bare head as a sign that says: I am a living creature who wants to keep living, so please don’t hit me.

I was just in Europe, in Barcelona and Amsterdam, where cycling is pervasive. Hardly anyone wears a helmet, and most people have upright handlebars. This orientation feels safer to me. It makes it easier to see my surroundings and encourages me to take my time, look around, and bike a little slower. Since I got home, I replaced my road bike’s drop handlebars with swept back bars, for a more upright riding position, and I stopped using the helmet.

Besides, it’s glorious to feel the wind in my hair.

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