I am a bicycle commuter. Each morning I ride seven or eight miles to the West Bank where I flip down the bike rack on one of the inter-campus buses, load my bike and enjoy the Daily for the remainder of my commute to St. Paul. I arrive at the campus relaxed and focused, having received a moderate cardiovascular workout under the elms of Minneapolis. In the evening, I’ll either load my bike back onto a bus or ride the full 12 miles or so home, a ride that includes a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River.
Minnesota bicycle commuting is safely and comfortably possible for at least eight months of the year. Bicycling in the cooler seasons provides impetus to put on an extra layer, get outside and experience the changing seasons. With proper clothing, a cyclist may even escape the confines of buildings and buses on a bright winter’s day.
There are considerable personal advantages to stepping into a toe clip rather than on a gas pedal every morning. Auto commuting produces stress that has an acknowledged impact on work and presumably, school performance. Studies have linked exposure to traffic congestion with elevated blood pressure, lower frustration tolerance and mood problems. In contrast, biking permits us to connect with our bodies and our world; to experience the power of our muscles and the texture of wind and pavement. Pedaling a bike can be an effective cardiovascular exercise as well. As such, it improves mental alertness and reduces stress.
Bicycle use for short trips makes economic sense. It is estimated that 50 percent of all damage to an automobile’s engine occurs during the first few seconds after starting a car. At this time, the motor oil is cold and has not yet been distributed over the moving parts of the engine. Since frequent short car trips (such as a daily commute) increase the number of cold starts a car is subjected to, the total mileage a car will endure is reduced.
Motor vehicles on short trips emit pollution at a higher rate than vehicles on long trips. Cold engines simply do not run at peak efficiency. Furthermore, short trips on average involve more acceleration and braking, which consumes more energy, creates more wear on automobile parts and generates more pollution. Note that it is just these shorter trips that can be efficiently, joyfully and economically executed by a bicycle, or a combination of a bicycle and public transportation.
Concerning environmental degradation, motor vehicles are the largest single source of air pollution around the world. When nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons from exhaust react with water droplets in the air, ozone is formed. Ozone is one of the most dangerous elements of smog, producing lung disease in humans and reducing crop productivity. Another byproduct of automobile exhaust is acid precipitation, which kills fish in lakes and streams, and damages huge tracts of forest in the northern United States and Canada. Ozone, nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide are automobile emissions implicated in the greenhouse effect.
A less commonly acknowledged connection between automobile use and pollution concerns the release of oil into oceans and fresh-water bodies. About 18 million barrels of waste oil finds its way to water through the flush cleaning of oil tankers, runoff from streets and the discharge of miscellaneous petroleum byproducts. Another 3 million barrels are lost in oil spills. About half of the petroleum used in our country is transported and refined to motor vehicle use.
One of the more far-reaching effects of our automobile infrastructure is its enormous land requirement. Nearly half of all metropolitan areas are paved to accommodate cars. Not only do cars require neighborhood (and campus) roads and highways, but driveways, garages and parking lots. Furthermore, the vast and relentless land consumption by unconfined suburban sprawl is made possible and fostered by the automobile. As people seek refuge from the motor vehicle congestion of the city, by moving from the urban to suburban or rural, they thereby assume a longer commute. Societally, this results in more pavement and automobile travel per person.
Tax-paying citizens, including bicycle commuters, subsidize motor vehicle transportation of more than $600 per person annually in the United States. This price tag includes the maintenance and policing of the motor vehicle infrastructure. Beyond this, automobile congestion is estimated to cost this nation in excess of $100 billion per year in lost productivity. The damages of automobile pollution to human health, property and crops have been estimated to exceed $200 billion annually. As more citizens opt for low-impact transport, their demands for proportional allocations to alternative transport systems become more justified. For bikers, these allocations could provide bike-and-ride public transportation services as well as safe, ubiquitous bikeways.
We in the United States have developed an auto dependence exceeded by none. U.S. drivers log almost as many miles behind the wheel as the rest of the world’s drivers combined. In order to reduce our automobile dependency, efforts must be launched on a number of fronts to increase our alternative transport options. Cities such as Portland, Ore., Palo Alto, Calif., and San Francisco are addressing these challenges through public transportation upgrades, building ordinances that prevent sprawl, and creating accommodations for commuters who wish to bike or combine bicycling with public transportation.
The Twin Cites have an excellent network of recreational bike paths. Street riders, however, are all too often left with little more than a gutter filled with potholes. Before cycling commuters will be adequately accommodated in the metro area, there has to be a sizable vanguard of people who ride to work.
By choosing to bike instead of drive whenever possible, we will immediately eliminate our air pollution and traffic-congestion contributions. Additionally, we will reap the benefits of physical health and stress reduction that cycling provides. In the long run, we will add our voices and votes to a swelling rank of Minnesotans who envision a clean, safe and breathable metro area for the future.
David Griffin is a graduate student in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.