Active Living Research Conference shows payoff in bicycling
Last week I attended the Active Living Research Annual Conference in San Diego, California. The meeting was a step outside of the bicycling-focused research we usually follow. Bicycling is just one part of the broader theme of preventing childhood obesity. At the same time, public health researchers are increasingly realizing that bicycling is an important part of obesity prevention, so there were a number of interesting presentations on bicycling-related research. What struck me was how wide-ranging the researchers’ approaches were to bicycling: they chose a diverse mix of settings for their studies, from the popular Portland, Oregon to a city far less associated with bicycling, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Thomas Gotschi, formerly of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, presented a cost-benefit analysis of bike infrastructure and promotion in the city of Portland, Oregon. We all know that bicycling has many benefits, but if a city invests in bicycling, exactly how long does it take to officially break even on that investment? Since 1991, Portland has spent $64 million on bicycling paths, lanes, and programs. There are a lot of people reaping the benefits of bicycling there now, but it won’t be until 2017 that enough has been saved on health care and fuel for the city to recoup its investment. However, the wait is worth it: by 2040, Portland will have saved $1 billion in healthcare expenses thanks to bikes. That’s a profit of $6.5 dollars for every dollar invested in bicycling.
Even though Dr. Gotschi’s study on Portland was original, it’s not exactly a surprise to hear good things about bicycling in Portland. What was unexpected was hearing a professor from Tulane University, Kathryn Parker, describe the benefits of bicycling in a much less likely place—New Orleans. Her presentation, “If You Build It, Will They Come?: The health impact of constructing new bike lanes in New Orleans, LA,” focused on bicycle lanes built post-Katrina in a low income area of the city with funds from a federal submerged roads program. Dr. Parker found that after the bike lanes were built, the number of bicyclists increased 56%. Also, the number of female riders more than doubled, and there was a large reduction in the number of cyclists riding the wrong way against traffic. The new bike lanes enabled a primarily low-income population to bicycle more often and more safely, hugely important in a neighborhood still recovering from devastation of Hurricane Katrina and in a state with a higher than average obesity rate.
While Portland is far ahead of New Orleans as far as investment in bicycling to date, these two examples go to show that bicycling can have its benefits anywhere, and that it’s never too late to start investing. It may take decades for the initial cost to be recouped, but the positive effects can be realized immediately, even in the least likely places.