Tomorrow happens to be National Bike to Work Day, which made me curious about how many of us actually bike to work regularly. The numbers, according to the most recent census, are sobering: Only four tenths of 1 percent of Americans get to work on a bicycle. Seventy-seven percent, in contrast, drive—and by themselves. Could it be that surging gas prices might be prompting a change? Media reports suggest that the bike industry is on the verge of a boom, and there’s at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that Americans are itching to get back in the saddle.
In its blog, the Environmental Protection Agency wonders why people are or aren’t biking to work, and safety concerns, distance, and smelliness emerge from the comments as key barriers. I happen to be in that 0.4 percent, have been for the past six years or so, and imagine I will be until I retire or die. And, though I’m no spandex-clad enthusiast who shells out thousands of dollars for top-of-the-line racing bikes and gear, I’m convinced that such barriers are surmountable.
Biking is a reliable, safe, fun, and cheap way to get around—and it happens to be good exercise, too. Still, myths about bicycle commuting persist. Here are six I’ve noticed over the years; feel free to add your own in the comments section.
1. It’s too dangerous. Yes, there’s real risk associated with bicycling. Bikers do crash and get hit by cars. But how dangerous is biking in comparison with other forms of transportation and with our perception of the risk? A lot less than you might think.
Consider the calculations of a company that performs safety and failure testing, previously called the Failure Group and now known as Exponent. The company looked at a variety of activities and determined that the number of fatalities per million hours of exposure was 0.26 for biking, 0.47 for driving, 1.53 for living (all causes of death), and 8.80 for motorcycling. In other words, they found that the risks of biking were about half that associated with driving and a sixth of that associated simply with being alive.
(Click here for the complete table. Unfortunately, the exact calculations Exponent used are proprietary, and the full report is not available to the public, but rest assured that this isn’t a fly-by-night bikers’ advocacy organization that’s cooking the numbers. Exponent, as the company explains on its website, has been trusted to analyze high-profile accidents such as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and is internationally known for evaluating the safety of a range of a variety of products).
Still, that may seem a little hard to believe, and, as someone who spends a lot of time looking at statistics, I know how easily number crunchers can accidentally overestimate or underestimate a health risk. (This website, created by bicycle advocate Ken Kifer, has a detailed look at the incomplete and uncertain nature of bicycle safety statistics. And this blogger, posting on Grist, a website that features environmental news and commentary, offers another perspective on the Exponent stats).
So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Failure Associates study is an underestimation and consider another thorough report that measures the risks using a slightly different yardstick—the number of fatalities per billions of kilometers traveled rather than per hour of exposure. The Rutgers University researchers who completed this study concluded that, per kilometer traveled, bicycling fatalities are 11 times as high as car occupant fatalities. Seems pretty grim for biking until you look at what the same study found about walking. Pedestrian fatalities per kilometer traveled were 36 times as high as driving fatalities, suggesting that walking is more than three times as dangerous as biking.
That said, there’s still more that we bikers can do to take responsibility for our safety. A disturbing 24 percent of fatal bike accidents involve an intoxicated rider, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis. And fatalities aside, research shows that bikers get into many minor accidents that could be prevented. Numerous studies have shown that the failure to wear lights at night or a helmet significantly increases a biker’s risk. And, until more bike infrastructure is built (and it should be as it improves biker safety, too) bikers have to behave like cars when we’re in heavy traffic—which means that, like cars, we can’t ignore the rules of the road. Finally, newer riders have to be especially careful about drivers opening doors (you’ll get clipped) and making turns (they can’t always see you), and about riding on the sidewalks (you’ll get hit by cars exiting or entering driveways).
The bottom line: It’s not that biking is without risk, but some perspective is in order, especially when you start to factor in the many health benefits that biking provides.
2. It’s too far. The ride might take too long or take too much out of you if you live more than, say, 10 miles from work. But consider ways to expand your potential range. Many commuters, for example, use folding bikes so they can go partway on a commuter train (Swissbike uses technology originally designed for paratroopers to make the Hummer of folding bikes). Within city limits, many municipalities are now allowing bikes on buses or subway cars, too.
3. I'll need an expensive bike. Not true. You should be able to get a new or used bike suitable for basic commuting for less than $500. Find a good, local bike store with a knowledgeable staff (not, in other words, one of the big-box stores), explain the terrain and length of commute you’re considering, and they'll help you choose the appropriate frame and number of gears you’ll need. In fact, Eric Doyne of Shimano’s public relations team tells me that “lifestyle” bikes—designed for everyday, casual riders as opposed to the high-performance racing or mountain bikes designed for enthusiasts—are huge growth areas for the bike industry right now.
If you’re just starting out, you may want to look for a functional, commuter bike that has fenders to protect your clothes, a kickstand, and a comfortable seat. And, if you’re really looking for a relaxed ride, take a look at the new class of “coasting” bikes that are designed to reconnect people with carefree memories of biking as a kid. They feature pedal brakes—called coaster brakes—instead of hand brakes and an automatic shifter, and while they’re not designed for speed, they’re a great way to get reacquainted with the saddle, says Doyne.
4. It's impossible to carry the stuff I need. If this is what you think, you’re toting way more than the average person to work or you don’t have the right bag or features on your bike. A good basket or touring panniers will mean you can easily carry a computer, change of clothes, lunch, a few books, a slew of folders, and whatever other gadgets you regularly carry. Take a look at this bike and this pannier bag set if you’re looking for inspiration.
5. There’s nowhere to shower. Jeff Peel of the League of American Bicyclists says that many people do worry about this, but that there are numerous alternatives beyond simply showing up at the office smelly and sweaty. First, check to make sure that your building doesn’t have a shower somewhere. Mine does. If it doesn’t, check nearby gyms or fitness clubs. Many offer shower-only memberships for bike or running commuters. If you’re still striking out, Peel says, it’s amazing how far you can get with a sponge bath in a regular bathroom. Baby wipes work like a charm.
6. Biking will make me impotent. This is a charge that has circulated since the late 1990s, and there’s a kernel of truth to it. There is evidence that serious bike riders can experience temporary and even long-lasting erectile dysfunction if they log lots of hours on a racing seat that doesn’t fit properly. But there are now plenty of seats like this one with ergonomically designed cutaway grooves that take the pressure off the key arteries and nerves. And if you really want to play it safe, there are noseless saddles, too. As long as your saddle fits correctly and you don’t ride as much as somebody training for the Tour de France, biking is more apt to reduce your odds of erectile dysfunction than raise them, since the exercise will help keep cardiovascular disease—a major cause of erectile dysfunction—at bay.