Building a Bike Culture

Bloomington, Indiana is in the budding stages of having a bicycle culture. From the cold, cold days this winter, when I was often the sole bike commuter, gas prices hovering in the manageable 2s and 3s, until today, I have witnessed its blooming. Every day I see more bikes ride past my house, on their way to work or class, or just to meet a friend for breakfast. And each person who hops on a bike demonstrates to one more driver that a bicycle is viable for transportation.

But what is a bicycle culture? To me, a bicycle culture is one in which the decision to hop on a bike for a trip downtown--to work, to shop, to a meeting--is just as natural, if not more natural, and just as easy, as hopping in a car. A bicycle culture has almost as many bicycles as cars on the road. It encourages cities to fashion bike lanes for bicycle safety and instill measures that, in fact, favor bicycles.

A bicycle culture means waving at a friend, instead of honking. And it means riding straight up to your destination, rather than spending 15 minutes circling for parking. Bloomington, as a small town, makes it easy to jump in a car. Sometimes, it is difficult to find a place to park, but in general, if you're willing to walk a block or two, parking is not a problem. But it is also a town which only spans a few miles. From the East Side of the city to the downtown, Bloomington spans only 4 to 5 miles. From the neighborhood near Bryan Park, where many city dwellers live, to downtown, the distance is only 1 mile. These are manageable distances.

Why do we even need a bike culture?

A bicycle culture brings many benefits to a town. More bikes on the road mean, naturally, fewer cars. More bikes and fewer cars means transportation is safer. Although many people fear riding a bicycle for safety reasons, bikes are generally safer than cars. But as more bikes pile into the streets, traffic becomes that much more secure. Cars are more aware of bicycles when there are increased numbers on the road.

Riding a bicycle is healthier than driving in a car. Bloomington, though a fairly healthy city, is located in one of the most overweight states in the country (and thus one of the fattest places in the world). Indiana ranks low on many health indices because our officials have continuously chosen to provide and improve infrastructure for cars instead of for bicycles and pedestrians. Each short trip on a bicycle helps to burn calories and trim those waistlines (for those so inclined to worry).

Bicycles also help the environment, both the local and the global. At the local level, cars emit pollutants that contribute to smog and the build up of ozone. This is what creates those hazy summer days. Pollutants such as these worsen allergies, asthma, and other lung conditions. But on a wider scale, car emissions contribute to the build up of carbon in the atmosphere, contributing to the global warming.

Most American car trips are 2 miles or less. This is a distance easily and quickly traveled on a bicycle. And these short car trips contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions. Cars are most efficient and least polluting at the 55 or 60 mile per hour mark. The further away from that mile per hour mark a car travels, the more polluting it is. Thus, those 10 minutes circling to find a suitable parking spot contributes much more towards air pollution than 10 minutes of driving 55 miles per hour on the interstate.

Safety and pollution are important reasons to ride a bicycle, but the benefits are greater. Riding a bike, like exercise in general, helps diminish depression and creates a positive outlook on life. On a bike, you are more likely to see and chat with friends. You can hear the birds. And you are more in touch with your surroundings. These small things help build and maintain a community. On a bike, you get to know your neighbors.

And the benefits of bike riding do not stop at the individual. Businesses also benefit from bicycles. Studies have shown that people are more likely to stop and shop when they are on foot or bike than when they are in a car. And this is logical. If someone has to drive around to find a spot to park, they are less likely to run into multiple stores. But if they are already on foot, and entering closely spaced stores is easier, then they are more apt to stop and buy, helping local businesses.

This is just the start of the benefits a bicycle culture can bring to Bloomington, and I plan on expanding each of these topics in the future. For now, suffice it to say, that blooming the bike culture in Bloomington can only make our wonderful city that much wonderfuler.

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