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  • Greg Neiman

To Save the World, Save the Cyclists!

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

How Cycling Can Save the World

By Peter Walker

published by TarcherPerigee

Of course cycling cannot save the world. The question of that is far more complex, involving getting past climate change denial, economic and social inequality, a looming cost-of-health-care crisis and the built-in resistance of city planners, traffic engineers and elected leaders.

Even so, respected Guardian columnist Peter Walker makes a convincing and easily-read case for leaving our collective salvation to billions of people worldwide riding bikes.

More than half of all people now live in cities, most of which are clogged with motor traffic and the pollution of motor traffic. Too many people spend too much time sitting at a desk, burning an ever-larger portion of their incomes supporting the vehicle they feel is needed to get them to work, and their children to school. And it is killing them early.

Walker opens his book with an exhaustive look at alarming studies into the cost of our modern sedentary lifestyle. He suggests health officials are not kept awake nights worrying about the cost of early deaths due to sitting around too much: obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer's, etc. (these add up to roughly the combined populations of Alberta and Saskatchewan every year, about equal to global deaths caused by tobacco). Rather, they worry about the multi-trillion-dollar cost of morbidity from these diseases — the spending of health resources needed to keep these sick people alive.

Walker references the Barnet Graph of Doom, which was drawn to determine the date when health care costs in a county in northern England would consume every dollar of all taxes raised — in their case, 2022.

If these diseases could be cured and prevented in pill form, the inventor would gain an instant Nobel Prize, and reap billions instantly from selling it. Yet that “silver bullet” (as designated by the U.S. association of cardiac surgeons) already exists virtually for free, available to all, in the form of active transportation.

Cycling is, after all, active transportation in its most efficient form.

To bring that to a local perspective, read the letters and articles in the paper regarding the provincial government's denial of a cardiac unit for the Red Deer hospital. The argument could be made that if a tiny fraction of the cost of such a unit had been made in better street planning and cycling infrastructure in just the last decade, Red Deer might not need one. Ditto expanding our costly dialysis services.

From health, Walker moves to issues of social inclusion. The more opportunities that low-income people have for movement in cities, the more our cities become truly inclusive. When cycling moves from being a hobby for wealthy lycra-clad weirdos to a genuine alternative for people moving through their daily lives, the happier, more free and democratic a city becomes.

This is particularly true, Walker notes, for women, children and the elderly.

From there Walker moves to issues of safety. There is that radioactive issue of helmet laws — as one city councillor noted, touch it and you die. But Walker's research contends that if you think helmets and high-visibility clothing are the answer to a perceived (and erroneous) view that cycling is dangerous, you have asked the wrong question.

The safest place on earth to ride is in Amsterdam, where you will see very little high-viz lycra, and very few helmets. Check that against Australia and New Zealand where strict helmet laws exist simply to keep people off their bikes.

Helmets do not make a mass cycling culture safe. Separation from cars, properly planned intersections and thoroughly connected bike routes do.

How safe is safe? In places where this has been studied the most, basically, safe is safe where you can let an eight-year-old ride to school and back, unaccompanied.

And where these are built, even their most ardent champions were amazed at how quickly cycling as a portion of total commutes exploded. As in tripsdoubling twice or four times over in a few years.

Walker noted boroughs where cyclists daily lifted bikes over barriers on uncompleted sections of bike routes still under construction. That phenomenon is happening today in Red Deer on 55th Street east, where the paved bike lane ends 20 metres short of its intersection with the new bike route heading south on 20th Ave. Dozens of bike tracks can be seen in the mud, and were there even when a barrier was set up last summer closing the last kilometre of finished pavement, short as it ended up being.

I'm a biased reviewer, and I'm not sure cycling can save the world all by itself. But I am convinced the stubborn and short-sighted attitudes that raise barriers to people feeling safe in exercising their health and economic choices will probably doom it.

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