Positive Cycling: Riding Our Bicycles Down the Path to Community Development Success

David W. Sears and Colin D. Sears

Let's spend a day in the Netherlands! You will notice many people going about their daily lives using their bicycles. You will see children riding their bicycles to school. And you'll encounter workers riding to their jobs, or to the train station where they will continue the journey to work. You will see mothers and fathers taking the kids to day care on their bicycles. And you will see lots of folks with their bicycle baskets brimming with the purchases from shopping trips.

Bicycling is woven into the fabric of life in the Netherlands. This is especially true in Amsterdam and other high-density regions, but also holds in rural districts. Very interesting, you might respond, and certainly spending a day wandering around the Netherlands can be fun; but what does this have to do with community development?

The Theory of Positive Cycling

The thesis of this chapter is that increasing the per-capita use of bicycling for daily transportation will produce community development and economic development gains for most U.S. regions (see Table 19.1). We call this our theory of positive cycling.

For most regions in the United States, the rush-to-the-top strategy for economic development is much more attractive and viable than the low-tax-low-wage rush-to- the-bottom strategy. A region that is selling itself using the rush-to-the-top strategy is generally offering a development package of highly qualified workers, excellent infrastructure, and first-class public services, along with an overall high quality of life for both workers and managers.

In the rush-to-the-top strategy, economic development (e.g., high median household income) and community development objectives (e.g., good health of residents, good air, and water quality) are intertwined; that is, generally, economic development success (strong prosperity) enhances community development success (high quality of life) and vice versa.

Table 19.1. How Increased Bicycling Will Promote Community Development Success

Increased transportation bicycling will lead to


Improvement in per-capita health status


Improvement in air quality


Reduction in greenhouse emissions


Reduction in noise


Increase in per-capita smart growth development*


Decrease in per-capita transportation expenditures (both private and public)


Increase in open-space opportunities


Decrease in travel time (in some situations)


Increase in mobility options


Increase in recreational bicycling


Increase in tourism bicycling


Benefits to nonbicyclists


Increase in community friendliness

*Note: More smart growth, in turn, leads to increases in per-capita transportation bicycling as well as to other quality-of-life increases via improvement in per-capita health status, improvement in air quality, reduction in greenhouse emissions, and more time for family and recreation activities (due to less time per-capita spent on commuting).

We argue that any steps a region can take to increase per-capita use of transportation bicycling[1] will make the region's development package stronger and lead to greater economic and community development.

As we stated, increased per-capita transportation bicycling will produce several quality-of-life improvements. Taken together, these improvements will enhance both economic and community development. The following quality-of-life improvements assume that increased transportation bicycling will come almost entirely at the expense of automobile driving.

• Each mile for which bicycling is substituted for driving will result in increased exercise for the participant. Thus, one of the quality-of-life benefits of increased bicycling will be the improved per-capita health of the community.

• Increased transportation bicycling will result in decreased air pollution and greenhouse gases.[2] Since bicycles are quieter than cars, noise in the community will also be reduced. So another quality-of-life benefit of increased bicycling will be the improved environmental quality of the community.[3]

• Increased transportation bicycling will lead to a stronger constituency for smart growth policies and practices.[4] The logic here is that as people switch from driving their automobiles to riding their bicycles, they will increasingly appreciate the benefits of the shorter trips made possible by the smart growth approach and will be encouraged to use their bikes even more.

• Per-capita transportation costs will be lower, since both the capital cost and per-mile operational cost of a bicycle is a tiny fraction of the cost of driving a car.[5]

• Costs will be lower for infrastructure needed to support vehicles (compare the cost of providing parking for a car with that for a bicycle; likewise, compare the number of square feet of pavement required to travel in a car with that required for a bicycle). In addition, new open-space opportunities may appear as need for automobile space on roads and parking lots is replaced by much less space to accommodate bicycles.

• People will have more time for family, recreation, and other activities. Bicycling will often, especially for shorter trips and in higher density communities, take less time than driving.

• Some people do not have cars because they are too young or too poor. Improving the bicycle infrastructure can vastly increase the realistic mobility options for them.

The focus of this chapter is not on recreational bicycling. Nonetheless, many of the following infrastructure improvements suggested for encouraging more transportation bicycling will have the side benefit of making recreational bicycling more attractive.

• Increases in transportation bicycling will likely lead to increases in exercise (assuming at least some of the additional bicycling hours were previously spent on more sedentary activities), thus leading to health improvements for the community.

• Improving the bicycling infrastructure of a community will increase quality of life. That is, even beyond any health benefits, the bicyclists who can enjoy more and higher quality bicycle routes will find living in this community more attractive than before.

Tourists can also enter into the equation. Some tourists may be attracted to a community or region partly because of its strong infrastructure for bicycling. Simply by drawing more tourists to the area, the enhanced bicycle infrastructure will directly contribute to local economic development. In addition, a strong bicycle infrastructure may induce some tourists to choose to do some of their internal transportation (e.g., from hotel to museum, from park to restaurant) using rental bicycles. Assuming this transportation bicycling by tourists is, at least partially, substituting for automobile travel, then again, the result is an increase in the community's quality of life thanks to improvements in environmental quality.

It is noteworthy that even those who never bicycle at all will benefit in some ways from increased per-capita bicycling in the community. For instance, drivers will enjoy improved air quality and lower traffic congestion that results from getting others onto bicycles.

Finally, there is the intangible positive “feel” that a community with lots of bicycling creates. Visitors and residents can read a community dense with bicycling activity as a friendly and safe place. It's much easier to wave a friendly greeting from your bicycle than from your car.

Using the latest figures available, looking across an array of costs and benefits, including most of those mentioned previously, one researcher has estimated that the net benefit of shifting a trip from automobile to bicycle is at least $5.72 in urban settings (rising to $11.20 in peak periods) and is $3.04 in rural areas. He adds that these estimates are likely quite low, since he did not include some of the more difficult-to-quantity benefits, such as improved health and increased smart growth (Littman 2004, 25).

  • [1] Transportation bicycling is any bicycling trip that replaces a trip, or part of a trip, that would otherwise have taken place using some other means of transportation. For instance, it is likely that any bicycle trip to work, school, or shopping would, absent the bicycle hip, have been made anyway – using an automobile or a bus or walking. Recreational bicycling is any bicycling hip with the puipose of having fun or exercising rather than going to a destination for a purpose. The vast majority of bicycle trips fall into one of these two categories.
  • [2] In fact, one study estimates that each new mile spent bicycling is accompanied by a reduction of seven miles spent driving a car (Littman 2004, 3).
  • [3] Less driving per capita will also have the positive foreign-policy impact of reducing the U.S. reliance on oil imports from various unsavory petrol-laden regimes.
  • [4] Smart growth is the collection of policies and practices that lead to an increase in the percentage of the region's development occurring in higher-density, multiuse neighborhoods.
  • [5] One study by Interface Cycling Expertise (2000) estimates a 1:100 ratio for bicycle cost-automobile cost; both capital costs and annual operating costs are factored into this estimate.
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