This Tuesday, 19 April, is World Bicycle Day. To celebrate the occasion, we invited Isabel Ramis, author of the blog Muévete en bici por Madrid (Move around Madrid by Bicycle), to explain the benefits of using bicycles in cities.
The bicycle was for years the means of transport used by just about everybody, young and old, until it was discarded with the advent of the car. Cities began to grow and mobility became a problem: traffic, noise, gridlock, and pollution. It was passé to pedal, de rigueur to drive. And so the bike was relegated to minority transport mode: for those without money, especially sensitive towards the environment, or politically motivated against motor vehicles.
This vision, however, has been overturned in recent years and all over the world. The bicycle is becoming the necessary mobility solution once again and one our cities need. Compared to other transport modes, the positive externalities of the use of the bicycle affect both the individual and the community as a whole. It is the vehicle of change for a better society.
Healthy individual, healthy society
People who take up cycling as their usual way of getting around will begin to benefit very soon from an improvement in physical health – improved musculature, blood circulation and joints. It reduces the risk of a stroke, strengthens the back and prevents slipped discs. Just as important, it is also good for mental health: the brain receives more oxygen, making it easier to think. A study published a few months ago showed that children who went to school by bicycle got better marks than those who didn’t. It is also proven that regular cyclists suffer less from psychological illness and depression thanks to the greater generation of natural antidepressants such as endorphins.
When we talk about a healthy society, we are referring to a society that breathes clean air, free of the pollution frequently occurring in big cities. This used to be the exclusive concern of the environmental health department, but is now a real problem: pollution is the cause of premature death in 450,000 people a year in Europe. The European Union is pursuing this issue and has the power to fine our town halls for the breach of its regulations.
Savings for your pocket book and the public purse
From the economic viewpoint, the bicycle has always been the best way to move around, after walking that is. Both the initial investment and maintenance costs are infinitely lower than other private means and the bicycle needs neither fuel nor insurance. This is why it is the best solution for people with limited means and their workplace nearby. Meanwhile, it is also the chosen mode for the saver who prefers to invest money in things other than local transport, such as holidays, education or welfare.
At a societal level, promoting cycling – facilitating access to it through the availability of public bicycle schemes, cycle lanes or road safety campaigns – represents savings in public spending on the likes of cardio-respiratory disease, prevalent in our society as a consequence of poor air quality and cardiovascular dangers such as tobacco, alcohol abuse, sedentary lifestyles and unbalanced diets; in other words, it promotes a more preventive and less reactive, in the form of medicine, response. Or, to put it another way, the bicycle contributes to promoting healthy lifestyle habits, which is a lot cheaper than paying to recover good health after it has been lost. Recently, I read a poster that said: "The economic system does not promote the use of bikes because bikes can change the economic system."
Neither a class thing nor a policy choice
The bicycle does not understand the class argument, and indeed accepts anyone who sits on it in equal measure. It is the preserve neither of the wealthy nor of the fittest. In this sense, we could say that it is the most democratic form of transport.
The bike understands nothing of political preferences, either of left or right, although some politicians would like to fly its flag, use it as a political weapon. And yet the bicycle is political, since by promoting cycling we make our cities better places in which to live; quieter and much safer.
What can citizens do?
To get any city moving by bicycle, it is enough for you to get on your bike and encourage others to discover the pleasure. Don’t be easily put off: hills can be avoided choosing another route, and then there is also the option of an electric bicycle. The traffic is not as aggressive as it might seem, since most of those who drive a car respect those who choose to cycle; as long as you make sure you’re visible, ride with lights and make hand signals, you should be all right.
Take advantage of everything this way of traveling offers. The bike is a tried and tested means: they who try it once get back on again. So, get cycling and tell us about it. Your safe experience will help others to make the change. Thank you for going by bike!
Author of the blog www.mueveteenbicipormadrid.com