Biking Your Way to a Brighter Future

I arrived in the Netherlands for a semester at the University of Groningen about 3 weeks ago. On top of appointments and paperwork to finalize immigration, meeting a whole new set of people and learning to navigate daily life in a country where you don’t speak the language well, learning to navigate the roads on a bike was just another stressor at first. However, I quickly began to appreciate cycling as a form of transportation. Across the Netherlands, and much of northern Europe people bike as their main form of transportation from infancy to old age. Active commutes (such as biking and walking) are beneficial to the people who choose them as well as the environment. What are these benefits, exactly? And how do we encourage this in our towns and cities across the United States?


Before I get into actual facts and figures I’d like to share the benefits I’ve noticed right in Groningen, a medium-sized city in the northeast part of the Netherlands not far from the German border. Twice a week I have a class that begins at 9 a.m. which means I have to make my 15-20 minute commute on bike right in the thick of rush hour. Certainly, the roads are busy at this time, but I have never seen enough cars to cause clogged intersections or traffic congestion like many smaller American cities. What I do observe is people on bikes making their way to work and school, sometimes with kids in tow, strapped into special seats. While there are certainly bike traffic jams, they clear up really easily, because it’s easier to maneuver on a bike. Parking is also less of an issue because bikes are so much smaller than cars. Certainly, on some days I have had to circle a few times to find a spot on the bike rack, but unlike a car, a bike can be leaned up against a wall or a tree if no spots are available. The air also smells cleaner than most American cities of a similar size (I have come to find out it has the cleanest air of any big Dutch city). I also feel super energized by the time I get to class even if I left my building still sleepy.


Choosing to bike or walk to school, work, or the store has significant environmental impacts. According to the European cyclists federation, taking a car releases about 271 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per kilometer per passenger. Bikes are human powered! This means the only fuel they require is food. Based on the average European diet, taking a bike only releases about 21 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer. Individuals can reduce this amount by buying more locally grown food and eating more plant-based foods. Certainly for people with certain disabilities, sick or injured people, and during extreme weather events, biking or walking might not be possible (although, I have seen several bikes adapted for people with disabilities since arriving here). This is why promoting robust and accessible public transportation is perfect to advocate for in tandem with more biking and walking. This also cuts down on carbon dioxide emissions without the reliance on your own power and strength.


Cycling or walking to work is also an excellent way to integrate exercise into your daily routine. With this built-in exercise comes an array of health benefits. A 2000 study showed that people who cycled to work had 30% lower rates of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer, even when accounting for several variables. Reducing the rate of these diseases by 30% in the United States would save so many lives since they are among the most common causes of death. People who bike to work or school also have a lower risk of developing depression according to a report commissioned by the city of Helsinki, Finland.


Biking is also so much less expensive than driving a car. Buying a bike costs way less than driving a car and does not require expensive trips to the gas station. Bike tune-ups and part replacements are also cheaper. Clara W., a student at the University of Würzburg in Germany, says this is a big part of why she chooses to bike almost daily. She likes that it allows her to get around independent of public transportation schedules. She also likes the lower environmental impact and that it saves her the stress of finding a parking spot.


The city of Groningen and many other cities around northern Europe have become incredibly bike friendly. There are clearly marked bike lanes and paths on or next to almost every street in Groningen, there are bike racks outside of most buildings and there are even separate traffic lights for people on bikes. The city center is nearly car free and has no parking lots in order to encourage using bikes or city buses. This is the result of decades of bike centered municipal policies. In the 1970s, a young city councilman named Max van den Berg fought to solve the traffic and problems by banning cars from the city center altogether. Over the next few years he and his fellow council members worked on ways of sectioning off the city and making new paths that encouraged walking and biking but still allowed busses to get fairly close to the places people needed to go. Changes like the ones made in Groningen are possible everywhere. You can encourage your municipal government to introduce legislation that makes biking easier. Ask local institutions to put a bike rack outside. You can also simply set an example by making more trips on bike and encouraging friends and family to do the same.



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