After over 2,000 miles and 50 days living off of our bicycles we have gotten a perspective on American communities that are unique to the two wheeled experience. The combination of our everyday experiences and the work we have been doing to film Westward Wheels have taught us to look at how cities and communities work in a new light. On a bicycle you can cover large distances but you are always exposed to the landscape and people you pass. While sitting in a car you are in an insulated and air conditioned box that separates you from your surroundings. On a bike you are a person standing there, ready to engage the physical and social landscape. As a result we have gotten to talk to more people than we would otherwise and have experiences that could only come on a bike.
So when we are interviewing people who talk about the connections made through bicycling we can really appreciate what they are saying. We have been lucky enough to get interviews with city activists in the cycling world, in both the private and public sectors. While we have been feeling the reality of what they are saying, these individuals have articulated these feelings in a way that we need to share and perpetuate.
So this brings me to the question: Can biking improve the health of a community?
The short answer is yes. Bicycling improves both the health of the individual and the community.
We stayed with Warm Showers hosts in Youngstown, Ohio who, in their mid 70’s are touring around the world and biking every day. They are a healthy, happy couple who feels the empowerment of riding a bicycle and the effects it has on their physical and psychological health. They are a prime example of how riding a bicycle keeps a person physically and mentally healthy. Exercising every day keeps a person physically healthy for obvious reasons but it also contributes to the mental health of a person. Co-founder of Slow Roll Chicago, Olatunji Oboi Reed, shared with us that getting back on a bicycle helped him to overcome depression and gave him the motivation to devote his life to bettering his community. Being outside, getting exercise, arriving somewhere on your own efforts, and engaging the community, promotes confidence and mental fortitude.
What I really want to explore is how having a community of people that bicycle makes a socially, economically, and physically healthy environment.
When people are riding bikes they are more apt to talk with other people (not being insulated in a car), try a new business (having extra money saved from not driving a car and being able to stop without finding parking), and to explore a new part of their community. We were lucky enough to hang out with The Bike Life in Detroit and learned about how groups of Detroiters use their bicycles as a medium to explore new neighborhoods, have fun, and get together in a healthy social setting.
Having more people on bikes contributes to the economy of a community because people have more disposable income and are exposed to new businesses more often. As Matt Grey from Sustainable Cleveland explained, biking improves the equity, economy, and environment of a community because it lowers costs of road maintenance, allows businesses to utilize space that would be used for parking, and gives the individual more spending money. Rather than devoting up to 20% of an urban area to car parking, having more bike friendly facilities lead to more space that can be used for new businesses, farmers markets, and other community events.
Lastly, healthy individuals lead to a healthy community. Almost every person we have asked described a healthy city as a place where people can move around. Rather than devoting all infrastructure to cars (which destroys culture and inhibits people who can not afford a car), more support for biking means that more people will travel and exercise at the same time. As Olatunji from Slow Roll Chicago explained, many urban environments do not provide its residents with access to healthy food or places to exercise. Bicycling is a free way of exercise and allows the individual to travel to a place where they can buy healthy food.
In addition to the human benefits, more bicycles on the road means less pollution, less road maintenance, and less fossil fuels being used in general.
We hope that our project will encourage people to see bicycles as a cheap, sustainable, and practical tool to combat the unhealthy aspects of communities across the country.