Trying to calculate how long it would take me to ride from my house downtown to Patterson Avenue (to pick up my new specs), I came across an astounding fact on Wikipedia: “ … up to 99 percent of the energy delivered by the rider into the pedals is transmitted to the wheels.” This means a bicycle is the most efficient human-powered machine. Almost all the energy you put into the pedals gets translated into action.
A modestly experienced rider like myself — no Spandex, no neon, just a guy in shorts who forgot to get milk at the store — can do about 10 to 15 miles an hour without breaking a sweat. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, when thinking in terms of zero to 60. But it ain’t bad. Ten to 15 miles an hour is a lot faster than walking (about two miles an hour) or riding a horse (about five miles an hour). At 15 miles per hour, a trip of one mile takes four minutes. And you get the best parking.
Health is another huge, and obvious, benefit to cycling. For every hour spent in the bike saddle, you add an hour-plus to your life expectancy, according to Rutgers professor John Pucher, author of City Cycling. This simple, cheap, energy-efficient act, which you’ve known how to do since you were a kid, is as good as a gym membership, and you are more likely to use it.
Lest we forget, biking is also fun. The feeling of flying down a hill with the wind in your hair is still as cool as it was when you were 8. The 360-degree visibility, the sense of being in the environment, not hermetically sealed from it like a cockroach in a jar, is as visceral and vitalizing as ever.
The straight-up benefits to using a bicycle to commute or run errands are well recognized by the citizens of Portland, of Berlin, of Copenhagen. In those cities, folks use bikes to do business and to commute, far more than for recreation. And how many days a year can you imagine biking in drizzly Portland as compared to Santa Barbara? Yet those mossy Portlanders are kicking our collective booties: Over the last 10 years, Portland has gone from less than 2 percent bike commuting to 6.9 percent, a nearly fourfold increase. Over the same period, Santa Barbara has gone from 3.2 percent to 3.4 percent. Birthplace of the environmental movement? While N.Y.C., Minneapolis, and San Francisco have shown quadrupling of their bike-commuter numbers in the past 10 years, S.B. bike commuting has grown as slowly as a bristlecone pine on a Galapagos tortoise. Seriously, more people ride bikes to get around in the Northwest Territories than in Santa Barbara, according to Pucher. C’mon Barbarians, let’s not sit on our collective laurels!
A key reason for the foot-dragging is safety, of course. Until people can say, “I feel safe biking around town and having my 10-year-old bike to school,” they will not get out of their cars. Women seem more willing to admit fear, but I’ve often noticed even daredevil-looking dudes preferring to ride on the sidewalk. The reason they do that is because riding with cars can be very frightening. It isn’t exactly a level playing field: big metal-clad car versus small flesh-clad individual. In any case, in communities where women report that they feel safe riding, participation rates blossom overall.
We can and should make Santa Barbara the premier bike-friendly city in this state and nation. I propose that we make it our goal to have at least 10 percent of the population using bikes to commute and run errands a year from now. The current level is 4 percent. We can achieve this by doing the following:
• Working with City Hall. There already is a five-year bike plan that is up for reauthorization in 2013. We need to update this plan and dare to dream big.
• Expanding our network of bikeways with intersections that are designed for bike safety. (Big improvements are already happening in other cities. We can learn from them.)
• Increasing the number of automobile commuters who also bike commute so that they get a feel for what it means to be a cyclist. (The Los Angeles Times just had a story on a bike shop that loaned a bike to a prospective commuter for two weeks. He got hooked, and the shop made a sale.)
• Starting a bike-sharing program, like in Paris, London, or Barcelona, where people can pick up and drop off bikes as easily as shopping carts.
• Improving motorist and cyclist training so that both groups understand and watch out for each other.
• Designing incentives for cycling and disincentives for car use. (London reduced the number of cars that could access the city core, and the number of cyclists shot up.)
• Evaluating the city for traffic calming that makes specific streets friendlier for children and bicycles. Portland did this extensively. Even New York City is doing this.
• Creating car-free events that turn streets into parks for walking and cycling once or twice a week. Just as there are more interactions at farmers’ markets than at supermarkets (sociological studies have shown that), there is way more community-building on bikes than in cars. Our streets are public spaces, and we can reimagine how to use them.
As to that last point: A couple of weeks ago, I went to CicLAvia with the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition. (Thanks to Santa Barbara Airbus for giving us a lift.) There were 100,000 people riding and walking on the downtown L.A. streets that had been “re-purposed” for the day to be car-free. It was an amazing experience. If you have ever walked down the middle of State Street before a parade or back up from East Beach after the Fourth of July fireworks, you know exactly what I mean: This giddy, free, wonderful expansive sense of “We own this street; this is my town; I love S.B., graaaaah!” I don’t know about you, but I want to feel that more often.
I know it is the wrong time of year — the sun rises so late and goes down so early — but c’mon, you’ve been thinking about it for a long time. A bike is the greenest, healthiest, and cheapest transportation technology on the planet, and you might have one sitting in your very own garage. Dust it off, get some lights, and ride. You will feel better, and our city and world will be better.
David Hodges recently retired from being an assistant principal at Santa Barbara High and is a new board member of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition. He also sings with SBCC’s Quire of Voyces. His wife, Laurel Lyle, is the fabulous executive chef of Peabody Charter Elementary School. A father of four children, two still living in S.B., he loves Santa Barbara and is thankful to live here.