Portland’s biking investments will yield health care and fuel savings
Investments in bicycle boulevards and other infrastructure will help residents of Portland, Oregon, lower their health care and fuel costs, according to the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
Portland has invested heavily in biking over the last two decades, creating hundreds of miles of interconnecting bike paths that allow residents to commute to work, shop at local businesses and ride for pleasure. In contrast, most other US cities have focused on building highways that accommodate automobiles but are unsafe for cyclists, the study, published in the journal, reports.
“Portland is definitely a pioneer city when it comes to biking,” said lead author Thomas Götschi.
But will Portland’s residents benefit from its investments in cycling? To find out, Götschi added up the city’s past and planned investments in biking improvements, factored in an increase in residents’ activity levels, and found that the changes will result in significant savings by the year 2040 — up to $594 million in reduced health care spending and as much as $218 million in lower fuel costs. These estimates are based on the city’s planned investments of up to $605 million in biking improvements by that year.
“Biking to work or around town is a convenient way to engage in routine activity,” Götschi said. “Physically active people are healthier and spend less on medical care, hospital visits and other costly health interventions.” Studies show that people who get regular physical activity are less likely to develop serious conditions linked to a sedentary lifestyle like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
In 2008, 6.4 percent of all commuter trips in Portland were made by cyclists (up from 1.8 percent in 1996). The city estimates that improvements to the biking network will push that percentage even higher, an outcome that will lead to fewer cars on the roads and big savings at the fuel pump.
The study, which is the first cost-benefit analysis of an urban biking network in the United States, was selected to appear in a supplement released in connection with the 8th annual Active Living Research conference on February 22–24, 2011. Götschi initiated the research while working at the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, and concluded the study at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
Other studies in the journal issue suggest that when cities invest in biking and walking paths or lower speed limits and safe crosswalks, they also will benefit — by more physically fit, healthier residents. For example:
• A new bike lane installed as part of New Orleans’ post-Katrina rebuilding efforts resulted in a 57 percent increase in the average number of daily cyclists. Kathryn M. Parker, a researcher at Tulane University School of Public Health, and her colleagues found that a relatively low-cost intervention—painting an on-street bike lane — helped promote cycling in a city with high rates of inactivity and obesity.
• A survey of elementary school parents in Austin’s inner city and urban areas found that their safety concerns kept kids from walking to school. Freeways, unsafe crosswalks and other factors reduced the likelihood that parents would allow their children to walk to school, according to lead researcher Xuemei Zhu at the Texas A&M University.
• A study of streets in and around 12 public housing projects in Houston showed that both men and women tended to walk more if they lived near streets with lower speed limits. Rebecca E. Lee at the University of Houston led the assessment, which analyzed speed limits, sidewalks and other factors known to influence physical activity.
“These studies show that if you build a better bike lane or a walking path, people will use it,” said James Sallis, director of Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “City leaders should look for realistic solutions, like protected bike lanes or sidewalks, to help residents be more active and less dependent on cars.”
The supplement, which was supported by the Foundation, includes studies that document promising and sustainable solutions for increasing physical activity and preventing obesity. Researchers from all over North America and Europe are attending the Active Living Research meeting in San Diego, California, to discuss these new findings, as well as ways to inform future policies that have strong potential to help reverse the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic.
Articles from the special issue and more information about the conference are available here.