For those wanting a bite-sized summary of this post, consider the following:
Due to public health campaigns, the cost of commuting, and the rising popularity of cycling, among other factors, more people are riding bicycles, especially in cities and often to and from work. Since 2010, more bicycle-related injuries occur each year as increases in the number of riders and the dangerous places they ride outpace bicycle safety training, protective policies, and appropriate infrastructure. Reducing rider deaths and injuries will require a coordinated effort focused on safety and infrastructure as well as cultural and personal experiences of riding.
_ _ _
Sparking this post is an article reporting that bicycle-related deaths increased by 16% from 2010 to 2012, and the number in urban areas rose to 69% . Furthermore, two-thirds were not wearing helmets. One might ask, “Don’t people know better? Who’s teaching our kids?” As it turns out, some bicycle safety programs actually increase the risk of future injury . Despite clear deficits in bicycle training, more people are riding. In simple terms, the presence of bike lanes entices riders, which is what happened in New Orleans upon installation of new bike lanes . The table below demonstrates this and additional factors that show the strongest correlation with riding:
Though all research is nuanced, studying direct, bike-related injuries is relatively straightforward. The real trick is studying cycling for what it is: a complex, multifaceted culture of utility and leisure. A few years back, a group from Australia published a “protocol paper” proposing effective methods for studying cycling, urban cycling in particular . The authors proposed a model for studying cycling trends that incorporates changes to traffic, local economics, health, and quality of life. Cycling and QALYs? The future is now! Here’s a practical example: rather than archaic paper travel diaries, they suggest using smart phones to get more reliable, more detailed travel data. Missing still from these more comprehensive considerations are cultural experiences, such as riding to work and waving to neighbors along the way, or sharing rides, routes, and knowhow with fellow cyclists. These experiences are substantial; unless the underlying pandemic is insanity, people are braving inclement weather for the real benefits of riding.
Perhaps if these distinct discourses: epidemiology, policy, infrastructure vs. culture, and community are implemented together in efforts to remodel our living communities, a culture of biking can incorporate a culture of safety. Better paths, safer riders, and community spirit represent, in my opinion, a road to better living for all. As it turns out, I’m not the first to see this potential fusion. Peter Pelzer conducted a comparative study of Portland Oregon and Amsterdam, NL . Though each might as well be another planet in terms of culture and society as compared to the rest of the world, this kind of rich study digs into “both the material and socially constructed properties of bicycling.” Pelzer states: “There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ cycling stimulation policy. It is pivotal to be sensitive to the cultural context of a city” . The study includes direct quotations and references relevant quantitative analyses. Though much more challenging to conduct, this sort of work lays the best foundation for generating quantitative and qualitative change to improve cycling and urban commuting in general.
With that framework before us, I’d like to situate my own experience with cycling within this broader context.
If I imagine not having waltzed gaily on this pleasant path to utilitarian cycling, and envision instead starting cold with a new job, a new city, and financial insecurity, cycling might be last thing I would do. Cycling is costly. Decent bikes start around $500, and the gear required to commute safely and comfortably in a variable climate easily reaches a similar sum. I would estimate that I have spent $1000 on my current ride and accessories. Fortunately, there are showers at school and multiple lockers to house all my gear. The cost is not only fiscal. Cycling also requires time. Because I’m a student, I’m not at great risk for losing my position if something goes wrong and delays my morning ride. Most afternoons I can choose when I ride home, allowing me to skip bad weather and rush hour. Finally, I am young and fit. Emory sits on the summit of a hill, such that any approach to campus entails climbing that hill. The entrances include Houston Mill Rd., Clifton Rd., North Decatur, Starvine Way, among a few other sneaky routes. For anyone who lives here, the notion of negotiating those roads at peak hours
on a bicycle
in the rain
at 6:45 am
in freezing temperatures
is undoubtedly uncomfortable, if not terrifying.
Though I may not succeed in convincing readers, I maintain that I’m not masochistic. The benefits of riding to school and around town that I perceive are numerous. Among them are two mandatory workouts each day; fresh air and invigoration both ways; modest savings on fuel and parking; a small community of similarly excited people, etc. That’s the list that I would cite in an interview for residency, but, like any human being, I’m driven in part by vanity, and must thus add to the list: feeling cool, pretending that I am single-handedly saving the environment, enjoying the process of purchasing and implementing new gear, providing myself with a reason to feel tired, and treating myself to driving once in a while, etc. Altogether, I see my riding as being a lot more similar hobbies like knitting than to mastering public transit. Yes, one can make fuzzy mittens and infinity scarves, but does that spare textile workers in sweatshops the burden of making our clothes? No. If everyone were to knit their own clothes, would that be good for society? No. But times change, and people start buying fair trade coffee. We invest in solar energy. Cycling is simply another good thing that has and will benefit society and its citizens.
In sum, my personal experience corroborates several key features of state of riding a bicycle. Riding can be recreational or utilitarian. The latter effort is subject to the dangers of lagging infrastructure and policy, as well as the personal challenges of acquiring the technical knowhow and gumption to integrate cycling into a life already as complex as that of the typical person. Ever the optimist (a trait handy for committing to particularly cold mornings), I see opportunity for a culture of cycling to be syncretic with culture as a whole: roads can get safer, people can be healthier, commuting can be less stressful, and, hill-by-hill, we can improve. Each of the challenges and barriers I describe represents an equally or more powerful opportunity for positive personal and societal benefit: cities can be more accommodating, employers can accept and encourage healthy lifestyles, and people can experience the personal and communal joy of riding.
Happy trails everyone.
 U.S. Bicyclist Deaths on the Rise, Study Finds: MedlinePlus. at <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_150237.html>
 Carlin, J. B., Taylor, P. & Nolan, T. School based bicycle safety education and bicycle injuries in children: a case-control study. Inj. Prev. 4, 22–27 (1998).
 Parker, K. et al. Effect of Bike Lane Infrastructure Improvements on Ridership in One New Orleans Neighborhood. 101–107 (Springer Science & Business Media B.V., 2013). at <https://login.proxy.library.emory.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=85300223&site=ehost-live>
 Dill, J. & Carr, T. Bicycle Commuting and Facilities in Major U.S. Cities: If You Build Them, Commuters Will Use Them. Transp. Res. Rec. J. Transp. Res. Board 1828, 116–123 (2003).
 Rivara, F. P., Thompson, D. C., Patterson, M. Q. & Thompson, R. S. PREVENTION OF BICYCLE-RELATED INJURIES: Helmets, Education, and Legislation. Annu. Rev. Public Health 19, 293–318 (1998).
 Rissel, C. et al. Evaluating the transport, health and economic impacts of new urban cycling infrastructure in Sydney, Australia -- protocol paper. BMC Public Health 13, 1–15 (2013).
 Pelzer, P. Bicycling as a Way of Life: A Comparative Case Study of Bicycle Culture in Portland, OR and Amsterdam. in 7th Cycling and Society Symposium (2010).