The case for bicycling - RED - Relevant. Essential. Denver.

Why don’t Denverites ride bicycles more and drive less?

That’s the big question for Aaron Johnson, an affiliate faculty member in Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Sociology. His research explores the social dimensions of bicycle transportation, including the sometimes-contentious relationship between cyclists and motorists.  

With Denver’s annual Bike to Work Day coming up Wednesday, the cycling expert and enthusiast is excited to see more cyclists on the city’s 100-plus miles of bike lanes.

“Events like (Bike to Work Day) are important,” Johnson said. “They help people to become more enthusiastic about seeing themselves actively biking more.”

But as you’re pedaling to work, the many positive long-term effects of cycling more may not be so clear. RED took a ride with Johnson to learn more about the benefits of two-wheel transit and pick up some tips for aspiring bike commuters.

“The mental benefits (of bicycling) range from decreased stress levels to improved concentration to stronger self-image,” said MSU Denver professor Sue Bertelsen. From the Cherry Creek trail the individual above is riding on or one of the other 85-plus miles of paved cycling trails, there's many options to bike to work June 26 - or any day. Photo by Mark Stahl

Save money

The financial advantages are many – for the rider and their community, Johnson said.

For instance, he pointed to research from the U.S. Department of Transportation indicating that, on average, families in urban areas can save up to $10,230 annually by giving up a car.

“Compact, connected communities allow residents to use less energy and spend less money to get around - whether by making fewer or shorter car trips, or using other less expensive modes of transportation like bicycling, walking, or transit,” Johnson said. 

Cycling can also save communities money. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, the city’s entire bicycle infrastructure – which is widely regarded as one of the best systems in the nation – was completed for the cost of one mile of urban freeway construction.

Get on your bikes and ride!

Interested in biking more but not sure where to begin? Here are a few tips from Bertelsen and Johnson to get you rolling in no time.

  • Start with a bike that is comfortable – you don’t want to be too high or too low.

  • Like shoes, fit matters. Specialized bike shops will help you customize, instead of department store variants.

  • Urban commuting helmets are fine – just make sure they’re snugly secured.

  • Keep your chain and gears clean and well lubricated; tires should always be kept inflated to recommended PSI, too.

  • Start small: Don’t feel like you have to ride for a long time or distance.

  • If you don’t feel safe biking around vehicles, start out on a paved path in a park

Live longer

Perhaps the most compelling data points, however, are the ones that reduce health care-costs and add years to our lives.

“According to French researchers, bicycling reduces health-care costs on average by about $1,800 per year for people who commute at least three miles to work by bicycle,” Johnson said. “Even more notable is research from Europethat suggests riding a bike for one hour extends the average rider’s life by the same amount of time.”

That’s because cycling, similar to other aerobic activities, provides increased cardiovascular health, improved muscular strength and increased joint mobility and can contribute to a decrease in body fat, said Sue Bertelsen, professor of human performance and sport at MSU Denver.

Though the exercise you’ll get from trading in four wheels for two depends on several factors – such as frequency of rides, time on the bike, intensity of the ride and individual fitness level – a five-mile bike commute might be similar to a moderately paced elliptical workout or 30-minute power walk.

“The biggest benefit is that it encourages movement,” Bertelsen said. “It provides guidance and support for trying alternative transportation; it’s a healthier option than sitting in traffic.”

Riders get a tune-up for their bikes and their bellies at 2018's Bike To Work Day Auraria campus location. This year's station will be at 1100 Curtis, across from the Science building and St. Elizabeth's of Hungary church from 6:30-9 a.m., Wed. June 26. Photo by Mark Stahl

Improve your mood

In addition to getting folks moving, there's another benefit that comes from avoiding vehicular congestion: less stress.

“The mental benefits (of biking) range from decreased stress levels to improved concentration to stronger self-image,” Bertelsen said.

Biking to work is a good way to improve your mood in the office, Johnson added.

“If you’re stuck in traffic, you’re more likely to be angry," he said. “Riding a bike is a much more pleasant way to start your day, especially with the nice Colorado weather – you might see the neighbor walking the dog and stop to say hi. There’s a real social benefit there.”

Kate Williams