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2003 Honda Odyssey minivan acquired to haul electric bicycles for public demonstrations.
2003 Honda Odyssey minivan acquired to haul electric bicycles for public demonstrations.

Cycling, Health and the Hidden Cost of a Hair Cut

US government statistics indicate that as many as 40% of all the trips Americans make are under three miles, the exact distance from my home to Dolphen's sign shop and our favorite hair salon, both in Ralston.

It poured rain and flashed lightning here yesterday morning, the day slated to drop off our Honda minivan at the sign shop in Ralston, a community some three miles north of our home here in the larger Omaha metro area.

The original plan was to drive the van over and then cycle back home while they applied the vinyl signage I'd designed [see above photo]. Once they'd finished, I'd ride back over, stick the bike back in the van and drive home. I hadn't ridden the e-bike that far north before, but I was anxious to give it a try.

Just a quick clarification: I don't cycle for sport or recreation. My vintage Wavecrest TidalForce M750 electric mountain bike (I did an advertising barter for it more than a dozen years ago) is my alternative to the car. I use it as often as possible instead of the van or our Prius when the trip is under 3 miles and the item(s) being transported can fit inside my messenger bag or backpack.

The furtherest north I usually ride it is up to the commercial bank I use for my business , typically to deposit a check. That trips about a mile and a half or so. Riding to the sign shop would take me well beyond that.

Yesterday morning's torrential downpour scuttled my original plan, forcing me to ask my wife to follow me over in her car. I'd drop off the van and then drive her to work.

A couple hours after dropping off the van, the sign shop called to say they'd finished the job and I could pick it up anytime. The worst of the summer thunderstorms had moved through and the forecast showed conditions improving by early afternoon. So, around 1:30 pm I decided I'd pedal over to the shop, taking a route I discovered using Google maps that avoided having to ride along one of our busiest North-South thoroughfares.

I turned own my Strava cycling app, tucked the iPhone in my shorts pocket and headed north through quiet suburban streets, across Centennial, then Giles Road and into La Vista, coasting down the hill and through the city park. A few minutes later I was waiting to cross the next busy East-West road, Harrison Street. From here is was past our veterinarian's clinic and downhill into Ralston. Just sixteen minutes after setting out, I rode up to the sign shop. Total distance covered: exactly 3 miles.

As fate would have it, my wife called me later in the day to remind me to pick her up from work - I still had the Prius - and that she'd arranged for both of us to get our hair cut. The salon we use is just around the corner from the sign shop.

After picking up my wife and driving her home after 5, we set out to keep our appointment. I turned on the Strava app and we set off in the Prius along our usually route: 84th Street. It took us 8 minutes to drive past the sign shop and another few seconds to pull up in front of the salon.

So, by car it took just half the time it took me to ride the bike. Since my wife isn't into Dutch-style 'dinking' where the woman rides on the rear bike rake while the man pedals, it made sense for us to use the car. But the two trips did get me to thinking more about the costs involved.

This morning I came across an article entitled "10 Ways to Get More Brits on Bicycles'. Their list, based on a poll of 4,500 adults, included the following:

1. Dedicated cycling lanes on every road (40%)
2. More places to park and lock bicycles (30%)
3. Better facilities for cyclists at work (19%)
4. Tax benefits for cyclists (17%)
5. New York-style cycle ‘super highways’ (16%)
6. Compulsory cycling proficiency for all cyclists (16%)
7. Local cycle safety classes (15%)
8. Driving license style accreditation for cyclists (12%)
9. Better cycle safety products (11%)
10. Lowering speed limits for cars (10%)

However, it wasn't the list that intrigued me, though. It was Chris Boardman's concluding comment. Mr. Boardman, MBE, is the co-founder of Boardman Bikes and British Cycling Policy Advisor.

“Health, congestion, pollution, more liveable cites – whatever topic you want to choose, the bicycle can be a large part of the answer. In fact it's the only form of mechanised transport that actually contributes to our society – the UK gains £590 a year for every extra regular cyclist."

I wondered where that £590 ($1,006US) figure came from. Google quickly tracked it down to this document: Economic Assessment of Investment in Walking and Cycling published in the Spring of 2010.

I downloaded the report, only to discover a link right here in Nebraska. It turns out that the Brits aren't the only ones seeking to quantify the positive health benefits of riding a bicycle, as well as walking. So are researchers here in my home state. They found that for every $1 invested in biking and walking trails - in this case, in and around Lincoln, the state capital - the resulting physical activity "led to $2.94 in direct medical benefit." [Health Promoition Practice, April 2005].

Down in New Zealand, their Land Authority commissioned their own study of this question. They found that for cycling, "this meant a per kilometre benefit of between $(NZ) 1.77 (£0.80) and $(NZ) 2.51 (£1.10)." In US currency that's $1.55-2.20 per kilometer. In kilometers, my ride over to the sign shop equates to 4.8 km. The estimated health benefit to me comes out between $7.44-10.56US.

And what of the cost of driving the car in health terms and not just its easily measurable operational costs?

It turns out the Danes looked at that question. Here's what they came up with as reported in the original British study.

When a person chooses to cycle this is a clear gain for society of 1.22 Danish Kroner (22¢ US) per kilometer cycled.

* Conversely, society suffers a net loss of 0.69 Danish Kroner (.13¢ US) per kilometre driven by car.

* In cost-benefit terms the health and life expectancy benefits of cycling are seven times greater than the accident costs.

* The cost of a bicycle is 33 øre (0.33 of a Danish Kroner) per cycled kilometre covering purchase price and maintenance. The equivalent cost for a car is 2.20 Danish Kroner per driven kilometre.

In the case of my ride yesterday, it contributed $1.05US to my local community in societal cost savings. The trip to the hair salon by Prius cost the community .62¢, using the Dane's model. That's a cost difference of $1.67 just for this one trip and that's only the one-way portion of a two-way trip.

Of course, it's hard for most of us to imagine the cost-benefit ratio of walking or cycling versus jumping in the car every time we want to go somewhere, but this little exercise certainly helps me better appreciate the impact I am having both on my own wellbeing, physically and financially, as well as its impact on those around me, and the toll our auto-centric lifestyle is having on us as individuals and as a society.

My personal takeaway? The range I now comfortably feel I can ride has, effectively, doubled, So, the next time I go to get my hair cut, I'll take the e-bike, weather and circumstances permitting.

Posted By: Bill Moore [28-Jun-2014]

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