Biking to a Healthier Economy and You

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WASHINGTON & NEW YORK CITY -Today is National Bike to Work Day, and bicyclists poured out in the thousands to celebrate anywhere from America's largest city to it's capitol city.

In Washington D.C., bikers gathered in Freedom Plaza, a wide-open public plaza two blocks from the White House and with a spectacular view of Capitol Hill, just a mile-and-a-half away down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Cyclists came in record numbers, according to Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. 

"Our goal was 7,500, and last we checked we had 8,000 signed up, so that is a record and it definitely makes it one of the largest Bike to Work Day events in the country," Gilliland said.

Biking Better than Driving

Reasons abound for leaving a four-wheeled vehicle behind for the two wheels of a bike.  Thinking about biking to work? Click here for tips.

It's hard to believe, but you can actually often get through traffic in a metro area faster than the cars. 

"It's been shown that in downtown traffic, especially during rush hour, average speeds for cars and trucks are about 12 miles an hour, which is a great speed for cyclists," Gilliland said. "So you actually have an advantage in congested areas."  Some cities hold annual time trials pitting buses, cars and bikes against each other, and the bikes almost always win."

Mary Francis, a D.C. resident, said of her biking through the city traffic, "It's faster. It's more fun. You meet more people."

One major reason people bike is for their health. It's an easy way to get your daily exercise at the same time you're doing your commute. 

Jaime Posada lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington and needs plenty of exercise to battle his diabetes. 

"It's exercise," he said. "I basically bike-commute four times a week from Rockville. So round-trip, it's 39 miles."

Another Rockville resident, Spencer Iscove, is old enough to belong to AARP, but believes his biking keeps him from looking it.  

"It's relaxing; keeps me healthy," he said. "I tell people I'm 52 going on 36."

Francis said, "I'm more awake when I get to work. I'm happier. And it's a great way to start your morning."

Your Brain on Bicycling

Bicycling also pumps the good kinds of chemicals into your brain and gives you a sense of emotional well-being.  

"It's my sanity check," Iscove said. "When things get a little bit crazy, I can get in the saddle and it just kind of fades away."

Posada said biking pumps him up to face work in the morning and then drains away the stress at the end of the work-day. 

"I get to work and I'm all fired up," he explained. "And at the end of the day when I'm filled with stress, I roll it off."

Gilliland summed up a few of biking's good attributes:  "It's great for your health, it's great for the environment, it's great on your wallet, it cuts down on commuting costs."

While D.C. bicyclists may have left the car-crush behind, the facts show that drivers in Washington often face the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation.

But most folks who know both towns would agree New York City can top it.  It's a metropolitan area infamous for horrendous traffic congestion. 

Probably most drivers stuck crawling along the jammed streets think there's little can be done about it.

But the Big Apple is making changes. In fact, it's making award-winning changes.

Cycling Up 35 Percent in New York City

This year New York became the first American city ever to win the International Award for Sustainable Transport. Andy Darrell, the Environmental Defense Fund vice president, told CBN News why:

"They've converted about 50 acres to public space," he explained. "They've built about 200 new miles of bike lanes, so cycling is up 35 percent. 

"And they're taking lanes of car traffic away from the streets and turning them into dedicated bus lanes," he added. "And that improves the travel speed of buses by about 20 to 25 percent."

Darrell walked us around a wide, spacious plaza cut right out of the road at 23rd and Broadway, an area that used to be nothing but thousands of cars and trucks crawling their way down Broadway or trying to cross it. 

Now dozens of New Yorkers and tourists lounged around, chatting at tables, reading, enjoying their morning coffee.

"This used to be one of the most congested, crowded plazas in New York City," Darrell said. "Now you have dedicated bike lanes over against the sidewalks that are painted bright green so that traffic stays out of them."

"You have lanes of traffic here that have been turned into a public plaza," he added. "You can come out and have a cup of coffee in the morning in a public space that used to be a traffic jam."

Pedaling Away Pollution

New York has also made major strides in making the city bike-friendly, which is important because the more drivers who become bikers, the less congestion, noise, and pollution there is. 

"Right now, the air pollution that comes out of traffic accounts for about 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in New York City, and about 70 percent of the added air cancer risk in the air that we're breathing right now."

Biking battles all that and more. 

"It helps us maintain our weight, protect the planet and have fun at the same time," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat.

The Portland congressman heads up the Congressional Bicycle Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers who love to ride their bikes in Washington D.C.  Blumenauer said speed is one of the reasons. 

"I can get from the White House to Capitol Hill faster than my colleagues who are dealing with traffic," he said.

Eight Percent of Portlanders Bike to Work    

Cities which have made major investments in such things as bike paths and bike lanes, like New York City and Blumenauer's Portland, see major jumps in the percentage of daily bike-commuters. 

"It is still less than two percent nationally," Blumenauer said. "But in Portland we have raised that percentage to about eight percent."

These investments are leading to innovations that supporters say could bring great relief to America's commuting nightmares.

The Environmental Defense Fund highlighted some of these innovative ideas at that Washington gathering where we met Blumenauer.

One such innovation is a bus system in Prince William County, Va., where buses can veer as much as three-quarters of a mile off their regular route to pick up riders.

Another is letting buses speed along on the shoulder lanes in Minneapolis, Minn., zipping past all the stalled rush-hour traffic.

Yet another is the free shuttle buses that speed people around downtown Orlando, Fla.

The conference also highlighted Bikestations that provide cyclists a safe place to park, shower, get repairs, rent bikes and connect to public transit.

The Bikestation CEO Andrea White-Kjoss said Columbus, Ohio put 25 million dollars into such projects as Bikestations and saw big changes in just one year. 

Columbus that year "more than doubled the bicycle riders and reduced auto ridership by 15 percent," she said.

The (Bike) Path to Stimulating the Economy

Blumenauer told CBN News that bike lanes and bike and pedestrian paths are so popular with the public, they have become the favorite projects of congressmen for funding. 

"In the last transportation bill, we put four billion dollars for bike paths, pedestrian routes and trails," he said. "And they're the most popular, the most requested by members of Congress."

The congressman also pointed out such projects are about the fastest, most efficient use of stimulus dollars. 

"They are actually very job intensive," he said. "You put more people to work on a million dollars of bike path than you do on a traditional road project." 

"We can have a groundbreaking to get it started and a ribbon-cutting to celebrate that it's open in less than a year," he added. "Try doing that on a typical road project."

Bicycling advocates say if people could even move from cars to bikes for just their shortest trips, that would make a major difference, because cars do their most polluting in the first minutes they're turned on. 

"'Forty percent of the (vehicle) trips are two miles or less,"  Blumenauer explained. "About 25 percent of them are one mile or less. These are the dirtiest trips. It's when the engines are polluting the most."

And as Darrell says of his New York City, the more people who get out of their cars for alternatives like biking or public transportation, the better for everyone involved in commuting. 

"I think when people see that there's a faster way to get to work in the morning that doesn't involve being stuck in traffic for hours," he said. "That's a great thing for New York, and New Yorkers are coming together around that."

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.