Baby Steps for Biking
It was early fall in Atlanta, and, while temperatures still climbed into the 80s, I was making it a point to get out of my car and onto my bike. While on my routine recreational bike rides through the city, signs advertising an intriguing event repeatedly caught my eye.
October marked the beginning of Atlanta’s Biketober Challenge, which is a partnership between Love to Ride, a technology company that uses behavior change theory to increase bike ridership in communities across the world, and several transit-oriented organizations in Georgia, including Georgia Commute Options, Atlanta Regional Commission, and the PATH Foundation. Companies and individuals form teams of riders and record any biking that they do in October. Riders can log their rides manually or with an exercise app like Strava; this information automatically updates to the team page. Riders gain points for daily rides, mileage, and amount of encouragement doled out to fellow riders.
I am fortunate to have been raised by a man that likes to bike. After my senior year of high school, my father took me on an epic adventure across Spain. We biked north from Madrid to El Camino de Santiago, a traditional pilgrimage route, and followed that west to the coast. The summer of 2020, my dad and I hopped on our bikes and trained for a century ride (100 miles in 1 day) from the Alabama border to his childhood home in Vinings, Georgia via the Silver Comet Trail. We braved scenic country routes, angry dogs, and many political signs. Thanks to these formative experiences, I became comfortable on most roads and this realization emboldened me to explore the cities that I would call home over the next few years on two wheels.
On these adventures, I faced the challenges that most bikers face: lacking infrastructure, impatient drivers, cold weather, hot weather, rainy weather, flat tires, hills, route planning, equipment access, and the list goes on. Somedays, a bike ride across town was a bit too daunting, and I would take my car. But Biketober changed my mindset; I formed a team of fellow Georgia Tech students and, suddenly, biking was not just a personal journey for me. Rather, I felt a part of the larger community; I could see the routes that my friends traveled and felt inspired to take as many biking trips as possible.
The impact of Biketober and Love to Ride’s presence in Atlanta is apparent. Thus far, there are 15,855 Love to Ride members in Atlanta and we have logged 9.9 million miles, sequestering approximately 865,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in the process. That’s the equivalent of removing 85 passenger vehicles from the road for an entire year or planting 6,500 trees and leaving them to sequester CO2e for 10 years.
On the Georgia Tech campus, a huge community of students, faculty, and staff joined the university's 2021 Biketober team. Lisa Safstrom, our Campus Transportation Planner and team champion during Biketober, set the personal goal of riding her bike every day for the entire month. “Biketober is a great program to encourage new bikers with incentives and team support and it also encourages those that already ride to ride more. Prizes and messaging bring action,” Safstrom said of Biketober’s impact on micro-mobility on campus. Georgia Tech’s workplace access, which compares one company to other companies, was funded locally in 2021 but is no longer available. Moving forward, participants will still be able to join Georgia Tech as a workplace, but their aggregate statistics will not be available for comparison with other companies.
Biketober is only one segment of Georgia Tech’s robust sustainable transportation efforts; indeed, Safstrom noted the installation of a multi-use path on the edge of campus, online bike and scooter safety classes, and the creation of a Campus Bicycle Master Plan.
With nearly nine years of experience as a transportation planner at Georgia Tech, Safstrom has seen on-campus transportation’s dedication to alternative modes of transportation. “I think the future of transportation at Tech will entail more collaboration, internally and externally, to allow us to grow our infrastructure and implement more progressive programs and policies.”
Globally, Love to Ride members have logged over 387 million miles on-bike. Users report their ride frequency when they join the community, and Love to Ride tracks how their biking patterns change over time. On average, after joining Love to Ride, 40% of non-cyclists start cycling weekly and 31% cycle to work at least once a week.
I spoke with the Love to Ride CEO, Thomas Stokell, who organized a “Workplace Cycle Challenge Program” in 2002 that became the inspiration for Love to Ride. “The thing that I get the biggest kick out of is getting new people on bikes,” Stokell commented. “From a behavior change perspective, when you say to someone who does not ride a bike yet, ‘Hey, you should ride a bike to work; you’ll save money; it’s good for the environment; you’ll feel great!’, this can be quite a challenging and big first step.”
Instead, Love to Ride focuses on baby steps. “We start by encouraging people to go for a very short bike ride, even 10 minutes around the park or around some local quiet streets. When someone rides a bike for the first time in a few years, it can be a very powerful first step to changing their behavior,” Stokell said. Once people start making those easy decisions to go on a ten-minute bike ride, they are more likely to try something a bit more challenging. Love to Ride subscribes to many behavior change theories, including community-based social marketing, which acknowledges that big behaviors are made up of smaller behaviors. “Each of these smaller behaviors have barriers and benefits that are unique to you,” Stokell explained.
In the process of identifying these barriers and benefits, Love to Ride shares data with municipalities and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) so that they can make informed decisions about biking infrastructure improvements. Stokell pointed out that, in Atlanta, cycling infrastructure is a mixed bag. “Access to cycling infrastructure depends on where you live in Atlanta. If you live on the Eastside Beltline, then the infrastructure is some of the best that I’ve ever experienced and I’ve lived all over the world. But there are other places where the supply of biking infrastructure is well behind the demand and need for it.”
Equity in access to biking infrastructure is an important consideration for cities. Because biking is a cheap, active mode of transportation, it has both economic and health benefits. Bikers are less likely to experience cardiovascular events, type-2 diabetes, and hypertension. Studies have estimated the increase in life-expectancy from physical activity due to biking to be 3-14 months; this is significantly more than the life-expectancy loss due to increased exposure to air pollution while biking (5-9 days). Biking also reduces obesity and risk of chronic disease while improving mental health. In Copenhagen, a study found that the social cost of biking was six times less than that of driving a car when accounting for factors like transportation cost, health, and perceived safety and comfort, and estimates show that the annual operation and maintenance costs for a car are 27 times more than those for a bike. Equitable access to these benefits is imperative to sustainable development; unfortunately, there are currently some striking imbalances in ridership and access to infrastructure for women, minorities, and, in general, people with lower socioeconomic status.
“The gender split for people new to bike riding who take part in our programs, like Biketober, is on average 60% female and 40% male, but the gender split of people that are frequent bikers is the opposite - 60% male and 40% female. We’ve got an imbalance in biking at the moment and we’re working to balance that out by encouraging and supporting more women to ride,” Stokell explained.
Research shows that perceived safety is a major contributing barrier to riding bikes for women. Personally, I can attest to this. On one particular bike ride, I was catcalled and followed to the door of my workplace. Cars lock the outside world out; bikes do not. Because women are statistically more likely to be victims of violent crimes and also less likely to commit violent crimes, they experience an ‘unequal’ vulnerability to violent crime. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is hesitancy to exit the safety of a car and take to the open road.
Additionally, one study found that neighborhoods with lower educational attainment, higher Hispanic populations, and lower composite socioeconomic status correlated with lower access to bike lanes when adjusting for various indicators of cycling demand. African American and Lantinx people are 30 and 23% more likely than whites to be killed while cycling, respectively. Meanwhile, from 2001 to 2009, cycling trips taken by African Americans increased by 100%, while whites increased ridership by only 22%. So, although more minorities are entering the world of cycling, it is inherently a more dangerous activity.
While neighborhoods historically deprived of resources (for example, red-lined districts with higher minority populations) have higher rates of cycling fatalities, a lack of access to infrastructure is not the only factor at play. White people living in deprived areas have lower rates of fatality than do minorities according to a study conducted in the United Kingdom; this indicates that minority bikers face a number of barriers to safe biking. For example, both a racist system that makes it harder for them to access biking infrastructure and a racist society that is more likely to victimize them based on their appearance are two such hindrances.
The United Nations makes it clear that gender equity and reduced inequalities are imperative to sustainable development in sustainable development goals 5 and 10. In the case of biking infrastructure and access, there is still work that needs to be done. While Love to Ride continues its efforts to get more people biking, we all can do our own part to build inclusive and vibrant biking communities in the places that we call home. Whether you’re a frequent rider or a complete novice, you can join Love to Ride for tips on how to ramp up your cycling such that you reduce your carbon impact, save money, and fit some active time into your busy schedule. When you do hit the trail, invite your friends along with you. Engage with, and advocate for, equitable bike sharing programs that give people without bikes the opportunity to affordably rent them. Listen to community needs and work within your own neighborhood to identify key impact areas for biking infrastructure. But, above all else, always remember to enjoy the ride.
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About Love to Ride. Love to Ride, https://partners.lovetoride.net/.
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