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Bike Lanes Promote Happiness, Health and Financial Stability

A cyclist rides in a protected bike lane on Prince Avenue installed last fall. Credit: Suzannah Evans/file

I’ve commuted by bike for the past 40 years, in all the places I’ve lived, and have found cars to be burdensome and restrictive, which made me an oddball in my native Detroit. Instead, I’ve always loved bikes, either as a kid riding around in packs with friends or as an adult, for the possibilities they promise for sustainable and happy urban life (and riding around in packs with my friends). 

That is why I was encouraged when my wife and I moved to Athens in November to see the strides local government and groups have made towards bikeability here. I was particularly pleased to see bike lanes and the Greenway, and have found getting around Athens by bike fairly easy, with some exceptions. 

So, I was dismayed by a recent letter in Flagpole that expressed sarcasm about the lack of bicycles observed on the new bike lanes on Prince Avenue and the efforts to increase bike traffic. To me, the letter reflected an “all for us, none for you” attitude toward infrastructure that the automobile can engender in drivers—which is crazy because, after all, a civilized urban life makes allowances for all community members to get around easily, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

I can never understand the criticism of road diets like the one on Prince when the benefits have been proven over and over again in community after community, from New York City to Copenhagen to San Francisco. The Blue Zones’ research has highlighted and promoted urban planning designed for humans rather than just automobiles because of the many benefits this type of planning provides citizens. Bikes are a big part of why Copenhagen has been rated the happiest city in the world. Many studies confirm how city life improves with access to human-powered locomotion. For instance, job satisfaction is highest among those who walk or bike to work.

Additionally, road diets have been shown to improve foot traffic and the economy for local shops and neighborhoods. Cars are inefficient and require gobbling up more and more space for roads, garages and parking lots. And with all the awareness of the contribution cars make to global warming (or lately, global boiling), we tend to forget how pollution also leads to increased rates of lung cancer.

Also, in our highly segmented lives, we tend to think of exercise as going to the gym or running a 5K. But as Blue Zones’ studies have pointed out, the longest-lived persons in the world get their exercise just by getting around, walking, biking, gardening and other non-gym physical activities. Bike lanes and sidewalks make this type of exercise more accessible to all. 

I’ve always been perplexed by the notion that owning a car means freedom. Sitting in a car on a congested street seems like the opposite. And, in reality, most people express a default necessity to owning a car. To me, there is a cognitive dissonance in believing you need to have a car to live, yet still calling it freedom to own one. If you don’t have a choice, it can’t really be called freedom. 

Having access to bike lanes and sidewalks, however, can provide a slice of real economic freedom to everyone. For example, estimates put the average cost at $8,000–10,000 per year to own, operate and maintain a car, when you include fees, insurance, gas and repairs. Let’s say a car owner has an income of $40,000 per year and owns a car for 50 years. That comes out to $400,000–500,000 spent on car ownership over a lifetime, which works out to 10 or 12 years of work-life spent just to afford one. I have a friend with a wife and two daughters, all of whom own a car—a common arrangement in many households. It’s too depressing to do the financial math on that one. 

Basically, many of us are going to work to pay for a car in order to drive to work. That doesn’t seem like freedom. The only place owning a car seems like freedom is in TV commercials and magazine ads.

Unfortunately, it will take more than new infrastructure to change attitudes and the volume of bike traffic in Athens. But I’m optimistic that bicycle traffic will increase if our community begins to realize the benefits of biking and walking. We need to begin asking, as a community, how and why did we become so dependent on cars? Are more and bigger roads and parking lots serving us well? Is there a better way?

In his book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg explores why we’ve built suburbs and urban areas around the automobile: “Our migration from both the inner cities and the rural hinterland, was, as Lewis Mumford once put it, ‘a collective effort to live a private life.’ We aim for comfort and well-stocked homes, and freedom from uncomfortable interaction and the obligations of citizenship. We succeeded.”

Sadly, as he goes on to say, this privacy has not made us happy. It’s made us more miserable and divided as a country. I believe that we could be happier having easier access to all aspects of our community, even “the uncomfortable obligations of citizenship,” by becoming more human-oriented. 

If you’ve been thinking about becoming more bike-powered, there are several bike stores in and around Athens that can get you started, or maybe repair the bike gathering dust in your garage. BikeAthens has great refurbished bikes and can even teach you how to repair your own for a nominal fee, and also leads an easy hour-long joy ride around town, usually at 6 p.m. on the last Friday of the month. Hope to see you there sometime. 

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