Millions of people in the United States do not have adequate access to reliable transportation. This often means that they are stuck in areas with little or no opportunities for employment or education/training, and limited access to public transportation. It also means that they have few, if any opportunities for recreation and entertainment – and more importantly, access to supermarkets. Recent studies have confirmed that economic and social inequality, as well as obesity and associated diseases, are linked to inadequate access to transportation – including poor public transportation.[1] If health and the ability to support ourselves are human rights, then mobility must be a human right. Bicycles are not a stand-alone solution to this problem, but they can help.

Bicycles are inexpensive, easy to maintain, and require no license, registration, or insurance to operate. They also require no gasoline to run. Many forms of public transportation allow riders to board with their bike. Combining cycling and use of public transportation, a person of average health has virtually unlimited ability to go anywhere in North America. The right to transportation is fundamental to our well being. Without transportation, most people are virtually certain to experience poverty, long-term unemployment, and have poor health.

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The Giant Escape 3 is an excellent and inexpensive bike that retails for $360 (image source: www.giant-bicycles.com/us/escape-3-2016)

By regularly riding a bike, cyclists model behavior. The more cyclists on the road, the more acceptable cycling becomes to non-cyclists. Just simply riding a bike is a political act that has the potential to transform how Americans view transport and the possibility that bikes are a viable alternative form of mobility for work and recreation.

THE PROBLEM OF INADEQUATE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

Basic mobility is difficult for many people in the United States, especially those who have low incomes.[2] Outside of our largest cities, many American towns and cities have public transportation systems that are under-funded, poorly maintained, and have irregular or inconvenient routes and schedules.[3] In addition, fares are increasingly unaffordable for the poorest Americans.[4] The link between poor public transportation and unemployment in urban and rural areas is widely recognized.[5] The bottom line seems to be this: too many people with low incomes remain under-employed and isolated because public transportation does not meet their needs.

Part of the problem is that American policy makers focus their efforts on car-based transportation solutions, such as road/highway repair, toll roads, and oil and trade policies.[6] In cities where public transportation is improved and expanded, political conflict and public opposition can kill or slow development.[7] It may be that the biggest problem facing the development of adequate public transportation is the apparent perception that public transportation is for poor people, and therefore it is a form of welfare.[8]

THE PROBLEM OF “FOOD DESERTS”

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as places within the United States where at least 500 low-income people live more than one mile from a grocery store in an urban area, and ten miles in a rural area.[9] The problem of distance arises because those living in food deserts very often do not own a car, have little or no access to adequate public transportation, or live in areas where the roads cannot be safely walked.[10]

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Map of “food deserts” in the United States (image source: www.americannutritionassociation.org/newletter/usda-defines-food-deserts)

Millions of people in the US live in food deserts and struggle to gain access to whole foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, etc.) that are purchased at supermarkets.[11] In these same areas, fast food chains and convenience/liquor stores are often the only places where food of any type can be purchased.[12] Researchers have found a link between food deserts and obesity, citing the over-consumption of nutrient-deficient, calorie-dense food such as potato chips, candy, and fast food as a contributing factor to obesity in low income populations.[13] It is well established that obesity is a major contributor to the development of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, osteoarthritis, and sleep apnea.[14]

If health is a human right, then access to reliable transportation is a human right.

THERE IS SOME GOOD NEWS: BIKE SHARE PROGRAMS

Many cities in the United States have enacted bike share programs based on European programs.[15] A bike share program is a system of self-service bike rental kiosks set up by cities (and sometimes private companies) where the people can rent bikes for hours, days, and even by the month or year.[16] In most systems, a bike can be rented in one part of a city and returned to a kiosk in another part of the city. The cost is minimal, about two dollars per trip – less than many subway and bus fares, The bikes are maintained by the city or company that runs the program.[17]

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Bike share rental kiosk run by the City of Albuquerque, NM. Note the credit card device on the rear rack of each bike.

Studies in the United States and Europe have shown that bike share programs increase activity and fitness in users. The programs also reduce traffic congestion and pollution.[18] Research has also shown that many users of bike share programs also combine bikes with other forms of public transportation in order to widen their range of mobility.[19]

But bike share programs are not without problems. In most cities, the rental kiosks tend to be located in more affluent neighborhoods and areas frequented by tourists.[20] In addition, bike share programs generally require the use of an ATM card – something that many people with low incomes do not have.[21] So, while the movement toward bike share programs in generally positive, kiosks should be placed in low-income neighborhoods as well as in more affluent and tourist-dense areas.

Another positive trend is the move across the United States for cities to build more bike-specific paths and lanes. Chicago has nearly 300 miles of bikeways completed with more to come.[22] New York City has over thirty miles of protected bike lanes in the city itself.[23] Los Angeles has over 350 miles, and Albuquerque has over 400 miles of bike paths and lanes.[24] Many other cities have hundreds of miles dedicated to bike traffic. All of this is good news.

One challenge is making affordable bikes available to people who want them. In the meantime, simply cycling – whether commuting or going to the movies – is a political act that models behavior for others. Bikes are not the only solution to the problem of mobility, but is can contribute to allowing people to increase their mobility, gain employment, and improve their health. That is something worthy of our consideration.

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[1] Gillian B. White, “Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Transportation Increases Inequality,” The Atlantic, May 16, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/stranded-how-americas-failing-public-transportation-increases-inequality/393419/ (accessed 11/28/16).

[2] The United States government defines poverty for an individual as earning less than $12,000 per year, and for a family of four, $24,250 and under. The federal definition of poverty is based on household size and age of household members. See, United States Census Bureau, “Poverty Thresholds: 2015,” https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html (accessed 11/28/16).

[3] Gillian B. White, “Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Transportation Increases Inequality.”

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Alex Pareen, “Why Mass Transit is Doomed in America: Politicians Don’t Know People Who Use It,” Salon, December 2, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/02/why_mass_transit_is_doomed_in_america_politicians_dont_know_people_who_use_it/ (accessed 12/1/16).

[7] Id.; and Dan McKay, “Federal Court Refuses Again to Stop ART Construction Work,” Albuquerque Journal, 10/25/16, https://www.abqjournal.com/874701/u-s-appeals-court-refuses-to-halt-construction-of-abq-rapid-transit.html (accessed 12/1/16).

[8] Joseph Stromberg, “The Real Reason American Public Transportation is Such a Disaster,” Vox, August 10, 2015,  http://www.vox.com/2015/8/10/9118199/public-transportation-subway-buses (accessed 12/1/16).

[9] American Nutrition Association, “USDA Defines Food Deserts,” Nutrition Digest, vol. 38, no. 2, http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts (accessed 11/28/16); and United States Dept. of Agriculture, “Food Desert Locator,” Release No. 0191-11, http://www.fns.usda.gov/tags/food-desert-locator (accessed 11/28/16).

[10] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Crossing America’s Food Deserts to Fight Obesity.” Health News and Notes,” http://www.cdc.gov/prc/pdf/matte-fooddeserts.pdf  (accessed 11/28/16).

[11] Andrew Soergel, “Millions of Food Desert Dwellers Struggle to Get Fresh Groceries,” U.S. News & World Report, December 7, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/12/07/millions-of-food-desert-dwellers-struggle-to-get-fresh-groceries (accessed 11/28/16).

[12] Id.

[13] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Crossing America’s Food Deserts to Fight Obesity.”

[14] National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “What are the Risks of Overweight and Obesity?” https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/obe/risks (accessed 11/28/16); and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity,” http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/ (accessed 11/28/16).

[15] Laurie Mittlemann, “City Rolls Out Bike Share Program on European Model,” The Villager, vol. 78, no. 7, July 16-22, 2008, http://thevillager.com/villager_272/cityrollsout.html (accessed 12/2/16).

[16] Joe Lindsey, “Do Bike Share Systems Actually Work?” Outside, December 1, 2016, https://www.outsideonline.com/2136406/do-bike-share-systems-actually-work (accessed 12/2/16).

[17] See, Capitol Bikeshare pricing: https://www.capitalbikeshare.com/pricing; and Citi Bike pricing: https://www.citibikenyc.com/pricing (accessed 12/2/16).

[18] Joe Lindsey, “Do Bike Share Systems Actually Work?”

[19] Danielle Kurtzelben, “Bike Sharing Systems Aren’t Trying to Pedal for Profit,” U.S. News & World Report, April 17, 2012, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/04/17/bike-sharing-systems-arent-trying-to-peddle-for-profit (accessed 12/2/16).

[20] Joel Rose, “Shifting Gears To Make Bike Sharing More Accessible,” National Public Radio: Morning Edition, December 125, 2013, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/12/243215574/shifting-gears-to-make-bike-sharing-more-accessible (accessed 11/28/16)l; and Gillian B. White, “Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Transportation Increases Inequality.”

[21] Id.

[22] Jon Hilkevitch, “Build More and Better Bike Lanes, Cycling Advocates Urge Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, October 14, 2015, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ct-bike-lane-network-getting-around-met-1012-20151011-column.html (accessed 12/2/16).

[23] New York City Department of Transportation, “Protected Bike Lanes in NYC,” September 2014, http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2014-09-03-bicycle-path-data-analysis.pdf (accessed 12/2/16).

[24] City of Los Angeles, “Active Transportation Projects,” http://bike.lacity.org/plan-your-trip/bicycle-maps/ (accessed 12/2/16); and City of Albuquerque, “Bicycling,” http://www.cabq.gov/parksandrecreation/recreation/bike (accessed 12/2/16).