Or perhaps it should be "all of the above."
There is always a lot of pushback whenever we suggest that maybe electric cars are not the answer to the problems of pollution, and that maybe self-driving cars won’t save our cities and suburbs. After writing Banning fossil fuelled cars isn't enough; we have to rethink our transportation system and It's time to free ourselves from our "thrall to the metal god" I thought I had attracted enough critical comments for the month, but now the Guardian has published yet another point of view from Tim Burns, writing Swapping cars for bikes, not diesel for electric, is the best route to clean air. Burns notes, as I have:
Burns’ main point is not that bikes take up less space and are more energy efficient than any other form of transportation, but that increasing the percentage of people who cycle would lead to significant health benefits. He quotes a study we covered in TreeHugger that concluded that “ cycling regularly reduced the incidence of cancer by 45%, heart disease by 46%, and of death by any cause by 41%.”
Focusing on switching from diesel and petrol vehicles to electric will most likely result in people simply changing the type of heavy box that they drive around our towns and cities in. This should improve air quality as emissions reduce over the long term, but it will do nothing to solve congestion on our streets, and it is a missed opportunity to improve public health.
Sir Liam Donaldson, the former chief medical officer for England once said: “The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a wonder drug or miracle cure.” And it’s good for society too – Transport for London calculated that if all Londoners walked or cycled for 20 minutes a day this would save £1.7bn in NHS treatment costs over 25 years in the capital alone.
Not everyone has to cycle, there are some who can't; but not as many as you think
Perhaps the most difficult debate about the issue was how cars are needed for the disabled, the obese, and the elderly who cannot cycle. But not everyone has to cycle; we just have to increase the percentage. Tim Burns notes that in the UK, only 2 percent of the population regularly cycles. Even in Denmark, as the infographic below shows, cycling accounts for only 26 percent of all trips under 3 miles and 16 percent of all trips. But even that saves 12 billion euros in medical costs and 1.1 million fewer sick days. And for those that do cycle, they are healthier and there are far lower rates of obesity.
E-bikes to the rescue
Also, the proliferation of ebikes has made it much easier for the elderly to stay on bikes longer; Average Joe Cyclist, which promotes ebikes for boomers and seniors, shows case studies of how e-bikes actually improved the health of a guy who suffered a heart attack and a stroke and cancer, another who suffered FOUR heart attacks, and more. They are using bikes to regain their health, part of their recovery plan.
But I don't want to live in a city
Another complaint that we often get is from readers who simply do not want to live in cities and they need their pickup or their car because they are miles from everything. Again, we are talking percentages; of course if you live in the middle of nowhere you probably need a car. But according to the US Census, 80.7 percent of Americans now live in what they define as an urban area. We’re not saying everyone has to bike everywhere. I spend the summer in a cabin that’s 3 miles from the nearest store and 150 miles from my home and I need a car for that. But I don’t need it in the city, where I bike. We are not being doctrinaire or one size fits all.
But what about kids and shopping?
Finally, there is the question of whether you can live an American lifestyle, get kids to soccer, shop at the big box if you don’t have a car. It’s a challenge for sure, but I will defer to Brent Toderian who put together these tweets in response to a woman who suggested this; it includes kids, soccer, and even trips to Costco.
In the end, it’s not either-or, it’s bikes or Teslas, its all of the above. If as much attention and investment was put into bike infrastructure, into giving people a safe place to ride in our cities and our suburbs as it is to electric and autonomous cars, we could make our cities and suburbs a better, healthier place for everyone.