Residents in 11 Midwestern cities would generate $7 billion in improved air quality, reduced health care costs and increased physical fitness by biking rather than driving for roughly half their trips of five miles or less, according to the work of researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
In addition, the decrease in air pollution and increase in fitness would save about 1,100 lives per year.
The findings of the team working at the Global Health Institute were published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The calculations were based on computer models projecting reduced emissions, hospital visits and deaths if a moderate change to self-propelled travel would cut down residential vehicle use about 20%.
In the U.S. roughly 28% of all car trips are one mile or less, another 41% are two miles or less. Those short trips are particularly damaging, based on research that shows 25% of volatile organic compounds and 19% of particulate matter are emitted by cars in the first few minutes of operation.
The researchers concluded: “The current fossil fuel-based transportation system of the U.S. negatively impacts human health by increasing air pollution and automobile accidents and decreasing physical activity.
“Transport-related inactivity, i.e. the use of motorized transport rather than walking and bicycling, has been linked to increased mortality and decreases in healthy life years, with the greatest impacts on chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, diabetes mellitus type 2, obesity, breast cancer, and osteoporosis.”
The health care savings would be generated through a reduction of roughly 93,607 emergency room visits and hospital emissions annually for respiratory symptoms and another 660 fewer cases of cardiovascular disease.
Roughly 425 lives would be prolonged via improved air quality and another 687 due to improved physical health from activity.
According to the study, nearly one-third of the U.S. population is fully inactive.
Cycling advocates touted the study during a news conference in Madison, and used it to support a push for more state dollars devoted building bike lanes.
“This study shows why Governor Walker and the Legislature should adopt the new bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Pocan and Senator Fred Risser to restore funding for bicycling to save lives, reduce health costs, cut traffic and save money,” said Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison.). “It makes no sense for Governor Walker to slash bicycle funding when there are so many benefits, in addition to supporting the 13,000 jobs in the $1.5 billion Wisconsin bike industry.”
In the 2011-’13 budget, Walker and the Legislature eliminated $5 million in state transportation funding dedicated to cycling and pedestrians projects.
Pocan and Risser have introduced a bill to restore that funding.
Writing for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, Dave Schlabowske pointed to the study findings as a call for greater personal responsibility.
“The citizens of our great country have a long and proud history of making personal sacrifices for the good of the nation in troubling times,” Schlabowske wrote. “Given we are already effectively rationing healthcare, perhaps it is once again time for our leaders to ask that people take more personal responsibility to reduce the cost of healthcare by making these very short trips on foot or by bike.”