PUBLIC HEALTH
November 17, 2014

Take the Greenway

A network of bicycle and pedestrian paths in Minneapolis is making a big difference in the number of active commuters.

Bike advocates have been insisting for years that making cities bike-friendlier would get more people out of their cars and onto their bikes. But there has been little research that either supports this idea or contradicts it.

But Minneapolis may finally put this idea on the map — of the United States, that is. A new study of their Minneapolis Greenway shows that when cities commit to making biking easier and safer, people respond by doing more biking.

There are two one-way bike lanes and one two-way walking path — all plowed in the winter, lit at night, and open 24/7. And best of all, there are no cars.

In the last ten years, the percentage of people living within three miles of the Greenway who biked to work nearly doubled. Even people who lived six miles from the Greenway biked to work more often. The study does not prove that the Greenway was responsible for these increases, but the findings seem to point to it.

The first portion of the Greenway opened in 2000, with additions continuing through 2007. Now five miles of bike and pedestrian trails link residential areas in Minneapolis with major employment centers. There are two one-way bike lanes and one two-way walking path — all plowed in the winter, lit at night, and open 24/7. And best of all, there are no cars.

According to the census bureau, the number of people who bike to work in the U.S. rose 60% between 2008 and 2012. But bicycling still accounts for fewer than 1% of all commutes. Compare that to the Netherlands, where over 30% of people say the bike is their main mode of transportation.

Biking has not taken off here as it has in Europe, and one of the biggest reasons for this has to do with safety. According to researcher Penny Gordon-Larsen, Professor of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina, the infrastructure of North American cities needs to be changed to make people feel more comfortable with active commuting.

The streets in parts of many European cities, often laid out when people walked or rode horses, are typically much smaller in scale than in many U.S. cities. Yet bike-friendly changes are happening: Bike lanes have been added in New York, and greenways like that in Minneapolis are being developed around the country.

If you'd like to lose weight, biking to work is often better than a diet (just switching from driving to work to taking the bus will also help you shed those pounds). And one study found that people who bike to work had only half the diabetes risk that car drivers did.

Then there are the social benefits. You're not polluting the air or adding to the carbon dioxide buildup. And many people find the commute less stressful. Of course, it's only less stressful when you don't have to worry about getting creamed by an SUV, delivery truck, or other motorized behemoth. That's a major reason why cities that make an effort to make biking safer are likely to be the cities that see the most biking.

The study, “Increased Municipal Investment in Bicycle Commuting and Increased Tract-Level Commuting in Minneapolis over a 10 Year-Period ” (T-2206-P) was presented on November 4 at Obesity Week 2014, The Obesity Society's Annual Meeting, held in Boston, Massachusetts.

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