Cycling, Public Health, and Climate Change

It’s a beautiful day today in Maine, and temperatures should rise into the 80s. This is time of year we’ve all been waiting for. However, the National Weather Service has issued an air quality alert, citing elevated levels of pollutants. Global warming promises to increase the number of days in the U.S. when ozone levels reach unhealthy levels.

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Bikers in Copenhagen line up at an intersection.

Copenhagen’s commitment to increasing the number of bike riders is a key part of the city’s strategy to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Current cycling levels reduce emissions by 90,000 tons annually. In making the case for climate change mitigation, Denmark recognizes the importance of including health effects in cost-benefit calculations to build public and private support for cycling infrastructure development.

Yes, there are significant political, economic and social differences between Denmark and the U.S., but after our study tour, I have to ask again why the U.S., the second largest contributor (after China) of CO2 emissions in the world, is not stepping up as a leader to take advantage of the economic and social benefits inherent in climate change mitigation?

Psychologists who study behavioral barriers to combating climate change note the following:

  • we have a hard time imaging a future that is different from the present
  • we block out complex problems that don’t have simple solutions
  • we don’t like delayed benefits (e.g. sacrificing today for the future)
  • we are better at dealing with emergencies than addressing problems that creep up on us.

According to research conducted by the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, about 65 percent of the U.S. population is concerned to varying degrees about global warming and open to policy solutions. About 24 percent are unsupportive and 10 percent is disengaged. The research showed that for the doubtful/dismissive 24 percent, discussions of climate change are likely to elicit counter arguments, while focusing on the positive health benefits associated with specific actions is a productive approach within conversations.

Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University, says that few people actually care enough about polar bears to take action. However, audiences are more open to communications framing that includes climate change solutions that will reduce problems that people can relate to (like asthma).

Studies of Danish adults have shown that cycling to work has a significant effect on health. Even after adjustments for differences in jobs, smoking, leisure time status, and body mass index, people who cycle to work have a 28 percent lower mortality rate. Gains per employer have been assessed at 3-400 Euro ($3.9-$519) per physically active employee per year. In children, cycling to school is associated with better fitness and better cardiovascular risk factor profile. Copenhagen, a city of 1.2 million people, estimates that each kilometer cycled saves 1.21 DKK in the health care system for approximately $91 million of savings per year.

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On our bike tour of central Copenhagen with the Danish Cyclist Federation, tour guide Niels Hoe explains the city’s investments in infrastructure development strategies to make biking more convenient and fun.

In Copenhagen, speed and convenience in commuting play a significant factor in motivating people to ride their bikes. Exercise is important too. Bike to work campaigns have helped to increase the number of individuals biking to school and work, in part because it was easier and faster than expected.

Portland, Maine, and surrounding communities can start by encouraging more bike commuting. Incorporating public health messaging creates opportunities for partnership with healthcare systems and the public health community, and might open the door for constructive conversations about climate change.

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Biking improves health and reduces healthcare costs (while reducing CO2 emissions): a message that should resonate in the U.S.

Oh, and Americans would be impressed by how stylish people in Copenhagen look on their bikes. Bike advocates in Maine can make a point of promoting comfortable, chic biking attire (check out the cover of the June issue of Maine. magazine). For some additional inspiration, visit http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com/.

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