But I put my bike away when it starts to snow in Wisconsin.  I see people who pedal through till spring, and I salute them, but there is something I don’t like about a biker’s odds in snow.

Not a good day to bike. (Photo caption:

The pavement gets slippery, and the roads become narrower as snowplows pack all that white stuff to the side.  Neatly-painted bike lanes disappear under a sheet of packed snow, and traffic turns into a free-for-all.

But it’s not snowing here yet, and every mile we commuters pedal —

we benefit the environment, the economy and our own health.  

I just got a press release from UW-Madison yesterday that added some hard numbers to this statement.

According to a study of the largest 11 metropolitan statistical areas in the upper Midwest just published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, here’s what we get if we replace half of short car commutes with bikes during the warmest 6 months of the year:

  • Save about $3.8 billion per year from avoided mortality and reduced health care costs for conditions like obesity and heart disease.
  • Save an estimated $7 billion, including 1,100 lives each year from improved air quality and increased physical fitness.



433 lives would be saved due to the reduction in fine particles of pollution in the air, which lodge deep in the lung and have repeatedly been tied to asthma. Even small changes reduce a chronic exposure that affects the 31.3 million people living throughout the region – not just in these metropolitan areas, but even hundreds of miles downwind,” says the study’s co-author Scott Spak.)


“Obesity has become a national epidemic, and not getting exercise has lot to do with that,” says first author Maggie Grabow, a Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute, who will present the study today (Wednesday, Nov. 2) to the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C.  She noted that commuting is a perfect way to incorporate exercise into a desk-job day and curb our growing obesity and type II diabetes epidemics.

Seattle bike-to-work day should be everyday everywhere (as long as it's not snowing). Photo caption: )

Overall, the study may underestimate the benefits of eliminating short auto trips,  because it did not measure the financial savings due to reduced auto usage,  according to Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, andan environmental health specialist in the Department of Population Health Sciences.

Patz acknowledges that it’s unrealistic to expect to eliminate all short auto trips, but notes that biking as transportation is gaining popularity in the United States, and that in some cities in Northern Europe, approximately 50 percent of short trips are done by bike. “If they have achieved this, why should we not think we can achieve it too?” he asks.

He calls the new study, “a call for making our biking infrastructure safer. If there are so many health benefits out there, we ought to try to redesign our cities to achieve them without putting new riders at risk.”

By lessening the use of fossil fuels, a reduction in auto usage also benefits the climate, Patz adds. “Transportation accounts for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, so if we can swap bikes for cars, we gain in fitness, local air quality, a reduction in greenhouse gases, and the personal economic benefits of biking rather than driving. It’s a four-way win.”


11 replies

  1. Redesigning cities for bikes – now that’s a good idea. From my experience of the two years in Colorado there is plenty of space for bike lanes, but they could do with kerbs to stop traffic drifting into them. Shops in the suburbs would be good too, having to drive quite a way just to get some shopping was not my idea of fun, the shops were just too far to get too by bike from where I lived and yet it was a new suburb with many people.

  2. Good point, Joanna
    Having lived in the Netherlands, I got a chance to see how smoothly society works when bikes are incorporated into all transportation designs from the start.
    I hope we can get it right here someday.

  3. Bikes are good and Madison is finally becoming more tolerant and respectful of bikers. But you’re right, the snow adds even another dimension of concern for the bikers and the drivers. As a winter driver, what really annoys me is the character who dons cross country skies and thinks it’s ok to ski in the street with traffic! Now THAT’s just foolhardy! :o)

  4. Well I bike maybe two or three times a year. What I find much easier is just stepping out my front door and walking. Bicycles are just too high-techie. 🙂 I consider myself to be a member of Thoreau’s Order of Walkers, one who saunters along roads and across landscapes. Of course I also re-read his essay on Walking every so often. He was a marvelous wrioter. Of course I have a friend who rides his bike no matter what the weather, even if it is 20 degrees below zero. I think he said there was one day last year when he did not ride his bike – that was because it refused to function in the weather. A small bit of lunacy, I think!

  5. For me, biking feel like the next thing to flying. They are a bit technical, and I have gotten stranded by mechanical failure a few times, but it’s a great way to get around a city the size of Madison — for many months of the year.
    Today, with rain and temps in the low 40s, I am with you. Walking is preferable. But I just had an appointment across town, and alas, I drove. It would have been very bikable without that cold rain.
    Madison has wonderful bike trails. Last Saturday I pedaled out of town and through woods and prairies for about 2 hours, only interfacing with autos where the path crossed streets. I’m going to miss that once the snow falls. I’m hoping to make it through the rest of my life without breaking any more bones. I think I improve my odds by keeping my bike tires out of the snow.

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