Spotlight: How Cycling Can Save the World | WBEZ
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Worldview Podcast

Spotlight: How Cycling Can Save the World

Peter Walker said his asthma kept him from having confidence in his physical health. But he said his health was transformed after taking the unlikely job of bike messenger upon graduation from college. 

Now a political correspondent for The Guardian, Walker believes bicycles can transform our health and the communities we live in.

Worldview host Jerome McDonnell called Walker’s new book Bike Nation: How Cycling Can Save the World, “the best book on cycling he’s ever read.” Walker joined Worldview to discuss statistics on health benefits of cycling regularly, the culture of cycling in different countries and controversial topics like helmet laws, street space and why cyclists are despised on the road. 

On how cycling changed his life

Peter Walker: It’s something I kind of stress as much as I can in the book, that even riding a bike at a gentle pace, a couple of miles each way to or from school or college or work can have this incredibly transformative approach on your overall physical well being. But for me, I was in my early 20s and I was suddenly cycling 60 or 70 miles a day, five days a week, and obviously the health benefits were very very rapid. And I’d previously thought of myself as someone who could never be, not so much even good at sports, but just physically robust. I lived in fear of becoming ill and things like that because some of the very serious asthma attacks I’d had in my teenage years were very very scary things. I didn’t quite almost die, but I could have done a couple of times. But within six months of becoming a bicycle courier, my whole attitude was just completely different. And people who had known me a long time would bump into me after a few months and go, oh my goodness, you actually look completely different. So it had this incredibly transformative effect basically on the rest of my life. 

Cyclists riding on Chicago's State Street. (Star5112/Flickr)

On the health benefits of cycling

Walker: I knew that everyday cycling was good for you, but I never realized quite how incredibly strong the evidence was. Every public health expert you talk to will describe physical activity being like a kind of miracle pill. If you could prescribe it in tablet form, you’d win every Nobel Prize you could think of. It reduces your risk of not only cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, but also lots of forms of cancer. There is some emerging research that seems to show that it can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s or other mental degenerations as you age. But cycling seems to be particularly good for two reasons, one of which is that it does seem to be that when you just exercise that little bit more, get your heart rate a little bit faster than it would otherwise be, you are setting off from a stoplight or if you’re cycling up a hill is quite easy to do. 

But the other kind of magic thing about being able to cycle around is that all the public health experts say that the big problem is not getting people to exercise, it’s finding a way for them to fit it into their everyday lives, so you can say to someone: Go for a walk every day or join a gym, and lots of people will do that and keep it up for a couple of weeks but then it will gradually stop because people have got busy lives, whereas if you’ve got the safe cycling infrastructure such that people can cycle safely and easily to and from work, then it becomes actually easier, it becomes part of their life. Some mornings I’m really not in the mood for cycling to work. But I know it takes me 20 minutes on a bike, but when I get the train and walk, it’s about 35 minutes, which for London is quite good, and that’s it – it’s the kind of everyday aspect that makes it such a miracle.

Cyclists commuting on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. (David B. Gleason/Flickr)

On the reputation of cyclists (in the eyes of automobile drivers)

Walker: My personal view is that a certain proportion of people are idiots, and they’re always going to be idiots irrespective of what form of transport they use. So in a car they might speed or overtake in a dangerous way, but equally on a bike, they might jump a red or kind of skim past someone crossing the road with a pram. And they’re probably the sort of people that would push past you to get that last seat on the train. But the only difference is that when you’re on a train, or on a bike, barring a kind of statistical eventuality kind of less likely that winning the lottery jackpot, you’re not going to kill or maim somebody, whereas in a car you can. And it’s not that people in cars are suddenly less moral than they are on a bike, it’s just the fact the kinetic energy that vehicle can impart is just much greater. And that’s something that I think can’t be stressed enough. It’s not to excuse people who cycle in a kind of antisocial way, or jump reds or ride on the pavement. I don’t particularly like it, but it’s important to stress it’s not very likely to kill someone. 

On how electric bikes (e-bikes) can change our cities

Walker: In a strange way, it could be as transformative to the way we live in cities and towns as just normal bikes or e-bikes are getting people around. But also there’s a lot of small vans and trucks which are delivering parcels that people are ordering over the internet. And often you see them opening the cargo bay door and it’s full of these laughably small parcels. And a lot of cities are trying to see if there’s ways if they can get the final couple of miles of this kind of freight done by e-bikes. And I went to visit this U.K. company which does only bike and e-bike freight, and I was talking to somebody who’s riding actually not an electric bike, he had this kind of slightly long, two-wheel bit with a big cargo bay. He was saying in the city that he was based, he could deliver things much much more quickly than someone with a van. Because although he had to go back to the depot more often, he just wouldn’t have to worry about parking, he could go down cycling on the streets, and all that kind of stuff. That’s one of the things that when you say, bikes can take over the world, they say, well, what about carrying a sofa, or carrying a fridge? And the answer to that is that that’s not what they’re ideally suited for, but some electric cargo e-bikes can actually do that. 

A rack of Divvy bikes in downtown Chicago. (Antonio Roberts/Flickr)

On some unintended consequences of helmet laws 

Walker: If you introduce a law mandating people to wear bike helmets whenever they’re on a bike, [as Seattle did], there can be all sorts of unintended consequences. It’s difficult to know the exact reasons why because sometimes bike share systems don’t work very well, because there’s not enough docking stations, they’re spread out too far, they’re in the wrong places. But I was talking to someone from one of the Seattle radio stations a couple of weeks ago, and they were saying that their view was very much the helmet law kind of killed [the bike share system] off, and there is a certain weight of evidence for that. So for example, the New York ones do very well, the London ones are doing very well there. But wherever there is a mandatory helmet law, they don’t seem to do very well. So for example in Australia, you’ve got bike share systems in Brisbane and in Melbourne. In both cases, the statistics show that the bikes are used on average like once or twice every two or three days. Whereas in popular schemes they’re used four or five times every day and that’s because you have to either bring a helmet with you, or buy a cheap helmet from a shop nearby, or hope one of the free ones they kind of give out have been left on the bike. And you can’t just do what is the joy of being on a bike, which is get on and ride. 

Chicago's lake front trail. (Ken Ratcliff/Flickr)

On whether bicycles will be major part of future cities 

Walker: I like to think so. I’m obviously a slightly biased person to think about this. ... I think the most important point is that we’re about to enter a kind of urban transport revolution probably the likes of which we’ve not seen since the motor car first started to become really really popular. And it could go either way, but my hope is that city planners and city leaders will realize that bikes are this incredibly important part of it. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced by Jerome McDonnell and edited by Vera Tan. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview, which originally aired on June 5, 2017.

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