Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Interrelationship of Bicycles and Green Building

By: Becky Moriarty, Sustainable Building Associate
                                  M.S. Construction Management

Aside from being a construction management graduate student and a green building consultant at IBE, I also work for the City of Fort Collins FC Bikes program.  People are generally intrigued by this combination because they see little relation between bike transportation efforts and green building efforts.  To me, the two are almost inseparable.  Like the green building movement, promoting bicycles as a mode of transportation is a constant uphill battle. While they both have numerous positive impacts on human, environmental and economic health, people are hesitant to change. The triple bottom line goals of green building efforts seem to partner perfectly with those of bike transportation initiatives.

Human Health

In general, US cities are designed around the car.  Wide streets, vast parking lots, and urban sprawl dominate our landscape.  Urban sprawl not only deteriorates our natural environment, but also our health.  Nationwide studies have found that most sprawling metropolitan counties tend to have the highest rates of obesity and the lowest levels of physical activity.  As our waistlines and cities continue to grow, promoting riding a bicycle seems like a no brainer.  Not only does riding a bike burn calories, it also improves coordination, mental health and immune system.  Like green buildings that address indoor air quality and work to create healthy spaces, riding a bike inherently improves human health.

Environmental Health

While the production and end-of-life disposal of bicycles do have negative environmental impacts, the day-to-day use of a bicycle is a much more sustainable choice than a car.  Run on human energy, bicycles don’t pollute or produce harmful emissions.  According to the League of American Bicyclists, 60% of pollution created by automobile emissions happens in the first few minutes of operation, before pollution control devices can work effectively.  Therefore, short car trips, or engine “warm-up” trips, are the worst polluters.  With that, the US Census estimates that about ½ of all Americans live within 5 miles of their workplace, a distance that is typically manageable for a bike commute.  In terms of space, a bicycle needs less area on the road and less room to park as compared to an automobile.  The City of Muenster Planning Office created an advertising campaign to show the space used by various modes of transportation: a car, a bus and a bicycle.  The photo below gives a great visual representation of the results:

Bicycles require less infrastructure in general to maintain pathways.  They allow for the movement of persons in a much more confinded space than the typical automobile, minimizing the impact on the natural environment.

Economic Health

In terms of healthcare, it is estimated that the annual cost due to people being overweight or obese in the US is $117 billion.  With that, the potential annual healthcare savings if Americans were more active is $76.6 billion!   Bike facilities also have a smaller impact than their automobile counterparts.  Bike parking, for example, is much cheaper and less invasive than automobile parking.  According to bicycleinfo.org, a typical surface area car parking space costs $2,200 and a garage parking space costs about $12,500.  That’s for 1 car!  That same space can fit 10-12 bikes at a fraction of the price.  Additionally, a bicycle is considerably cheaper to own and maintain than an automobile.  No gas, no insurance and low-cost repairs make transportation by bicycle manageable economically.


Just as in promoting green building in the construction world, there are many obstacles to promoting bicycling in a car-centric transportation world.  People are hesitant to change their behaviors, no matter what the potential benefits might be.  It takes a champion or two to take the first leap before the masses follow.  And just as the green building movement has slowly caught on in popularity, bicycle transportation is bound to follow.

[1] Reid Ewing et al., “Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Mortality,” American Journal of
Health Promotion, Sept./Oct. 2003; vol.18, n.1; pp.47-57; Russ Lopez, “Urban Sprawl and Risk for Being Overweight or Obese,”
American Journal of Public Health, Sept. 2004; v.94, n.9; pp. 1574-1579.
[2] http://dsc.discovery.com/adventure/the-top-7-health-benefits-of-cycling.html
[3] http://www.biketoworkinfo.org/resources/pdf/Bicycling_Moving_America_Forward.pdf