Adding two wheels to daily routines
Alumnus researches how to encourage “One More Cyclist”
Dusting off the saddle and putting air into two flat tires is a chore for many Denver commuters every year on Bike to Work Day. Preventive medicine alumnus, Eric France, MD, MSPH, is working to eliminate dusty, unused bikes from Denver garages and encouraging residents to pedal around town.
As Chief of Population and Prevention Services at Kaiser Permanente Colorado, Dr. France has spent the past 15 years building care delivery systems that make it easy for patients to get mammograms, flu shots and cancer screenings. Yet, these programs are not enough to keep people healthy. He believes health behaviors are in need of improvement.
“The root cause of poor health of our members is lack of physical activity and poor diets,” explains Dr. France. “Over the years I’ve seen our programs reach people but they weren’t combating the root causes of so many diseases. I’ve seen substantial growth in obesity rates over thirty years and the impact this is having on the health of our communities is significant.”
Today, more people are utilizing their cars to drive to grocery stores, banks and libraries that are within walking distance from their homes. Seeing that health is influenced by the built environment, Dr. France started reading about new urbanism and smart growth issues and how these issues relate to public health.
“As a physician, I often get funny looks when I speak to people about my interest in transportation issues – doesn’t sound very medical,” writes Dr. France on his One More Cyclist blog. “Truth is there are few things more important for the health of our citizens than how we build our cities.”
“If we build cities where people drive everywhere this leads to more pollution, congestion and sedentary lifestyles; in turn, leading to chronic diseases and obesity,” he says.
Pedaling his way to change
A few years ago, work was competing with Dr. France’s time for exercise. With a new passion for smart growth, he parked his car and began cycling to work. A few pounds lighter, he had made biking a part of his daily routine. Now, he’s advocating for others to do the same.
For the past six weeks, Dr. France has been on sabbatical as a visiting scholar at Portland State University’s Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation program in Portland, Ore. Through meeting with city leaders, experiencing Portland’s bike lanes and reading about the health impact of cycling; he gaining ideas about how to increase Denver’s ridership.
According to the 2007 U.S. American Community Survey, approximately 1.6 percent of Denver’s population bicycles to work. By 2018, Denver’s goal is to increase the percentage to 10 percent.
“The challenge here is that the right thing – active transportation to and from our routine destinations – is anything but easy for many of us,” writes Dr. France on his blog. “It’s easy if we drive, but is plain hard and maybe even dangerous if we try to walk or bike.”
“I believe this needs fixing – we need to get to work on transforming our cities into places where it’s easy to bike or walk to our destinations,” he continues.
In Portland, Dr. France has participated in the city’s Sunday Parkways event. On five Sundays throughout the summer the city creates a traffic-free, six to eight mile route for cyclists, runners, and walkers to enjoy their neighborhoods and promote physical activity.
Traffic-free biking events have become popular in Chicago and New York City. At first, Dr. France believed the events’ costs outweighed the benefits; he now believes traffic-free biking events could help grow Denver’s biking enthusiasts.
“By seeing the Sunday Parkways, I realized you need to get people, who may have not ridden since they were kids, back on their bikes and comfortable riding on the streets,” Dr. France says.
Portland has also built bike boulevards that make riding more comfortable. Bike boulevards are streets that have low traffic volume, speed bumps, traffic circles and stop signs in the opposite direction—making it easier for cyclists to ride without stopping. These boulevards are common in areas where there are popular destinations such as grocery stores and libraries.
Since bike boulevards are a small investment with a huge payoff, Dr. France thinks Denver should incorporate bike boulevards into its bike plans and preexisting bike lanes. “Bike boulevards provide bikeways that have low levels of car traffic making the roads more accessible to women and children, who often are not comfortable riding on busy streets.”
Denver is currently in the process of rezoning its neighborhoods so residents have more places to walk and bike to. If neighborhoods start to have more supermarkets and stores, people will have more incentives to bike and the streets will become safer.
“In Denver, there are not many people riding,” says Dr. France. “When more people start to ride, the streets will become safer for cyclists.”
“We need to create safety in numbers.”
Dr. France will finish his sabbatical at the end of the month and hopes to return to Denver with many ideas on how to get more people riding. Once back in Denver, he plans to continue blogging about bike transportation issues. Visit his blog at: http://onemorecyclist.wordpress.com.