Bicycling is the new stimulus package

Michael Mucha, the new chief engineer of the Madison Sewerage District, doesn’t wear lycra. He almost always wears a suit jacket … and a bike helmet for his seven-mile commute to work – and to all of his meetings during the day, of which there are many. Lucky Michael. Lucky us. Michael is not only in tip-top shape, he is helping to save a potential $8.7 billion per year in health care costs in the upper Midwestern Region – which, yes, includes Wisconsin.

Curious about what would happen if people hopped on their bikes and left their cars at home just a little – how biking just a wee bit more might impact our health and economy – researchers at the University of Wisconsin crunched sets of state-of-the-science data on physical fitness and health effects of air pollution caused by cars in 11 Midwestern cities. (The study, published in the November 2011 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, can be found here.)

They found that if Midwesterners ran half of their short-distance trips by bike rather than automobile – and for just six months of the year around summertime – 1,295 deaths would be avoided and savings from these avoided deaths, plus health care costs, could exceed $8.7 billion a year. The trips were under 2.5 miles, one way.

The health benefits were in the reduction of air pollution particulates and ozone – which increase the risk of heart attack, strokes, and asthma – in addition to the avoided deaths mentioned above, as well as the health benefits of increased exercise. The good news is that these positive effects extend to the whole population, even us couch potatoes and people living outside of cities. Not only in the effect on the economy, but in the reduced particulates we’re breathing.

Imagine if businesses were saving over $8 billion a year in health costs. Would that be an argument for insurance companies to reduce their rates for businesses with high numbers of bike commuters? As any small business owner knows, health insurance rates can balloon and have great impact on their bottom line. And what about employees who are dealing with the worry, stress, and multiple doctor’s appointments necessary for children with chronic asthma? If we reduce rates of asthma, we’re preventing children from developing struggles with breathing.


Smart local businesses are getting on the bandwagon. Take CUNA Mutual Group, for example. This past June the MPower ChaMpion business hosted an alternative commuting competition and 40 employees biked 2,747 miles to and from work, almost doubling the miles of the previous year's competition. That’s a lot of avoided health care costs. (Total participation for busing/biking/carpooling/walking was 18,459 miles and 86 people.)

Okay, so you say you’re not as large as CUNA Mutual Group. Consider designCraft Advertising, a 2009 MPower ChaMpion with only four employees. After tracking employee bike commutes with stickers on the office calendar (what works for kindergartners also works for adults!), the company created its “Bike Bucks” program for a little extra reward. Employees now receive a 50 cent credit at a local bike shop for every mile they bike to work. This reinforces the healthy behavior by providing an incentive for that bike light or tune-up and reminds us you don’t need a dedicated HR team to get your bodies moving. Or lycra. 

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