It is increasingly accepted that alternative ways of getting around, ones that do not require fossil fuels, can help reduce planet-warming gases, but there is another direct benefit: money. Research has furthered our understanding that human-powered transportation, as in walking and cycling, cuts public health costs and lost productivity due to illness and premature death. The potential savings are thought to greatly exceed the cost of such things as adding bike lanes — and illustrate the health benefits that could come with greater action on climate.
Advocates are working with Suffolk County government and its towns and villages on a plan for an ambitious 175-mile-long bikeway that would link New York City to Montauk. A proposed path would include sections along Long Island Power Authority rights of way, as well as existing bicycle lanes on local and state roads. The Long Island project would be an echo of the Empire State Trail, a 750-mile-long route that jogs from Buffalo to Albany and all the way to the Staten Island Ferry terminal at the Battery in Manhattan; relatively little of its length is on actual roadways shared with motor vehicles.
Backers of bicycle and pedestrian-centered mobility list the advantages of getting more people out of cars. These include a reduced death rate from all causes and, especially, a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Improved mental health is another plus. They point to studies that have shown that investments in bike and walkway infrastructure increase the chances that the public will look to these alternatives, as in the movie line “If you build it, they will come.” Other fuel-free options include running, rowing, skateboarding, kick scooters, and roller skates. The key is getting one’s butt off a car seat — whatever form it takes.
Promoting a sense of safety by installing separate bicycle and foot paths is key. On the East End, narrow and shoulderless roads, combined with the perception that we have more than our share of “crazy” drivers in-season, keeps a lot of us from biking to work or errands. Sprawling development, too, is a disincentive. Financial help could come from Washington, D.C., where a bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives would help states use federal money to complete protected bike lanes and pedestrian networks.
Cars and trucks are indisputably major polluters. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that more than a quarter of total U.S. greenhouse gases come from transportation — our single-largest contributor. That some proportion of the trips made with fossil-fuel power could be relatively easily replaced by ones powered by the human body suggests a meaningful cut in gas emissions would be achievable. Local air quality improves, too, when more motor vehicles are kept off the roads.
Key businesses, such as food stores, and institutions like libraries and schools should always be located close to where the greatest number of residents possible are able get to them without a car. But even sidewalks can help; in East Hampton Town we have too few of them, in places forcing people on foot into traffic — with sometimes tragic results. On The East Hampton Star’s own staff there are several people who would bike to work, provided that they did not fear being crushed under a landscape truck’s tires on the way.
Simply slapping some paint onto existing highways will not be enough. Some streetscapes will have to be altered to make pedal and foot-powered movement more easily achievable. Given the gains for the climate and reduced public health costs, these are investments worth making.