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Making Buffalo more bicycle-friendly will have health and economic benefits

It’s a sunny morning, sometime in the 1890s. Outside the house that is serving as a hideout, Butch Cassidy glides by an open window, enticing the lovely Etta Place to leave her bed partner – a.k.a. the Sundance Kid – for a ride on his newfangled, two-wheeled contraption. Says Butch to Etta: “Meet the future.”

If he only knew.

That was a movie, but this is real. What was new then is new again, if not Americans’ ongoing familiarity with bicycles, then in terms of how cities are reconfiguring themselves to accommodate these health-generating economic development tools disguised as an Earth-friendly mode of transportation.

Buffalo is on board, and while the job of accommodating the city streets to bicycles may be an occasionally jarring process – think of it as using social training wheels – the payoff could be significant. It is no surprise that among the supporters of this project are local leaders in health care and business.

This is a hopeful trend that, for once, Buffalo is adopting early in the game. Across the country, and the world, cities are coming to recognize the multiple benefits of encouraging the use of bicycles. Portland, Ore., is a leader in this smart development, but it isn’t alone. Minneapolis, San Diego, Chicago, Austin, London and Montreal are just a few of the cities that have recognized the value of making their environs welcoming to bicyclists.

The statistics can be eye-opening. For example, New York City saw a 49 percent spike in sales tax revenue on streets that include bike lanes, said Justin Booth, founder of GObike Buffalo. That kind of impact can not only benefit the city and its merchants, but Buffalo’s image around the country.

At the same time, bicycling is exercise and it improves the health of its riders, said Dr. Michael Cropp, president of Independent Health. That would be no small benefit to Buffalo. A recent study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute found that of New York’s 62 counties, Erie ranked 56th in overall health. Niagara County was 59th.

Another study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin and published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that replacing half of short automobile trips with bicycle trips during the warmest six months of the year saved about $3.8 billion per year in avoided deaths and reduced health care costs.

The benefits are undeniable. The problem is in organizing city streets so they are safe for bicyclists as well as motorists. That work is under way in Buffalo, with the designation of bike lanes on its roads. Employers are helping by providing racks for parking bikes.

It’s an affordable prospect. Portland has been building its bike system for about two decades, spending only about $1 million per year, or about $2 per person. The return on investment has been calculated at $2.6 billion.

There will be learning curve. It’s not uncommon to see bicyclists riding on the wrong side of the road, disobeying traffic laws by running red lights and stop signs, forgoing helmets and failing to signal turns. Motorists can be just as ill-mannered, treating bicycles as annoyances rather than as vehicles equally entitled to use the public roadways. Ignorance is a safety risk.

There are solutions to those problem. GOBike Buffalo is working with schools to make sure children learn how to ride safely and in compliance with the law. Similarly, students drivers should be trained to expect bicyclists and to treat them with deference. Experienced drivers will have to adjust.

It’s worth it. It only takes a few minutes longer for drivers to get where they’re going when they share the road with bicycles. Given the advantages in health, economic development and the environment, that seems like an acceptable price to pay. Buffalo should put this project in high gear.

Welcome to the future.