Tara Goddard stands next to a bicycle

How can bicycles, a healthy, a low-cost form of transportation, become more mainstream?

Bicycles. They’re often stashed in the garage until it’s time to take them along on the summer camping trip.

However, in parts of the U.S. and many places in the world, bikes are considered a practical part of daily transportation life. In some places, they’re the best way to get to the office, to class, the drugstore — an efficient, everyday way to get from “here to there.”

In The Netherlands, 27% of all trips are made by bicycle, and adults average 74 minutes of cycling a week.

“It isn’t that people in the Netherlands just love bicycles more than Americans, it’s that bicycles are a common, cheap, fast, safe, and convenient way to get around,” said Tara Goddard, Texas A&M assistant professor of urban planning, who studies road safety for bicyclists, pedestrians, and other “non-car” users, as well as road crash reduction and sustainable transportation design.

There, and in other places where bikes are part of an everyday routine, such as Denmark and Portland, Oregon, bike riders enjoy the many benefits of riding that have been clearly identified by researchers — less environmental impact than cars, less spending on transportation, and even more happiness, among others.

“Physical activity, fresh air, the human-scale interactions when we’re biking are so different from the isolated bubbles we experience in vehicles,” said Goddard, citing numerous studies. “We look at each other face-to-face when we’re walking or biking, we wave, we smell the environment, we hear birds sing. It’s a whole-body experience.”

Researchers have learned that biking increases a body’s serotonin, which has a positive effect on mood, appetite, and memory. Other “happy” brain chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin are also increased by exercise.

But, in Texas and many other places, bikes often sit in the garage until that summer camping trip. The reasons, said Goddard, aren’t surprising.

“Our land uses in Texas are spread far apart,” she said, “and road design in Texas is often very unfriendly for bicyclists.

“We have big, wide lanes, which encourages people to drive fast,” she said. “This is both uncomfortable and unsafe for bike riders. We don’t have a good connected bicycle network, so you’ll be bicycling along and all of a sudden the bike lane, if there’s one in the first place, just goes away.”

“There’s plenty of research that shows a network of connected bike lanes makes a big difference in whether people bike or not,” said Goddard. “If you have a three-mile commute, and really nasty and dangerous intersections are part of that commute, it doesn’t matter that 95 percent of your commute is great, because that five percent is going to keep a lot of people from riding, which is fully understandable.”

Research by Goddard and other scholars also shows how bicycling is a “win-win” situation for societies and what’s preventing it from more widespread use.

Pennies on the Dollar

The car has been the dominant form of transportation in the U.S. for many decades, but maintaining and improving automobile infrastructure is incredibly expensive, said Goddard.

“In most of the U.S., the reality is that people pretty much need to get in a car and drive someplace every day,” said Goddard. “We’re in terrible economic straits for it and our infrastructure is crumbling.”

The best (or worst?) example of the futility of expanding highways to keep up with the rising number of cars is the massive, $2.8 billion Katy Freeway expansion in Houston. It was completed in 2011, but by 2014, commute times, bad to begin with, were even worse than they were before the expansion.

Bicycle infrastructure, on the other hand, is “pennies on the dollar,” said Goddard.

In addition to saving major amounts of public dollars, a scenario that includes bikes as a transportation staple could also be great news for families’ bank accounts. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that it costs almost $800 on average to own and operate a vehicle per month.

“Imagine a household that could rely more on bikes for getting around every day and could then subtract one of its vehicles,” she said. “The savings would include gas money, a car payment, insurance, and major, pop-up expenses like repairs.”

Safety, Safety, Safety

There are more than 40,000 traffic deaths per year in the U.S. Of those, more than 6,000 are pedestrians and bicyclists. Alarmingly, pedestrian deaths have been increasing each of the last few years.

“It’s a public health crisis, but in the U.S. we don’t treat it that way,” said Goddard. Changing this perception is an uphill climb, especially when one considers that the public, as well as many journalists, tend to see fatal driver-bicyclist crashes from a motorist’s point of view.

In a first-of-its kind study, Goddard and a team of Rutgers University planning and public policy scholars found that patterns in crash reporting in news articles influence readers’ interpretation of what happened and who bears responsibility for the crash.

The study gauged perceptions of subjects who read articles about crashes with slight, but significant wording changes that changed the focus of the article from the pedestrian/ victim to the car/driver.

“We found that shifting from pedestrian- to driver-focused language reduced victim-blaming and increased perceived blame for the driver,” said Goddard.

In the articles, for example, “A pedestrian was hit and killed by a car” was changed to “A driver hit and killed a pedestrian.”

“This does not incorrectly assign blame for the crash ahead of time, but it does correctly describe events and give agency to the driver, rather than the car,” said Goddard.

In a further example of this concept, Goddard gives the example of a hammer. “No one would ever say “a hammer hit the man”, but rather, “someone hit the man with a hammer.”

“Adopting simple improvements in crash reporting offers a potentially powerful tool to shift public awareness of traffic crashes from unfortunate, isolated events to a preventable public health issue,” said Goddard in a paper summarizing her team’s findings.

“Given the potential to save lives and prevent injury on a large scale, implementing more intentional writing patterns may be nothing less than an ethical imperative.”

Goddard is currently researching how drivers’ mindsets affects bicyclists’ safety.

“People are brought into a driving simulator and we have them ‘drive’ around a bicyclist while we measure their heart rate, their eye movement, their stress response,” she said. “Drivers are asked about their mindset and implicit viewpoint toward bicyclists.”

She’s learning how drivers’ behavior is affected by their perceptions of bicyclists: whether they just don’t like bicyclists, or whether they’re just nervous around them, she said. “We’re looking closely at this because we need to understand the specifics of driver behavior around bicyclists to devise the best measures to protect riders.”

The Heat is On

Research could also lead to measures to help bicyclists deal with Texas’ summer heat.

“It really is hard to get on my bike to go to campus, even if it’s just three miles, when the heat index is 105 degrees,” said Goddard — who tries to reduce her driving by riding her bicycle to campus.

She has discussed a research project with Robert Brown, Texas A&M professor of urban planning, who specializes in microclimates — temperature, humidity, and other weather elements in a small, outdoor space.

Microclimate conditions are important, because they strongly influence people’s everyday decisions, such as whether or not to walk to work, garden in the backyard, or play sports in a park. Microclimatic design can create places that encourage outdoor activity by making places more comfortable.

Such a study would include an investigation of measures to cool bicyclists during the hot summer months.

“Maybe we don’t need as much of a cooling factor on straightaways, but anytime I have a long wait to get through a signal-controlled intersection, I think about how we could prioritize cooling for people who aren’t in vehicles, and research what kind of measures would work best,” she said.

A shade canopy of some kind? A misting station? Something less technology based, like trees and plants?

“We can research ways to make biking more pleasant and practical, not as a ‘war on cars’ or anything like that, but if people even took one or two trips a week by bicycle instead of by car, it would make a huge difference in everything from traffic congestion, the environment, and even our pocketbooks,” she said.

Not to mention happier people.

View profile

Tara Goddard

Associate Professor

Email Tara Goddard

More updates