Like Riding a Bicycle: How 'Active Commuting' Can Help You Stay Fit and Influence People
Have you ever ridden your bike to work or school?
I know many people whose main mode of transportation is either biking or walking.
I have friends in major cities who bike and walk to work. My boyfriend bikes to work on the Penn State University Park campus, about three miles each way. And he has been trying to get me on a bike for a solid two years. However, I haven't been on a bike for nearly 20.
Biking appeals to me in many ways -- you're exercising, you're getting places faster, and you're helping the environment! Parking seems easier to find, it doesn't cost anything, and you can often get closer to your destination before needing to park.
Earlier this spring, I met Melissa Bopp, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State, and learned about her research on why and how people incorporate active commuting into their lives. This inspired me to maybe actually get on a bike.
And so, I bought a bicycle. But for the first two months I owned it, I rode it exactly once. While my boyfriend held onto the bike and jogged next to me. What happened at the end of two months? I sold it. Don't worry. That's not the end of my bicycle story.
Why choose active commuting?
Most people, when they need to go to work -- or school, the doctor's office, the grocery store, a restaurant -- just jump in the car and go. Others might carpool or take the bus or train to their destination.
"Active commuting" -- traveling to and from a destination by bicycling or walking, or any other type of physical exercise -- is yet another choice. You might even swim if you live across a lake from your job (and the weather is nice).
People actively commute for many reasons, including cost, convenience, and the impact on the environment, but active commuting is also a way to kill two birds with one stone, by incorporating physical activity into something you already have to do -- get from one place to another.
In 2008, Bopp was teaching a course at Kansas State University that looked at how community, environment, and policy can impact physical activity. A student in her class came to Bopp with the observation that due to construction on campus there was less parking available and, simultaneously, the student had noticed more people riding bikes. The conversation evolved into a study -- conducted by the student, advised by Bopp -- about active commuting patterns at Kansas State. The study led to a published article in the Journal of American College Health.
"That first study is what really got me hooked," she says. "It was interesting because there was such a range of things that could influence travel habits beyond just what you would think of -- distance, weather, et cetera."
The first study brought to Bopp and the researchers' attention that many people at Kansas State actively commuted for environmentally conscious reasons. This led the team to conduct another study, focused specifically on how an eco-friendly attitude influenced decisions to walk or bike to work.
"After that second study I felt like we were missing the complete picture and wanted to study some social aspects," Bopp says.
She has since studied and published on many different aspects of active commuting -- from looking at whether or not an eco-friendly attitude determined if you walk or bike to work, to who influences your decision to actively commute or not, to the relationship between student active commuting and obesity.
Bopp came to Penn State in 2010, and in 2011 she conducted a study focusing on factors that influence individuals to actively commute to work. She collected over 1,200 surveys from employed adults (between 18 to 75 years old).
Among other findings, she learned that married people are more likely to participate in active commuting than single people, men actively commute more often than women, and mothers are even less likely to actively commute.
Bopp has also found that the more conducive the surrounding environment is to biking or walking, the more likely it is that people will choose to do so -- no surprise there. Environmental factors include everything from bike lanes to the weather to the accommodations provided once people arrive at their destination. In more than one study, Bopp has discovered that when others around you actively commute you are more likely to do the same.
In the fall of 2012, Bopp and recent Penn State kinesiology graduate Rachel Velecina surveyed nearly 900 Penn State University Park students about their mode of transportation to and from campus.
"We opted to study the students because they are a unique group with unique travel habits," Bopp says of this research. "State College is a bike- and pedestrian-friendly town, but walking and biking to campus didn't seem to be as popular as they could have been. We wanted to know why and looked at individual, social, and community level things."
Velecina and Bopp's results showed that students who live farther away from campus are more likely to be overweight or obese. The researchers also found that students living with others that bike or walk to work are more likely to be normal weight, while students living with others who drove to campus are less likely to be normal weight. And that students who are overweight are more likely to have access to a car, own a campus parking permit, and report longer travel times for walking and biking to campus.
Bopp herself actively commutes when she can -- often she and her husband will trade off days and one will take care of transportation needs for their children, while the other bikes to work, for example.
Actively commuting -- State College and beyond
An informal survey of some of my friends and coworkers revealed several of the benefits they receive from active commuting. A few of them noted that in our busy lives today, many can find it difficult (or undesirable) to fit a regular exercise routine in, and so biking or walking -- or a combination of both -- helps them improve their health at the same time as saving money and being eco-friendly.
A friend who lives in Washington, D.C., said that biking not only saves her money but also time -- a long bus or train ride vs. a shorter bike ride. One of my colleagues pointed out that riding his bike gives him the opportunity to clear his head before the workday begins.
A friend of mine, a Penn State graduate student and employee, chose his apartment primarily because it was within comfortable walking distance to campus.
University Park and the State College area have been named bike-friendly and awarded "bronze-level" status by the League of American Bicyclists. That means we're pretty good, but there's still a lot of work to be done. For example, there are some bike lanes and walking/biking trails in the community, but relatively few on campus.
Racks on campus provide a place to lock up bikes. State College has a few League cycling instructors that offer regular cycling skill classes for adults. But there hasn't been much public education for motorists about how to safely share the road.
Pittsburgh has gained bronze-level status, while Philadelphia has silver-level status -- considered more welcoming to bicyclists than bronze and easier to navigate, but still could use some work. Pennsylvania ranks as the 15th most bike-friendly state in the nation.
Nearly four months after the purchase of my first bike, I tried again. Different bicycle, different locale, didn't have enough time to work up my anxiety level. And I eventually rode a whole 20 feet by myself! I have ridden more since then, albeit not very far. So I haven't quite achieved active commuting, per se, just yet. But I've come a long way from where I was this time last year -- or even several months ago.
I hope to see you on the bike path sometime soon!