In Duluth, Minn., residents don’t have to look far to find an excuse not to use a bicycle for transportation. Duluth is a city on a hill, with a steep incline facing cyclists on most trips. Nestled along the shores of Lake Superior, the weather is unpredictable and sometimes severe.
Because of these perceived barriers, many Duluthians are missing out on the health benefits of travelling by bike – commuting by bike can add three to 14 months to a bicyclist’s life. Biking is even associated with a substantially lower risk of heart disease and cancer1.
Lack of transportation is also a barrier for many Duluthians, especially those with lower incomes. In Duluth’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods, nearly 30 percent of residents do not own a car, according to Compass.com. 7.7 percent of low-income residents said they don’t often have transportation when they need it for medical/health care appointments2. Community Action Duluth (CAD), an anti-poverty nonprofit in Duluth, serves low-income Duluthians – more than 70 percent of their clients made less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. 43.9 percent of clients there see transportation as a barrier to employment.
CAD piloted its BikesPlus program in 2015. Through the program, participants get a free bike, helmet, lock and water bottle. They meet monthly to learn safe biking skills and build community. They also learn about transportation policy and planning and are empowered to provide input on policies and plans. Tying policy and planning to the personal experience of using a bike for transportation makes it more relevant to residents.
Healthy Northland partnered with Community Action Duluth in 2016 to support the BikesPlus program, thanks to funding from the Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 2017-2018 BikesPlus season, 21 participants rode their bikes year round.
When surveyed midway through the BikesPlus season, 100 percent of participants indicated that they feel that owning a bike has improved their overall health. Some participants have experienced significant weight loss, including a 20 pound drop in weight in three months for one participant who now bike commutes daily.
For many of the families CAD works with, a BikePlus bike provides transportation to and from a job, errands and medical services. Participants have been active on the Bike + Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which reports to the Metropolitan Interstate Council (MIC), the body who oversees federal design, infrastructure and spending over the entire Duluth area. Activities have included bike and pedestrian counts and the MIC’s groundbreaking protected bike lane demonstration in downtown Duluth.
Thanks to BikesPlus, participants have improved their health, gotten reliable transportation and made their voices heard in transportation planning in Duluth.
2:Data is from the Bridge To Health 2015 Survey (www.bridgetohealthsurvey.org). Low-income is defined in the survey as 200 percentor less of the federal poverty guidelines.