Science & Tech

‘Bicycle Environments’ takes HSPH and GSD students for a ride

6 min read

At a time when the United States scrambles to resolve the country’s obesity epidemic, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and lessen dependency on foreign fossil fuels, this semester the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the Graduate School of Design (GSD) have launched an interdisciplinary course that tackles all three problems (and more). Titled “Bicycle Environments in the U.S. and the Netherlands/Denmark: Case Studies in the Promotion of Physical Activity,” the class uses case studies to examine how the bicycle communities in the Netherlands and Denmark help individuals stay healthy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One clear objective is to find strategic ways to make the United States more bicycle friendly in an attempt to address these central social issues.

The course first got wheels after Anne Lusk, a research fellow at HSPH, armed with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, spent the past two summers examining the environmental characteristics of 20 U.S. bicycle paths and their destinations. Inspired by her research, Lusk designed — with the help of Walter Willett, the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH — a class meant to educate students about the health advantages of flourishing bicycle environments as well as the structural changes necessary to create such environments. The double goal of the class made a pairing of the HSPH and GSD a natural.

Lusk, who said that the U.S. Department of Transportation should do more to encourage separated bicycle tracks, saw the class as an opportunity to better educate future health experts and future architects about successful ways to increase bicycle riding. “We didn’t want it to be a typical class taught by the Federal Highway Administration,” said Lusk, “so we proposed it to be ‘Bicycle Environments.’”

The course — containing students from the nutrition and environmental health departments at HSPH, as well as from the GSD — has brought in an array of guest lecturers from different backgrounds. Willett, an avid bicyclist and a member of the Cambridge Bicycle Committee, for instance, is from the Department of Nutrition and has lectured to the class about the importance of bicycle riding and physical activity as a way to prevent obesity and chronic diseases. He has also emphasized the necessity to make the lanes safer for those who are hesitant to ride their bicycles because they feel unsafe riding close to cars. “The perception of safety is a huge factor for whether people are willing to ride a bicycle,” said Willett. “Our surveys showed overwhelmingly that perception of [lack of] safety was the biggest deterrent to people riding bicycles in Cambridge.”

The key, Willett explains, is to connect the lanes so people don’t have to deviate from them to reach their destinations. “The facilities have gotten a lot better in the last 50 years in Cambridge. … But one of the biggest factors now is that they are not connected. There may be a lane in one direction but not in the other. Any route is only as strong as its weakest link. If there’s a good route in one direction, but not in the other, people won’t ride. We need to get a network that is really connected so most people can get to those places and feel comfortable doing it.”

Jack Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation in the Department of Environmental Health, talked to the class about how an increase in bicycle riding would significantly reduce air pollution and the rate of global warming. He also suggested ways that urban designers can mitigate the effects of these public health hazards.

Despite his hope for more widespread use of bicycles as a mode of transportation, Spengler, too, pointed out that the United States will not see a spike in the number of people on bicycles until riders are protected from aggressive drivers, open doors in bicycle lanes, and parked cars blocking bicycle paths. “Until we make it safe, there’s no hope they are going to get me and a lot of other people to do it on a regular basis. There’s no hope.”

Despite his frustration with the current state of bicycle-friendly infrastructure, Spengler applauded the course’s creation as a first step. “This doesn’t often happen on the Harvard campus, particularly at the graduate level, [having] students from multiple departments in multiple Schools taking this [course] around a social issue. … It’s transportation, it’s energy, it’s greenhouse gases, it’s physical fitness, it’s obesity; all of those are at a confluence when we start talking about how do we promote safe bicycling and expanding the population engaging in [cycling].”

Other invited guest speakers included Jack Dennerlein, associate professor of ergonomics, who spoke about ways that urban design can become more accommodating for bicyclists; Peter Furth from Northeastern University, who lectured on transportation policies; and Mike McBride and John Ciccarelli from the Allston Development Group, who came in to give an overview of the bicycle plans for the new Harvard/Allston/Brighton campus.

A particularly well-received guest lecture was given by Hans Voerknecht, international coordinator of the Dutch Bicycle Council, who talked to the class about the bicycle paths and facilities in the Netherlands and the future of bicycling in the Netherlands, and provided recommendations for the United States.

Although bicycle riding in Cambridge is far from perfect, in recent months Harvard has made strides to demonstrate its commitment to creating a more welcoming bicycle environment. University Operations Services, for example, recently erected a covered bike shelter near the Divinity School that will be illuminated by solarpower at night. And as Harvard continues to develop its 50-year master planning framework for the new Allston campus, the plans include both on street and off street bicycle lanes and paths that make key connections and storage facilities that together will promote increased bicycle use and less dependence on the private automobile.

But even as the wheels are in motion for progress, it is clear that more collaboration is key. “One of things that really has to happen is public health people really need to work with design people to make environments that are healthy,” Willett stresses.

“What’s very clear as we take on these big health issues like disease or diabetes [is that our] health departments … can’t deal with the whole problem. It has to be a whole societal solution that includes design. That is why we have this class … bring the Schools together that way.”

The class, Lusk and her colleagues hope, will create a snowball effect. “We are extremely pleased that the Harvard School of Public Health has allowed this [course] to be taught,” said Lusk. “This [class] has greatly expanded the awareness of bicycle facilities and allowed far more collaboration with students, faculty, and departments, the Harvard-Allston design team, and the cities of Cambridge and Boston. We are hopeful that this is a start to much greater things.”