The 1-mile Solution

“What is striking about biking is not that it solves any particular problem but, instead, that is it part of the solution to several.” — J. Harry Wray

The idea is simple: Find your home on a map. Draw a circle with a 1-mile radius around your home. Try to replace one car trip per week within that circle by riding a bicycle or walking. At an easy riding pace you can travel one mile on a bicycle in about seven minutes. Walking takes about 20 minutes at an easy pace.

For us flabby Americans this apparently sounds like a daunting task. Surely those hearty Dutch on their modern cycle routes routinely travel much farther. Marc at Amsterdamize publishes the latest statistics on Dutch use of bicycles as basic transportation. As commenter Dave points out:

I think one thing that’s interesting to note about those statistics, is that the average person in Nederland cycles 2.48km per day. That’s just over 1.5 miles. The thing to note about that, is that just about anybody can ride that much per day easily, no matter what kind of geographic location they are in (unless they live on a mountain). Just a trip to the grocery store, or to take your kids to school or go out for dinner, whatever. I can think of several handfuls of things that we do that aren’t more than 1.5 miles from our home.

And I suppose that’s the point – everyone can and does ride that much in the NL. I think in other places where people don’t ride as much, it’s important to get people to just *try* a 1.5 mile ride, and they’ll say “oh, that’s easy, I can do that.” and it removes this idea that cycling is hard work and you have to be in shape for it, especially to carry groceries or a child or whatever.

Anyone *can* do it, a lot of people just don’t know it yet.

Well, yes, the Dutch do routinely travel far and wide on their bicycles. But as the numerous videos I’ve linked to demonstrate (example), much of their cycling takes place close to home.

One mile is all it takes to get started. One mile is all it takes to begin making a real difference in your health. One mile is all it takes to begin making a real difference to your pocketbook.

One mile is all it takes to begin saving America.

The Solution in Action

Here’s a recent, personal example of the 1-mile Solution in action: My wife is late returning videos to Blockbuster. They need to be returned NOW! The store is .7 miles from home. What to do? Hop in the car and speed on over? Of course not. Blockbuster is within my 1-mile circle.

Here’s the route from MapMyRide:

This is an easy ride over residential streets. Zoom the map out and see just how many people can get to Blockbuster on foot or by bicycle. Yet there are always plenty of cars in the parking lot.

Traffic: Cross one secondary north-south artery (Fremont); 5 stop signs.

Elapsed time: Round trip in 13 minutes.

Weather: Sunny; 47 degrees.

Getting Started

Let’s suppose that you think the 1-mile Solution is a good idea. What would help you make that first step out the door?

There are as many ways to answer that question as there are potential walkers and cyclists. Economic distress might push you out the door. Concern for your health and the environment might. Desire for a change in lifestyle might.

I also think information is important for anyone making a first step. Do you know what destinations are within a mile of your house? Do you know the routes you could/would use?

Those are not dumb questions. Our culture is so car-centric that it’s entirely possible to have an unrealistic sense of how (not so) far a mile is and the abundance of destinations that may be found in that distance.

That’s where Walk Score comes in — a nifty mapping tool that shows you all the way-cool stuff within a mile of your house. Just type in your address. Take a look at all the cool stuff near my house.

Granted, I chose to live in a neighborhood close to campus and downtown precisely because I wanted to walk and ride a bicycle for basic transportation. But I’m willing to bet many of you live within one mile of a few important destinations — schools, shops, friends.

The 1-mile Solution does not require a large density of destinations to work. It only takes one. And one trip per week. That’s a start. And that’s huge.

Impact

How much impact can the 1-mile Solution really have? Check out the transportation statistics cited by Professor Chandra Bhat in his recent survey of for the Center for Transportation Research at The University of Texas at Austin:

Bhat said the transportation sector accounts for about one-third of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Within that sector, travel by personal vehicles accounts for nearly two-thirds of those emissions. And only 0.9 percent of all trips in the United States are made by bicycle, and the number drops to 0.4 percent for commute trips — despite the fact that a significant amount of trips are deemed short-distance and can be made using a bike. A 2001 National Household Travel Survey revealed that 41 percent of all trips in 2001 were shorter than two miles and 28 percent were shorter than one mile.

So you start out small. You commit to one trip per week by foot or on a bicycle within a 1-mile radius of home. One mile is not far. At a modest pace it’s a 20-minute walk (great exercise!) or a 7-minute bicycle ride.

The idea, of course, is that we’ll all see how easy one mile is and then begin replacing two trips per week. Then three. And soon enough, we’re routinely walking and riding within the circle.

(Granted, living conditions and physical ability will make this idea difficult to impossible for some Americans. I’m concerned right now for those who can but don’t.)

The benefits are huge. And not just for the environment. The benefits are huge for our pocketbooks and our well-being.

As most Carbon Trace readers know by now, I’m working on a new utility cycling booklet for Springfield. How mine will be different from the rest: I’ll be focusing (although not exclusively) on the 1-mile Solution rather than heroic commuting of the kind only a few can actually accomplish (at this time). No scary talk of special clothing and strenuous ablutions. Just normal people wearing normal clothes using their normal bicycles (or their normal shoes) to travel within a mile of their homes. This is do-able.

Everything is Political

The 1-mile Solution is non-partisan, but it is certainly political. Politics is about the allocation of scarce resources. Political power is about who gets to say how scarce resources are allocated. One of the important components of political power is numbers of people who want scarce resources allocated in particular ways.

Part of what the 1-mile Solution is all about is creating numbers of people who use their feet and their bicycles to move around their communities.

There exist all kinds of programs to do exactly this same thing. An example is bike-to-work week — a familiar fixture in many communities. We have one here in Springfield that includes encouraging people to walk and use the bus. It’s a well-run program, and I have enjoyed participating.

Such programs are fine as far as they go. My problem with them is they don’t go very far. What happens at the end of the week? How many of those who participate — first-timers or infrequent active travelers especially — actually keep it up? I’ll bet not many.

I’m not suggesting we do away with bike-to-work weeks. These programs do serve a purpose, especially since they are usually well publicized. I’m instead suggesting that we also put effort into an idea that is sustainable and could grow the numbers by creating a habit. It is, after all, mostly a habit that puts us behind the wheel of a car to travel one mile. It’s habit that makes the risk and expense of a 1-mile car ride seem normal.

It is my firm belief that once people see how easy it is to walk or cycle within one mile of their homes that they will keep it up and, eventually, venture outside that mile. Then we’ll be developing a constituency for political action.

Don’t most people already know it’s easy? Well, my evidence is merely anecdotal, but in conversations with people I meet riding my bicycle most seem to think I’m engaged in some heroic (or nutty) act. That’s the car culture speaking.