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How Britain Is Helping Its Citizens Buy Bikes

How Britain Is Helping Its Citizens Buy Bikes

Imagine your commute could save your life. That’s what a 33-year-old man United Kingdom man named Toby Field says his ride to work – on a bicycle purchased through a government tax incentive plan – has done.

Field made a video about his 10-mile cycle commute, which he began doing in 2010, called "Cycle to Work Scheme Saved My Life." "Two years ago," he says in the voiceover, "I was a very different person. I was super-morbidly obese at 21 stone." That’s 294 pounds.

Field’s health was at risk. His father, also obese, had died of related problems at the age of 55. "I was following in his footsteps," Field says. Field says he decided to get the bike because he wanted to spend some quality time with his kids, and because the government program, called the Cycle to Work scheme, made it affordable.

Here’s how it works: an employer fronts the cost of a bike, up to £1,000 (about $1,600), and the employee pays it back over 12 months with pre-tax payroll deductions, with one final payment at the end of the period. There are several variations on the payment model, and if you pick the right bike at the right price, you can end up saving as much as 40 percent of the bike’s purchase price.

Since the program was implemented in 1999, government figures say, some 400,000 people have participated, and the resulting drop in carbon dioxide emissions each year is equivalent to the output of the city of Hereford, home to nearly 60,000 people. Some participants combine biking with transit, and can even buy two bikes if they need them for two ends of a transit commute.

For Field, the benefit has been much more personal. It’s not just the financial savings, although he did figure at the beginning that the bike would pay for itself if he simply replaced 100 monthly car miles with miles on two wheels. For him, though, the effect on his weight, his health, and his well-being has been incalculably valuable. It was hard for him to go even three miles at a stretch in the beginning, so he threw the bike in his car and rode only part of the way. But soon he worked his way up to the full distance.

Field has ridden 10,000 miles in two years, two-thirds of those miles on his commute. He’s lost 119 pounds and he's fitter than he's ever been. You can read more about it on his blog.

"The feeling of freedom that cycling give you, the weight-loss results, the fear of failure, the peer pressure, the friends I’ve met through cycling, my family, my late father, have all been motivators,” he says in the video. The before-and-after pictures tell the rest of the story.

Considering studies that have shown the negative effects that car and even transit commutes can have on your health, cycling to work looks like a darn good investment for individuals and governments. But in America, parking receives by far the biggest tax incentive. In 2012, the tax code allowed for a $240 per month parking incentive (up from the previous year’s $230) and $125 per month transit incentive (down from $230), but only a token $20 per month bicycle benefit that can only be used if you claim no other commuter tax benefit (which rules out people who might take transit on snowy days, for instance, but ride when it’s fair).

It’s too bad. People like Toby Field could tell you that the benefits of riding to work can be priceless.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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