The Amazing Way Bicycles Change You: Anthony Desnick at TEDxZumbroRiver (Full Transcript)

I was a lot less nervous during dress rehearsal when they were only eight people here. So, they told me that I was going to die and I went on a bike ride.

My own history in cycling, — and I’m going to ask for a show of hands to see if this resonates —, is: I learned how to ride a bike when I was about seven years old, my range went from the backyard to the block. Couple of years later it went to a few more blocks. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was riding around the entire neighborhood. My bike was my source of freedom, it allowed me to escape from my parents and it allowed me to interact with my friends without my parents being in the next room. It was just a wonderful source of freedom!

Then I turned 16. I got a driver’s licence, I had access to a car, and now I had a new definition of freedom. It’s hard to see with the lights, but how many of you would share that sort of history and story with your own biking? Raise your hands. Oh my God! Almost everybody. We also had social media in my day. We didn’t do it on our phones, we didn’t do it on our iPads, or our computers because we didn’t have any of those. We still were able to find out where our friends were.

Today, if you go on Facebook, almost every day on my feed there’s a map of St Paul with a little dot at the airport saying: “@ MSP Airport on my way to Chicago.” “On my way to Paris”, “On my way to Timbuktu.” We’re always trying to impress one another with where we are going or where we’ve been. And we’ll see pictures from all of those places over the next few days.

In my day we also knew where we were going and we knew where we were, and we knew that. We knew where the bikes were! We knew where Danny, Timmy, Tony, we knew where they were because we saw their bikes outfront. I know that this is a scientific community here in the audience, probably many of you are scientists, and you all love data, and you love big data, and I’m going to give you, not big data, but I’m going to give you a few data points that will help frame the discussion that we’re about to have 600 000 – This is the number of people who die every year in the US from, what are wholly preventable, sedentary related illnesses.

33000 – This is the one that makes me crazy. This is the number of people who die every year in car crashes in the United States. And it’s been about this level for decades. I’m going to ask you in the audience, how many of you have lost somebody, who is a friend or a family member, to a car accident or a car crash? About a fourth or a third of you. That’s a lot of people! If you listen to the news, we don’t hear very much about this, there isn’t a lot of outrage, in fact, it seems to be an acceptable number based on the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of things that we’re doing about it.

I also want to ask you, how many of you have had friends or family died as a result of domestic, here in the US terrorist attacks? Okay, almost nobody, yet when you listen to the evening news, you don’t hear about– Car crashes don’t lead the story, but yet if somebody is killed by somebody from the ISIS, or by Al-Qaeda, it leads and it sticks for a few days. It’s part of the 24-hour times three news cycle. One, the number of people on this stage right now whose life has been saved by the bicycle. 12 – This is the number of pounds that the average person loses after one year of commuting by bike. 15 – This is the number of minutes that physicians tell us we should spend doing moderate exercise every day.

When I think about exercise I think about people getting in the SUV or the pick-up truck driving down to the health club, driving around the parking lot so that they can find a spot close to the entrance, and then going up to the escalator so that they can use the StairMaster. And so that they can ride on the stationary bike I’m guessing because you’re laughing, that there’s some truth that you see to this, and it saddens me, frankly. 50 – This is the percentage of trips that we take in our cars that are under two miles. Easy to bike, easy to walk. 48% – That’s the mode share in Minneapolis, the number of people riding their bikes to work every day, it’s about 4500 people. It’s increasing every single year. When I’m riding my bike I can really see that.

100 000 – This is really interesting. Anybody who lives in the suburbs but would like to live in the city, but they can’t afford it. Sell the car, it’s worth a 100 grand in mortgage value. Now you can afford a house that costs $100 000 more, in the center of the city, if you want to be in a walkable neighborhood, a bikeable neighborhood, and have access to the things in a neighborhood whilst not using a car.

Eight – That’s the number of euros in the Nordic countries that they have determined is a return on a one-euro investment in bicycle infrastructure in their cities. The effects to the environment, the impact on medical costs —from driving as opposed to biking — is a huge return on investment.

And then the last number. 19 000 000 – This is the number of bike trips that are taken every single day, not in the US but in The Netherlands. I started out by telling you that there might be a story about me and my own life and my own health. I was a patient at Mayo clinic from 2007 until now, but I followed my GI doctor up to the twin cities when her fellowship was over. And when my papers came with me or my records came with me, I saw that she had written during my last visit: “Patient appears younger than stated age.” Yes! This is a thing that every one of us wants to see, specially those of us who are older than 60.

I have Crohn’s disease. The official term I’m told is: “Duodenal Crohns with stricturing disease.” It’s made my life miserable. In ’07 I had a couple of surgeries, the disease spread very rapidly after the surgeries. In ’08, both doctors here at Mayo Clinic and doctors of Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle said: “If the disease continues to spread the way that it has, you won’t be able to absorb any nutrition in three to five years.” It was a pretty miserable time in my life, most of my feeding was done through a backpack and a picc line through what is called TPN, I don’t even know the — Is it a Latin or English name for it? I just knew that the backpack was my friend because it fed me.

What did I do? I did what anybody who is terminal, or has been told that they’re terminal, does: I went for a bike ride. First, about a block, because I was very weak. Next day, two blocks. Third day, around the block. And after some months I was riding for some miles. After a couple of years of riding like that — I made a few changes in my diet, but fairly minor — after a few years of that I was able, against medical advice, — sorry Dr Party if you’re here — to take myself off of the really massive immunosuppressants that I were on. They were kind of dangerous. They didn’t really have any bad side effects for me.

It didn’t matter that much, I just didn’t liked the idea of taking them so I took myself off of them, left only an acid reducer and that was it. And since, I’ve been getting better and better and better I still have Crohn’s disease, it’s a chronic disease that we live with forever and there’s a flare here and there, but for the most part I’m better and I tribute the lifesaving to the bicycle. This is Laura and Sam. They both have Crohn’s disease, they’re married.

Sam had what he believes to be lifesaving surgery here at Mayo Clinic, and he’s insanely grateful for the help that he’s gotten. They wanted to find a way to give back through. The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, so what did they do? They went on a bike ride, although this time the bike ride was from Seattle, WA; to Portland, ME. And these are two people who are sick during this entire ordeal, but they were determined to get to the other side of the country and to do so healthy. By the time they got to the other end, they reported that they’re way healthier. There’s a story that I heard on MPR a while ago, I wish I could remember the woman’s name.

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I only remember that she was 72, had Parkinson’s disease, and her doctor put her on the back of his tandem bicycle and went for a ride, a really intensive ride, and when she got off the bike her symptoms had subsided. They came back over the course of a few days and so they went on another bike ride and they subsided again. This woman — and it seems from the article you see on the screen here — they’re finding that riding a bike will take care of symptoms and if you keep doing it, you can be more or less symptom-free, have a symptom-free lifestyle or life due to the transformational nature of the bicycle. It isn’t just a recreational toy, I think of it as pretty cool tool.

Amsterdam, which is kind of considered to be the Mecca of biking — I want to take us now to that 19 million figure — Amsterdam is kind of the Mecca as we think today, there are millions of people, as we said, every day riding around the country. There is great bike infrastructure, you can ride safely wherever you go, you’re always among a ton of cyclists. But it wasn’t always like that.

In the ’60s, Amsterdam looked like this: Even in this photograph, which is kind of choked with cars, there is a cyclist. It is not a very safe place for her to be riding, but that’s what she had in the ’60s. In the early ’70s there were a lot of children, for some reason, that were being killed by cars in The Netherlands and so women started a program, — a protest, really — called “Stop murdering our children!” It was a very effective message to the government.

The government embarked on a decades-long program to, number one, protect their most vulnerable travelers —pedestrians and cyclists — and also to make it easier and to enjoy the health and economic benefits that they could receive from making life easier for cyclists. This is what it looks like today. I counted in this photograph, there is six cars, that’s the easy part to count. There are 60 cyclists! In the US, even today in a place like Minneapolis, which is considered to be a pretty bikey city, the situation is reversed.

Do you think it would be stress-relieving to be the car number 59 in that queue, or do you think it would be more stress-releasing to be one of the bikes who is riding on a path that’s protected, safe, and will allow you to get to your destination probably more quickly? A little closer to us is Detroit, MI; some tremendous strides in the last few years about investments have been made in Detroit, but mostly they’ve been downtown and in the first ring of neighborhoods around downtown, but out in the rest of the city it kind of looks like this, a lot of old factories that are dilapidated and ready to be demolished; and in many of the neighborhoods there are homes that look like this that are no longer homes to people.

Flight from the city has been phenomenal, by some accounts, almost a third of people who left what was once the fifth biggest city in the country leaving it looking like this. I met a guy named Jason Hall when he came to speak at a conference in February in the twin cities, and he was looking for something that he and his friends could do that would bring them together in Detroit because the neighborhoods were kind of spread out with a lot of this abandoned stuff lying between them. And so, Jason went on a bike ride.

He did it first with his best friend, they did it on a Monday night. The next Monday night they did it with a few more friends. Jason tells this story, they made those friends pretty angry by insisting that the following Monday they’d bring all of their friends. And before he knew it there were a few dozen riders, and a couple of months later there were a few hundred riders, and today when they hold this ride every Monday night in Detroit and they go to different neighborhoods to kind of explore what’s going on in the city. And believe me, when you’re on a bicycle you see the world differently than if you’re looking at it through a windshield. You can smell it, you can feel it, you can hear it, and you can see it.

So today when Jason leads these rides on Monday night there are thousands of riders. I’m going to go and ride, a week from Monday, for the first time with Jason and this crew of 3 000 people, and I’m so excited to do so. Closer still to home, in St Paul, there was once a neighborhood —they’re still a neighborhood, I guess— called Rondo. It was a really cool neighborhood. There was a streetcar line that went right up Rondo Av, it was a walkable neighborhood, bikeable, you knew who your neighbors were, there were viable businesses there, there were churches, synagogues —as it was mostly inhabited by Jews and African-Americans. It was a neighborhood, and it was a really vibrant neighborhood until the Federal Highway Department — which is now known as USDOT— came along and they made Rondo look like this today: This is 94 road, cuts right though the heart of St Paul, and every time I ride on this freeway, and even more so, over it, my heart breaks because I knew what the Rondo neighborhood was like. And this is repeating itself thousands of times in the US.

So the message here is: Yes, bikes can transform lives and bikes can transform communities but cars can do that also. And it’s a question about which universe do we prefer. In Minneapolis, which is the bikeyer of the two cities between Minneapolis and St Paul; in fact, I live in St Paul, work in Minneapolis, and every time I ride my bike east over the Mississippi river on the Marshall street bridge, I have to set my watch back 25 years. In Minneapolis there’s an east-west corridor that was and old rail-line, abandoned, that we now call “The Midtown Greenway” and the city had the foresight to turn the Midtown Greenway into what was really a bike freeway. There are very few turns on and off this bikeway, there are only entrances and exits for the most part. It’s become the fastest way to go east-west between the river and the uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis.

But what’s even more startling about the Midtown Greenway is that it has attracted private investment. Remember the number of eight euro that I was talking about in northern Europe, how they see that as a return from a one-euro investment? This is what the Greenway looks like today. It’s lined with condos and apartment buildings. Over two billion dollars in investments. Private investments. With over 2 000 units of brand-new housing that appeals primarily to millenials who want to be on a bike to get from a to b because the car is expensive, the car pollutes, and is just not fun, it’s stressful.

In fact, Minneapolis has gotten so good at being a bike city that biking has gone to the dogs. This is me riding home from work where I get to take my grayhound, Lucy. This a Dutch bicycle called “bakfiets.” A colleague of mine has renamed it the “barkfiets.” In one point you’ll see an image of me riding the bike and I’m smiling, I’m not smiling for the camera, I’m smiling because every time I’m on a bike, I smile.

As I pass cyclists in Minneapolis all the time, most of them are smiling. It’s just more fun to ride a bike. In fact, it’s kind of like riding a bike, you never forgot how to do it. So those of you who put your bikes away because they seem to be a childish toy, and took the cars out at 16, here’s an opportunity for you to try it again. I went on a bike ride and look what happened for me. What would happen for you if you go on a bike ride?