The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a charitable organization that has laudable goals including improving healthcare and reducing extreme poverty. One of its current fights recently suffered a setback when it was announced that a polio outbreak had struck Tajikistan, a place that had previously beaten back the disease. With an infusion over the last two years of more than half a billion dollars and a world-wide expense of nearly $10 billion USD, polio has yet to be beaten. Success in this campaign is far from guaranteed; so far, humanity has managed to use its skills to eradicate exactly one disease: smallpox. Regardless of whether we manage to vanquish polio, we will certainly face other diseases. Is there are more sure-fire way of saving lives? Perhaps even one that could also help reduce poverty at the same time?
Last year, The Lancet declared climate change to be the biggest health threat to humanity. Even ignoring the direct effects of temperature on humans, flooding, and food supply, an increase in temperature is associated with increased disease transmission. Thus, a victory against climate change is a victory for health. For less than a bailout of Goldman Sachs, a one-time purchase of $100 bicycles can put a bicycle in the hands of each person in the world. At a national scale, it would cost Canadians about a tenth of what it spends on national defence each year to give a bike to everyone in the country. Put another way, if the province of Ontario devoted half of its road maintenance budget from last year towards buying bicycles, every person in the country would have a new bike!
Riding a bike is not feasible all year round in some places, at least with our current infrastructure; this form of transport supplements rather supplants other modes of transit, but even cutting the number of miles travelled in cars by half would have a big impact ((A car is several orders of magnitude worse than biking and road transportation accounts for roughly 10% of world carbon dioxide emissions, so cutting driving in half is reducing carbon emissions by 5%. However, the 10% number includes trucking and other forms of cargo transportation.)). An endeavour to provide bikes to all could reduce incidences of bike theft and improve bike-friendliness of cities. And not only do bicycles have a lower environmental footprint per distance travelled than cars, they also provide opportunistic exercise. Reducing smog, fighting climate change, and increasing cardiovascular health — let’s see a vaccine do that!
You can argue (rightly) that bicycles don’t solve world hunger (and one usually needs human energy to power a bike) and that you can’t even eat a bicycle. But those arguments didn’t stop One Laptop Per Child from deploying laptops. From an educational standpoint, bikes might be even more useful than laptops in the same places those laptops are deployed: part of the problem is a lack of teachers and, if we can get students into centrally located classrooms, we’re part way there. Teachers (and people with other jobs), too, can use their bikes to increase their mobility and work at places that they otherwise could not.
Will this idea work? I don’t know, but it seems like we have better control over our chosen modes of transportation than the spread of disease. The biggest hurdle will likely be adoption, especially in communities that have embraced the automobile. Finances are almost a non-issue and much of the politics can be sidestepped with NGO charitable organizations. As for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? Good on you for doing what you do. Keep searching for great causes and don’t worry about starting those photocopiers when you see a good idea that can benefit humanity. Remember: great artists steal.