05/21/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

The Bike: A Well-Rounded Invention

During one of the worst snowstorms of the century, I decided to take a stroll and enjoy the streets devoid of cars. Then, to my surprise, I saw bicycle tracks in the fresh snow. I followed them all the way to the kitchen door of an Italian restaurant, where I found the bikes chained to a street lamppost.

I peaked into the kitchen and there I saw four Latino cooks working hard with frontera music blasting in the background. For those brave souls, riding their bikes was the only way of getting to work in such nasty weather conditions.

For hundreds of thousands of Latinos, their bikes are essential working tools -- rain or shine, snow or sleet. All too often they are their only means of transportation in cities and towns where transit either falls short or does not even get there at all, and where buying a car is completely out of the question.

During this National Bike Month we all need to acknowledge the efforts of a community of cyclists who, because of necessity, and also devotion to their families and their work, this year alone will help the country save some $4.6 billion in transportation and gas costs.

A study by the League of American Cyclists reveals that from 2001 to 2009, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans took up bicycling at a faster rate than other Americans, representing 21 percent of all bike trips in the U.S. in 2009.

And there are powerful economic reasons justifying these numbers. The average annual operating cost of a bicycle is $308 --versus $8,220 for the average car. Low-income families on average spend up to 55 percent of their budget on transportation, while the average American household spends only 18 percent. Thanks to alternative transportation options, such as biking, those costs can be reduced substantially.

Per $1 million spent, biking and walking projects create up to 14 jobs, versus only seven generated by highway projects. Even more, for every dollar invested in biking and walking projects, we reap benefits of up to $11.80. And many of these jobs are created in sectors of the economy that employ the most Latino workers.

Bikes are also sources of pleasure for Hispanic kids, especially for those who know little beyond the confines of their barrios and have never had the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.

The Sierra Club's Inner City Outings Program organizes free bike hikes for Hispanic low-income youth to explore nature. During a recent hike outside El Paso, TX, a group rode their bikes along the Río Grande and every so often they stopped to admire wild plants and animals they had never seen before. One of them, a 6-year-old who crashed and was stung by a bee, said he had the happiest day of his life.

But happy days are in danger. Currently, walking and biking account for 12 percent of all trips in the U.S. Yet these means of transportation receive only 1.6 percent of federal transportation spending. What we need is for our public officials, at every level, to recognize this great urgency to make our communities more bikeable and walkable. Also, transit needs to be widely available, especially for low-income communities that cannot rely on cars for transportation.

After two centuries of existence, the bike still is a very well-rounded invention. It's our protections and safeguards that cannot keep up with this brilliant idea.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC