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The Bicycle's Big Comeback: Why Two-Wheelers Are Key for Reducing Oil Dependence

Bikes lower air pollution, reduces obesity, do not emit climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, and is priced within the reach of the billions of people who cannot afford a car.
 
 
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The bicycle has many attractions as a form of personal transportation. It alleviates congestion, lowers air pollution, reduces obesity, increases physical fitness, does not emit climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, and is priced within the reach of the billions of people who cannot afford a car.

Bicycles increase mobility while reducing congestion and the area of land paved over. Six bicycles can typically fit into the road space used by one car. For parking, the advantage is even greater, with 20 bicycles occupying the space required to park a car.

Few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting a bicycle for a car on short trips. A bicycle is a marvel of engineering efficiency, one where an investment in 22 pounds of metal and rubber boosts the efficiency of individual mobility by a factor of three.

The bicycle is not only a flexible means of transportation; it is ideal in restoring a balance between caloric intake and expenditure. Regular exercise of the sort provided by cycling to work reduces cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and arthritis, and it strengthens the immune system.

World bicycle production, averaging 94 million per year from 1990 to 2002, climbed to 130 million in 2007, far outstripping automobile production of 70 million. Bicycle sales in some markets are surging as governments devise a myriad of incentives to encourage bicycle use. For example, in 2009 the Italian government began a hefty incentive programme to encourage the purchase of bicycles or electric bikes in order to improve urban air quality and reduce the number of cars on the road. The direct payments will cover up to 30 percent of the cost of the bicycle.

China, with 430 million bikes, has the world's largest fleet, but ownership rates are higher in Europe. The Netherlands has more than one bike per person, while Denmark and Germany have just under one bike per person.

China dramatically demonstrated the capacity of the bicycle to provide mobility for low-income populations. In 1976, this country produced six million bicycles. After the reforms in 1978 that led to an open market economy and rapidly rising incomes, bicycle production started climbing, reaching nearly 90 million in 2007.

The surge to 430 million bicycle owners in China has provided the greatest increase in mobility in history. Bicycles took over rural roads and city streets. Although China's rapidly multiplying passenger cars and the urban congestion they cause get a lot of attention, it is bicycles that provide personal mobility for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Among the industrial-country leaders in designing bicycle- friendly transport systems are the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips are by bike, Denmark with 18 percent, and Germany, 10 percent. By contrast, the United States and Britain are each at 1 percent.

An excellent study by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler at Rutgers University analysed the reasons for these wide disparities among countries. They note that "extensive cycling rights-of-way in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany are complemented by ample bike parking, full integration with public transport, comprehensive traffic education and training of both cyclists and motorists."

These countries, they point out, "make driving expensive as well as inconvenient in central cities through a host of taxes and restrictions on car ownership, use and parking.… It is the coordinated implementation of this multi-faceted, mutually reinforcing set of policies that best explains the success of these three countries in promoting cycling." And it is the lack of these policies, they note, that explains "the marginal status of cycling in the UK and USA".

The Netherlands, the unquestioned leader among industrial countries in encouraging bicycle use, has incorporated a vision of the role of bicycles into a Bicycle Master Plan. In addition to creating bike lanes and trails in all its cities, the system also often gives cyclists the advantage over motorists in right-of-way and at traffic lights. Some traffic signals permit cyclists to move out before cars. By 2007, Amsterdam had become the first western industrial city where the number of trips taken by bicycle exceeded those taken by car.

 
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