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The Simple, Inexpensive Breakthrough That Is Transforming American Cities

The Green Lane Project brings bicycling into the 21st century -- with positive results for the nation's health, economy, environment and commutes.

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The number of American commuting to work by bike has climbed 43 percent since 2000, according to census figures. And numbers are even higher in places making their streets more accommodating for bicyclists. New York City, Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul have all doubled the number of people on bikes over the past five years. In Portland, Oregon, 6 percent of all commuters travel to work by bike -- an achievement matched by smaller cities such as Gainesville, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin; and Cambridge, Massachusetts -- and surpassed in Boulder, Colorado (10 percent) and Davis, California (22 percent).

Yet overall, America still lags behind many Western nations in embracing bikes as a form of transportation. Only one percent of all trips nationally are made by people on bicycles today (up from 0.43 percent a few years ago). There are many explanations -- some practical, some philosophical -- for why most Americans bike infrequently.

The sprawling layout of many cities and suburbs is one obvious cause. The decline of physical activity among many Americans, even kids, is a likely contributing factor. Some observers point to automobiles' long reign as a status symbol. Others suggest that many Americans view bicycling as a white, upper-middle class hobby, not as a form of transportation for average families. However a recent study found that 21 percent of all bike trips in the U.S. are made by people of color.

Many cities are paying particular attention to make sure that low-income and minority communities -- where many families don't own cars and others are financially strapped by the rising costs of operating one -- have access to state-of-the-art biking facilities. With a 63 percent African-American population, Memphis was selected as one of the six Green Lane cities in part because of Mayor AC Wharton Jr.'s strong support for biking as essential, not a frill, for a city with one of the highest diabetes rates in the country and where 15 percent of households have no access to a car.

Danny Solis -- a Latino alderman representing a district on Chicago's West Side with a high percentage of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans and Asian-Americans --says good bike lanes are important to improving public safety and economic vitality in lower-income communities. "It increases interaction between neighbors, which is a boost for businesses and keeps the gangbangers away."

Encouraging more people to ride bikes offers substantial rewards for all Americans, whether they ride a bike or not, by using streets more efficiently to move people and offering an economical choices in transportation as well as addressing looming problems such as the obesity epidemic and volatile fuel prices. And it gets even better from there-the more people ride, the more benefits we'll all see.

Nobody Said It Was Going to Be Easy

Of course, any proposal to reconfigure the streets -- even in modest ways -- can stir opposition. It's true that in some cases, carving out space for people on bikes means reducing parking spaces or travel lanes for cars. In other designs, parking and travel lanes stay the same as existing bike lanes are upgraded with the addition of bollards, or parking is rearranged so that bike lanes run adjacent to the curb.

A follow up study tracking the 15th Street Green Lanes in Washington found that 78 percent of people living nearby view the project as a neighborhood amenity. And in New York City, protected bike lanes sparked a heated debate in recent years when politically well-connected figures lobbied to rip them out. But a slew of opinion polls showed that most city residents approved of the changes, even if they themselves did not ride bikes, and the lanes stayed.

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