“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
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Over 100 million bicycles were manufactured in 2000, the most since the all-time high of 106 million in 1995. This production level is double that of 25 years ago. (See data.)
China manufactured a record 52 million bicycles in 2000—over half the world total. Nearly two thirds of these were exported, with 17 million going to the United States. The United States itself produced just over 1 million bikes, down sharply from the 1995 output of nearly 9 million. With over 43 million cyclists, the United States is the world's largest bicycle export market, with imports meeting 97 percent of demand.
The European Union, led by Germany, produced some 12 million bicycles in 2000. Italy closely trails German production of 3.2 million bicycles, although cycle sales in Germany reached 5.3 million in 2000, compared with 1.6 million units in Italy.
India produced more than 11 million bicycles. Most of these are ridden domestically or shipped to Africa. Africa is a potentially large bicycle market, but recently sales have declined in many countries despite the continued need for low-cost, non-motorized transportation. One reason for this trend is a shortage of moderately priced, modern bikes and bike parts.
This shortage is seen in Senegal, which levies prohibitive tariffs on imported cycles to protect a small domestic manufacturer that sells only 2,000 bikes annually. Until 1989, Ghana imposed similar tariffs and taxes on imports, but after their removal, bike sales soared.
To meet Africa's high demand for modern and sturdy bicycles, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, an organization that promotes environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation policies worldwide, and Afribike, a nonprofit South African company, designed the Africa Bike. This is an alternative to the traditional Black Roadster, which now sells poorly because it does not meet performance standards and because many associate it with rural, elderly, and poor people. Both models retail at about $60. Afribike alone has provided over 10,000 South Africans with low-cost transportation since 1998 and plans to expand its programs to Senegal, Guinea, and Ghana.
Bicycle ownership greatly enhances personal mobility, contributing to substantial increases in income. Giving women in rural areas credit to buy bicycles allows for increased access to education and facilitates the transport of produce to market. Thus rising bicycle sales have been correlated with higher farm output. In Ghana, bikes have helped HIV/AIDS outreach workers reach 50 percent more beneficiaries.
In urban areas, bicycles can substitute for automobiles, reducing traffic congestion and lowering air pollution and noise. Bicycles take up one thirtieth the road space used by cars traveling at a moderate pace. Biking also offers exercise at a time when more people are overweight or obese than ever before, even in developing countries. For those who need help traveling long distances or in hilly terrain, increasingly popular electric bicycles that run on batteries often fit the bill. By 2003, bicycles powered by fuel cells will hit the market.
A number of cities, particularly in industrial countries, are promoting the bicycle as a sustainable form of transportation by developing cycleways and offering incentives for using bicycles for commuting. In Copenhagen, one third of the population commutes to work by bicycle. By 2005, Copenhagen's innovative City Bike program will provide 3,000 bicycles for free use within the city. The city's total cycle fleet is expected to grow, as city planners intend to increase already high car parking fees by 3 percent annually for 15 years, impose high fuel taxes and vehicle registration costs, and concentrate future development around rail lines.
Stockholm, one of the world's wealthiest cities, has seen car use decline in recent decades. There, urban development is concentrated around city centers, allowing for greater public transportation efficiency. Rail and buses are linked with pedestrian and bicycle-oriented routes. In all of Sweden's urban areas, 1 out of every 10 trips is taken by bicycle, about the same number by public transit, and almost 40 percent on foot. Just 36 percent of trips are taken by car, a low for Europe. In the Netherlands, bicycles are used for 27 percent of all trips.
Yet with the world automobile fleet climbing to over 530 million, bicycles are losing out to a growing collection of motorized vehicles in some parts of the world. In Beijing 10 years ago, 60 percent of all trips were made on bicycle. Now that incomes have risen, residents have begun to favor the car, which is viewed as a symbol of progress, and bike trips have fallen to 40 percent. In Shanghai, where many major streets have recently been closed to bicycles during rush hour, the share of trips made by bike has dropped to 20 percent. The Shanghai government reportedly has plans to ban bicycles altogether from the city center by 2010.
In the United States and Canada, where development is much less concentrated, 84 and 74 percent of trips are made by car respectively. In both countries, only about 10 percent of trips are pedestrian, and just 1 percent is by bicycle. Many residents use bicycles for recreation, not for transit.
Cities at risk of being overrun by polluting, land-hungry automobiles could benefit by ensuring that bicycles receive consideration in transportation planning and urban development schemes. Tax incentives can encourage development in areas close to mass transit, and trains and buses can be equipped to carry bicycles. Making streets and pathways safer and accessible to cyclists will encourage more people to pedal to work and to use bikes for recreation.
Annual world bicycle production has grown to more than double automobile production since the mid-twentieth century, when the two nearly coincided. The bicycle is an affordable, space-efficient, low-maintenance method of personal transportation, and its usefulness promises future growth in the industry.
Copyright © 2002 Earth Policy Institute