"Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
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In 2003, global production of bicycles hit 105 million—two-and-a-half times the record 42 million cars produced. During the 1950s and 1960s, bicycle and automobile production were nearly equal. In the decades following, however, bike output soared, reaching 91 million in 1990, when car production totaled 36 million. Since then, with the exception of 1997 and 1998 (when output dropped to 90 million and then 87 million), about 100 million bikes have been produced each year. (See data.)
Production continues to be dominated by China, where output jumped from 34 million bicycles in 1998 to a record 73 million in 2003. Some 51 million of these bikes were exported; more than a third went to the United States, the world’s largest import market. As China’s industry grows, so too does its market share. In 1998, China accounted for 39 percent of world production. Just five years later, in 2003, the figure reached 70 percent. Other major manufacturers include India, Taiwan, Japan, and the European Union.
Bicycles provide affordable transportation for billions of people. The infrastructure for bicycles—such as roads and parking facilities—is less expensive to build and less land-intensive than that for cars. Moreover, bicycles do not contribute to air or noise pollution, and they reduce traffic congestion. They also offer a chance for people to improve their physical fitness at a time when obesity is at record levels.
Europe is the world leader in bicycle use. In Amsterdam, 33 percent of all trips are made by bicycle. In Copenhagen, one third of all commuters bike to work. Europe’s many bicycle-friendly cities have developed expansive networks of support services, often including bike lanes and separate bikeways, secure bicycle parking, and end-of-trip facilities such as showers and locker rooms. Safety initiatives implemented over the past 25 years in Germany—such as better cycling routes, “traffic calming,” more education, and stronger enforcement of traffic laws—have improved cycling safety while doubling the number of bike trips taken.
Amsterdam’s woonerf zones—residential streets where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars all share the road at a walking pace—offer cyclists a pleasant, low-speed alternative to the auto-dominated main thoroughfare. Similar zones have become part of the urban fabric in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Copenhagen, which provides 3,000 free bikes for public use through its City Bike program, allows bikes on most trains and currently is working to increase and upgrade bicycle parking facilities at rail stations.
In addition to making cycling both safer and more convenient, policymakers can encourage bike use by restricting the use of automobiles. For example, since central London’s implementation of a congestion tax in 2003, bicycle and motorcycle traffic have increased by 15 percent, while accidents involving cyclists have fallen by 8 percent. High taxes on new cars, steep gasoline prices, and expensive parking are other reasons that many Europeans are turning to bicycles.
U.S. bicycle promotion initiatives and ridership lag far behind those of Europe. The number of children biking or walking to school has dropped 75 percent within a generation, while obesity rates have tripled, and only 1 percent of all trips are taken by bicycle. Estimates for the number of Americans who regularly bike to work range from 500,000 to 5 million. In contrast, 97 million Americans drive to work alone. Yet more than 100 million Americans own bicycles. With so many bicycle owners but so little bike riding in the United States, there is great potential to increase the role that bicycles play in daily commutes and other frequent trips.
Given today’s rising oil prices, Tim Blumenthal, executive director of the Bikes Belong Coalition, believes that “eyeball shock at the gas pump” is leading to a general rediscovery of bicycling reminiscent of the early 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo and high gas prices triggered three exceptionally strong years for bicycle sales. Anecdotal evidence from U.S. retailers supports this: some have seen sales jump by as much as 30 percent in recent months. Bicycle sales in the United States are expected to approach 20 million in 2005, compared to 18.5 million in 2003.
The U.S. 2005 federal transportation act earmarks $3.5 billion through 2009 to improve bicycle and pedestrian facilities—almost twice as much annual funding as included in the 1998 act. The League of American Bicyclists has designated 52 cities and towns as Bicycle Friendly Communities. Among these is Davis, California, which recently became the first community to achieve Platinum recognition and boasts a bicycle commuting trip rate of 17 percent. Bicycle advocacy groups, now active in 47 states, can help by increasing bicycle awareness, making bikes more available, and providing maintenance support and education.
Historically, China has been a bicycle stronghold. Yet a growing affluent population is now switching from bikes to cars. Countrywide, the number of bicycles in circulation declined from 182 per 100 households in 1998 to 143 in 2002. In 1998, 60 percent of Beijing’s work force biked to work. By 2002, that number had plummeted to 20 percent. In major cities, cars are forcing bikes off the road, yet bicycles are increasingly seen as the root of urban traffic problems. City officials in Shanghai, for instance, banned bikes on main roads in January 2004 in an effort to alleviate massive traffic congestion.
While bicycles clearly make sense in densely populated urban areas, they also have tremendous potential in rural areas. Where roads are poorly maintained or non-existent and cars are expensive, bicycling may be the quickest and most affordable way to travel. Giving bikes to rural health care workers helps them visit patients who do not have access to cars or are too sick to travel. Health care providers in Uganda, for instance, have done this to administer testing, counseling, and ongoing anti-retroviral treatments to HIV/AIDS patients. Immunization initiatives and family planning services have also benefited from bicycles.
Policies and programs supporting bicycles vary internationally, and there is considerable room for growth in the use of bicycles. High oil prices and concerns over climate change may encourage people to take up cycling. The global industry’s steady production over the past decade demonstrates the bicycle’s resilience and its promise for the future as a climate-benign, healthy, and affordable transportation alternative.
Copyright © 2005 Earth Policy Institute