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In the year 2000, world bicycle production climbed to 101 million, more than double the 41 million cars produced. Sales of bikes are soaring because they provide affordable mobility for billions of people, increase physical fitness, alleviate traffic congestion, and do not pollute the air or emit climate-disrupting carbon dioxide.
A half-century ago, it was widely expected that automobile production would quickly exceed that of bicycles. Indeed by 1965, car production, which had been growing rapidly since World War II, was poised to overtake bicycle production. But it never did. Mounting environmental concerns slowed the growth in car output and accelerated that of bikes. Between 1969 and 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, bike sales jumped from 25 million to 36 million.
Shortly after the first Earth Day, the two oil-price shocks of the 1970s underlined the risks of oil-dependent mobility. Car sales stalled near 30 million from 1973 to 1983. Bicycle sales, meanwhile, jumped from 52 million to 74 million.
The bicycle's principal attraction is its low cost. With cars costing easily 100 times as much, the bicycle offers mobility to billions of people who cannot afford a car. The widely affordable bike attracted 960 million buyers during the 1990s, compared with 370 million for the car.
The bicycle also reduces the amount of land that needs to be paved. Six bicycles typically can fit into the road space used by one car. For parking, the advantage is even greater, with 20 bicycles occupying the space required for a car.
As the world automobile fleet expanded and as people moved in droves to cities, ever worsening traffic congestion highlighted the inherent conflict between the automobile and the city. In London today, the average speed of a car is roughly the same as that of a horse-drawn carriage a century ago. Each year, the average motorist in Bangkok spends the equivalent of 44 working days sitting in a car going nowhere. After a point, more cars mean less mobility. Another attraction of the bicycle is that it does not contribute to the air pollution that claims 3 million lives annually.
In recent decades, the densely populated countries of northern Europe have turned to the bicycle to alleviate traffic congestion and reduce air pollution. In Stockholm, one of the world's wealthiest cities, car use has declined in recent years. Railroads and buses are increasingly linked with pedestrian and bicycle routes. In Sweden's urban areas, roughly 10 percent of all trips are taken by bicycle, about the same number as by public transit. Almost 40 percent of trips are on foot. Only 36 percent are by car.
In the Netherlands, bicycles account for up to half of all trips in some cities. Extensive bike paths and lanes in both the Netherlands (almost 19,000 kilometers) and Germany (over 31,000 kilometers) connect rural and urban areas. These networks offer the cyclist separate right-of-way, making for safer trips and less direct competition with cars and trucks. 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. Bike use there is expected to continue growing as city planners increase already high car parking fees by 3 percent annually over the next 15 years, impose high fuel taxes and vehicle registration costs, and concentrate future development around rail lines.
In many cities in the United States, bikes provide mobility that cars cannot match. More than four fifths of all urban police departments now have some of their force on bicycles. Officers on bikes can usually reach the scene of a crime before those in squad cars, typically making 50 percent more arrests per day. For fiscally sensitive city managers, the low cost of operating a bicycle and the high productivity of an officer using one is a winning combination.
Urban bicycle messenger services are now common in large cities. For firms that market on the Internet, quick delivery means more customers. In a city like New York, where this creates an enormous potential for the use of bicycle messengers, an estimated 300 bicycle messenger firms compete for $700 million worth of business each year.
Land scarcity is also driving the world toward the bicycle, particularly in densely populated Asia, where half the world lives. In heavily populated, affluent Japan, the bicycle plays a strategic role. In Tokyo, where 90 percent of workers commute by rail, 30 percent use a bicycle to reach their local rail station.
When the Chinese government announced in 1994 that it was going to develop an automobile-centered transportation system, the policy was quickly challenged by a group of eminent scientists who produced a white paper indicating several reasons this approach would not work. The first reason was that China did not have enough land both to build the roads, highways, and parking lots needed for automobiles and to feed its people. The scientists argued instead for a rail/bicycle-based transport system.
Although some cities in China, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are restricting bicycle use in favor of the car, bike ownership throughout the country is still on the rise. Automobile ownership in China is measured in the millions, but bicycle ownership is in the hundreds of millions.
Bicycles are also used to transport goods. In rural Africa where women use bicycles to transport farm produce to market, the resulting market expansion has raised farm output. In Ghana, bikes help HIV/AIDS educators reach 50 percent more people than those on foot.
For decades, the United States largely ignored the bicycle in transport system planning as federal funds were channeled almost exclusively into highway construction. This began to change in 1991 when Congress passed landmark legislation recognizing the role of the bicycle in the development of transport systems and requiring each state to have a bicycle coordinator. From 1992 through 1997, more than $1 billion of federal funds were invested in bicycle infrastructure. In New Jersey, this translated into an 800-mile statewide network of bicycle trails.
This new federal commitment helped boost U.S. bike sales from 15 million in 1991 to 21 million in 2000. When President Clinton signed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century in 1998, he set the stage for further integration of bicycles into transportation planning.
Bicycles are gaining popularity in industrial countries because they provide exercise. With half or more of adults now overweight in countries like the United States, Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, obesity is one of the world's leading public health problems. In the United States, obesity-related deaths currently total 300,000 a year, fast approaching the 420,000 for cigarette smoking.
The bicycle's role in the world transport system is expanding. Not only does it provide low-cost mobility, but in cities it often provides more mobility than the automobile. Because it provides mobility and exercise, does not pollute the air or disrupt the earth's climate, and is efficient in its use of land, the bicycle is emerging as the transport vehicle of the future.
Copyright © 2002 Earth Policy Institute