Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pedaling Toward a Green Way

by Alison Raphael
May 13, 2008

What single silver bullet can simultaneously reduce air pollution and oil dependency, roll back urban congestion, and fight obesity?

It's not a pill, nor a complicated formula concocted by the World Bank. People around the world are turning to bicycles by the millions, as governments rush to create incentives for the low-tech transport alternative to gas-glugging, smog-making, traffic jam-producing automobiles.

Some 130 million bikes were produced worldwide in 2007 -- more than double the number of cars rolling off assembly lines (52 million). Bike production took off in the 1970s, and after a brief dip, has been soaring since 2001, according to an ''Eco-Economy Indicators'' report issued Monday by the Earth Policy Institute.

Although more than 80 percent of all bicycles produced today are made in China, rising wealth led many Chinese to set aside their bicycles in favor of cars. But in the face of rising urban pollution and congestion, Chinese authorities are insisting that bike lanes be re-established in major cities. In Beijing, bike rentals are being strongly promoted.

China is following a growing trend in Europe and developing country smog centers such as Mexico City, Bogota, and Seoul, South Korea. The latest master plan for New Delhi, India, for example, calls for fully segregated bicycle lanes on all main roads to reduce growth in fossil fuel consumption.

Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and the German city of Freiburg are all investing millions in infrastructure to encourage more people to bike to work. In Amsterdam more than 55 percent of those who travel five miles or less to work already ride bikes. The government plans to spend $160 million by 2010 on bicycle paths, parking, and safety, according to the Earth Policy report.

Paris now has some 20,000 bikes available for rental by credit card, scattered around the city at strategic sites. Six million people used the new rental program during the first three months after it was launched last year.

The United States lags far behind this emerging trend, with less than 1 percent of workers commuting by bicycle. Overall, bike ridership has dropped by 32 percent since the early 1990s.

But, the report notes, there are positive signs as well: "Aided by $900 million a year in federal funding for promotion of biking and walking for 2005 to 2009, the installation of bicycle facilities -- including parking, bike-friendly roads, and designated lanes -- is proceeding at a record pace" in the United States.

Several large cities, including New York, plan to double bike and pedestrian routes by 2030. Washington, DC is set to begin a bike-sharing program like that in Paris, and even hilly San Francisco is considering a similar program, according to the Worldwatch Institute, and environmental think tank.

Bicycle advocacy groups are expanding, and a "Complete Streets" movement has blossomed in recent years, bringing together a broad coalition of citizen and environmental groups demanding more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly roads. Six states and more than 50 cities, counties, and metro regions have now enacted some form of Complete Streets legislation.

With more than half of the world's population now living in cities, and given the steep health and economic costs of continuing reliance on oil-fueled cars, many analysts expect the lowly two-wheeler to continue to become more and more fashionable.

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