Monday, March 3, 2008

Year of the Bicycle

By Neal Peirce

Bicycling’s best year since the start of the auto age? That’s the argument likely to be made March 4-6 as hundreds of cyclists from across the nation gather in Washington for the National Bike Summit sponsored of the League of American Bicyclists. A crescendo of trends and developments makes the case.

First the trends: oil costs are surpassing $100 a barrel, global warming alarm calls are mounting, polluting autos and trucks increasingly clog city streets, and health concerns about a sedentary and fattening society are mounting.

And now the developments: Handy bike-for-hire stations are proving instant hits in Paris and other European cities and seem poised to invade urban America. Moves to add painted bike lanes along city roadways are being eclipsed by proposals for entire networks of “bike boulevards” -- roadways altered radically to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians. And a companion “Complete Streets” movement -- making roadway space for cyclists and pedestrians, not just cars and trucks -- is gaining traction nationwide.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), founder of the Congressional Bike caucus (now 160-bipartisan members strong), claims a new pro-bike politics is forming, that it can mobilize a 1-million-plus national constituency and force clear recognition of the role of bicycles in the next (2009) federal transportation bill. He and the Bike Summit will be pushing a sense of Congress resolution recognizing the potential of bikes to undergird a greener, healthier and more efficient national future.

Cycling, nationwide, still counts for tiny portions of commuting and shopping trips. But Portland’s experience shows the potential, Blumenauer insists: since that city’s bike program began in the 1990s, the “modal split” for bikes has quadrupled and a $100 million industry of bike shops, bike sales, a start of manufacturing and bike tourism, accounting for 1,000 jobs, has emerged.

Paris’ “velib” bike rental program -- the name combines “velo” (bicycle) and “liberte (freedom) -- opened last July and registered an astounding 2 million trips in its first 40 days. Twenty-thousand bikes are available at 1,450 cycling stations across the city. Insert a credit card to sign up ($1.50 a day to $43 a year) and you can drop your bike off at any other station, the first 30 minutes free. Paris’ sturdy bikes have three gears, good hand brakes, adjustable seat levels and “sit-up” handlebars. They’re equipped with antitheft and global positioning devices. Cost of the biking operation is offset by revenues from advertising at bus shelters and other “outdoor furniture.”

Almost identical systems are sprouting up across Europe -- in Lyons, Rennes, Barcelona, Oslo, Stockholm, Seville, Brussels, Vienna. Many others are soon to come including London and Rome. There’s also reported interest in Moscow and Beijing. This April the first serious U.S. fast bike-rental system is due to open in Washington, D.C., followed shortly by San Francisco. Considering the idea or in active negotiations are Houston, Tucson, San Antonio, Portland, Cambridge and Boulder.

Among possible U.S. cities is Chicago -- Mayor Richard Daley tested a Velib bike in Paris last summer and came back a fan. Add Louisville: the health giant Humana has bikes for its own workers and Mayor Jerry Abramson likes the idea of a citywide system. And the U.S. Capitol complex -- It’s a small city of 12,000 workers and, Blumenauer suggests, “government needs to lead by example.”

On the bike boulevard front, London sprang to world leadership with Mayor Ken Livingstone’s February announcement of a £400 million ($787 million) system of 12 two-wheeler superhighways connecting popular residential areas to city center. The roadways will have continuous, wide cycle lanes, dedicated junctions and clear signs, cutting a swath through traffic. Planners hope the London system will attract a “critical mass” of cyclists. Even diverting 5 percent of people from their cars and the tubes and buses, it’s estimated, would result in 1.7 million cycle trips each day. The Londoners also hope to set up special cycle networks around 15 suburban towns, connecting residences with schools, train and bus stations, parks and shops.

Portland has its own version of bike boulevards -- remakes of residential streets that had been degraded by motorists using them as cut-throughs. With a minimum of traffic-calming devices such as speed bumps and traffic islands, cut-through traffic was effectively excluded. Contentious when they were first introduced a decade ago, the Portland bike boulevards have created quality environments raising nearby home prices significantly. But perhaps most important, they’ve marked a major shift from meeting needs of expert and intermediate cyclists. The focus, instead, is on making cycling welcoming for everyone -- kids, families and novice cyclists included.

And in the long run, that’s what the worldwide and U.S. bike reforms will have to achieve -- a world of safe cycling for people of all ages, both sexes, all skill levels. If we get there, you can mark 2008 as a big year on the route.

© 2008 Washington Post Writers Group

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One thing the author of the article left out is the bicycle manufacterers roll in getting more people riding for utility rather than just for an expensive form of recreation. America is finally getting some of the "city bikes" that previously only got sold in Europe and Asia. The industry seems to be slowly recognising that there is a huge market of people out there who ride a bike but dont consider themselves "roadies" or "mountain bikers". The variety and options available on "hybrid bikes" is exploding with almost every major manufacterer offering a whole lineup from basic "comfort" bikes to deluxe hybrid models with disc brakes, dynamo powered lights, and internally geared hubs. Racks and fenders have also gone from an aftermarket accessory to standard equipment on many of these bikes.

Pretty soon I'll have to start wearing a T-shirt that says "I rode my bike to the grocery store before it was cool to be a utility cyclist."

(Just kidding. No ammount of bike riding would cause people to mistake me for "cool")