Bicycles Make Sustainable Sense


From the early part of the 19th Century, people have made peddling as a means to getting around, a national pastime. And it’s easy to see why.

What makes bicycles so wildly popular, besides how fun they are to ride, is their phenomenal efficiency both in biological and mechanical terms. The bicycle is the most efficient self-powered means of transportation in terms of energy a person must expend to travel a given distance. From a mechanical viewpoint, up to 99% of the energy delivered by the rider into the pedals is transmitted to the wheels and is also an efficient means of cargo transportation.

Not only that but, the carbon dioxide generated in the production and transportation of the food required by the bicyclist, per mile traveled, is less than 1/10 that generated by energy efficient cars.

Bicycles now number about one billion worldwide, twice as many as automobiles.

So, why do our U.S. cities still favor cars over bikes? The short answer is – we are addicted to our cars.

In a country famous for its love of cars and driving, less than 1% of personal trips are by bike compared with up to 30% in some parts of Europe.

And cars driven in America’s cities account for the majority of pollution and energy usage related to transportation. According to the IEA, cities currently occupy just 2 % of the world’s surface but account for half the global population, two-thirds of energy use and 76 % of energy-related CO2 output.

The environmental impact of cities stems both from their concentration of human activity but also their reliance on outside regions to meet their demand for energy and resources, and to accommodate their waste output.

Now, here’s the good news. In the transportation sector, denser cohabitation means shorter journeys to work and amenities, encouraging walking and cycling. Let’s look at the benefits to more bikes and less cars on our roads.


Benefits to Choosing Bikes Over Cars

  • Improve the environment by reducing the impact on residents of pollution and noise, limiting greenhouse gases, and improving the quality of public spaces.
  • Reduce congestion by shifting short trips (the majority of trips in cities) out of cars. This will also make cities more accessible for public transportation, walking, essential car travel, emergency services, and deliveries.
  • Save lives by creating safer conditions for bicyclists and as a direct consequence improve the safety of all other road users. Research shows that increasing the number of bicyclists on the street improves bicycle safety.
  • Increase opportunities for residents of all ages to participate socially and economically in the community, regardless income or ability. Greater choice of travel modes also increases independence, especially among seniors and children.
  • Boost the economy by creating a community that is an attractive destination for new residents, tourists and businesses.
  • Enhance recreational opportunities, especially for children, and further contribute to the quality of life in the community.
  • Save city funds by increasing the efficient use of public space, reducing the need for costly new road infrastructure, preventing crashes, improving the health of the community, and increasing the use of public transportation.
  • Enhance public safety and security by increasing the number of “eyes on the street” and providing more options for movement in the event of emergencies, natural disasters, and major public events.
  • Improve the health and well being of the population by promoting routine physical activity.

Rates of bike use in some U.S. cities are significantly higher thanks to recognition by urban planners of the environmental, economic and health benefits.

In Portland for example, 5.4% of people said in a 2006 survey that the bicycle was their primary means of getting to work.

“In the last three years, we reached another acceleration point,” said Scott Bricker, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group. “Ridership is increasing exponentially.”

Historically, bicycles reduced crowding in inner-city tenements by allowing workers to commute from more spacious dwellings in the suburbs. They also reduced dependence on horses. Bicycles allowed people to travel for leisure into the country, since bicycles were three times as energy efficient as walking and three to four times as fast.


What Cities Are Doing To Promote Bicycle Use

Recently, several European cities and Montreal have implemented successful schemes known as community bicycle programs or bike-sharing. These initiatives complement a city’s public transportation system and offer an alternative to motorized traffic to help reduce congestion and pollution. In Europe, especially in The Netherlands and parts of Germany and Denmark, commuting by bicycle is very common. In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, a cyclists’ organization runs a Cycling Embassy, that promotes biking for commuting and sightseeing. In the UK there’s a tax break scheme that allows employees to buy a new bicycle tax free to use for commuting.


Portland, Chicago and Washington Take The Lead

The relative popularity of bicycling in Portland may be linked to bike lanes, locking facilities and programs that encourage public bicycling and safety education for children.

Portland has 171 miles of bike lanes along its 2,568 miles of roadways and plans to increase that to 434 miles. Portland has 71 miles of bike trails and a third of its arterial roads have bike lanes or paved shoulders.This network includes 114 miles of “bicycle boulevards” — quiet streets where bikes have priority over cars and where traffic speed is restricted.

In Chicago, pro-bike policies have resulted in 115 miles of bike lanes, more than 11,000 bike racks and 50 miles of dedicated bike paths along Lake Michigan.

Around 1.5 % of personal trips in Chicago are made by bike and the city aims to boost that to 5 % by 2015.

Graph showing Daily Trip Distances

In Washington, the proportion of people biking to work rose from 1.2 percent in 2000 to an estimated 2 percent in 2006, said Jim Sebastian, who heads the U.S. capital’s bicycle and pedestrian program.

Bike lanes in Washington now stretch to 33 miles — 11 times longer than in 2001 — and more than half of the city’s subway stops now have bike racks.

Later this summer, Washington plans to launch the first U.S. bike-sharing program in which users will pay $40 a year for a swipe card enabling them to pick up a bike from racks around the city and then return them to any other rack.

In cities where the bicycle is not an integral part of the planned transportation system, commuters often use bicycles as elements of a mixed-mode commute, where the bike is used to travel to and from train stations or other forms of rapid transit. Folding bicycles are useful in these scenarios, as they are less cumbersome when carried aboard. Los Angeles removed a small amount of seating on some trains to make more room for bicycles and wheel chairs.

Bicycles offer an important mode of transportation in many developing countries. Until recently, bicycles have been a staple of everyday life throughout Asian countries. They are the most frequently used method of transportation for commuting to work, school, shopping, and life in general.

Biking More Reduces Our Dependence Upon Foreign Oil

One of the profound economic implications of bicycle use is that it liberates the user from oil consumption (Ballantine, 1972). The bicycle is an inexpensive, fast, healthy and environmentally friendly mode of transportation (Illich, 1974).

Now, more than ever, we need to be peddling more and driving less. The price at the pump is one great motivator. Statistically, about 40 percent of all trips are shorter than two miles-a 30-minute walk or a 10-minute bike ride (1995 NPTS). So why choose the car when the bike will be more fun and improve your health?

Imagine that gasoline costs $5, $6, even $10 per gallon. How will you get to work, school, the grocery store? Chances are that you’ll modify your commute patterns when it costs you $40 in gas just to get to work and back. These days are not far off and bicycling gives us an inexpensive, highly efficient means of transportation that is truly sustainable.

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4 Responses

  1. […] Bicycles Make Sustainable Sense (buildingsustainablelifestyles.wordpress.com) Not only is the bicycle a weapon against direct poverty, it can also reduce a lot of costs of pollution-, road-, and accidental- or health damage to our society. We should take more in to account their efficiency both in biological and mechanical terms. “The bicycle is the most efficient self-powered means of transportation in terms of energy a person must expend to travel a given distance. From a mechanical viewpoint, up to 99% of the energy delivered by the rider into the pedals is transmitted to the wheels and is also an efficient means of cargo transportation.” “According to the IEA, cities currently occupy just 2 % of the world’s surface but account for half the global population, two-thirds of energy use and 76 % of energy-related CO2 output.” Also important is that a lot of city funds can be saved  by increasing the efficient use of public space, reducing the need for costly new road infrastructure, preventing crashes, improving the health of the community, and increasing the use of public transportation. those funds can be better used to help the poor people, who often can’t afford a car. […]

  2. Wonderful blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Appreciate it

    • If you use WordPress, there is a publish feature where you can opt to have your post publicized on Twitter, FB and Yahoo.

      Thanks for the positive feedback!

  3. […] Bicycles Make Sustainable Sense (buildingsustainablelifestyles.wordpress.com) […]

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