Why Bikes Are a Sustainable Wonder

Note: This is adapted from Sightline’s book, Seven Wonders, which was re-released in 2008 as a climate-change handbook. Read about it here.

The gist:

Two-wheeling ranks as the most energy-efficient form of travel—and makes you healthier to boot. Let’s give it more respect.

The details:

Northwesterners might not believe it, but our love affair with bicycles puts us squarely in the transportation mainstream. The bicycle is the world’s most widely used transport vehicle.

Worldwide, bicycles outnumber automobiles almost two to one, and their production outpaces cars three to one. Rush-hour traffic in China is dominated by human-powered vehicles (though that’s beginning to change). Even in the wealthy cities of Europe and Japan, large shares of the populace get around by bike.

Despite its popularity elsewhere, the bicycle gets little use or respect, except as a plaything, in North America. Of all trips in the United States, less than 1 percent are made by bicycle. Some government agencies have embraced bikes, but they remain the exception.

The bicycle–the most energy-efficient form of travel ever devised–deserves better. Pound for pound, a person on a bicycle expends less energy than any creature or machine covering the same distance. (A human walking spends about three times as much energy per pound; even a salmon swimming spends about twice as much.)

An amazing invention, the automobile has given twentieth-century humans unprecedented mobility. Yet cars have proliferated to the detriment of all other means of getting around and at great expense to human and natural communities.

But today, cars so dominate transportation systems and communities in North America that their own usefulness is on the wane: they are crowding themselves to a standstill.

Making cycling and alternative transportation a priority

Activists, engineers, and planners are working hard to promote alternatives to our problematic, car-dominated system. Buses, trains, and carpools produce less pollution and traffic than solo driving, but lack the privacy and door-to-door convenience of cars.

Vehicles powered by alternative fuels or electricity, and proposed “hypercars” able to cross the continent on a tank of gas, could minimize cars’ greenhouse gas emissions. But such cars do nothing about the problems of traffic, sprawl, or deadly accidents.

Though a variety of choices is key to reforming our car-centered transportation system, the only vehicle that addresses all the environmental liabilities of cars is the bicycle.

While advertising sells cars and trucks as tools for the open road, they most often help us inhabit a small daily realm—“Errandsville”—defined by home, store, job, and school.

Many of these trips are easily bikable—or walkable—even on roads designed without bicycles or pedestrians in mind. A bicyclist can easily cover a mile in four minutes, a pedestrian in 15.

Short car trips are, naturally, the easiest to replace with a bike (or even walking) trip. Mile for mile, they are also the most polluting.

Promoting active lifestyles

Increased use of bicycles as transportation could also help reduce the huge toll of sedentary lifestyles on North Americans. In the United States, more people are at risk of heart disease—the nation’s leading killer—due to physical inactivity than any other factor, including smoking and fat-laden diets. Forty percent of all American adults get almost no exercise; only 1 out of 13 gets the recommended amount.

Policies from local zoning laws to federal highway funding and tax codes favor driving over all other modes of transport; revised policies can just as effectively do the reverse. Bike-friendly policies, from traffic calming to car-free downtown zones, have boosted cycling rates in five European nations to 10 percent or more of urban trips.

Conditions for bicyclists can be improved cheaply and quickly. Nearly half the recreational riders in the United States–or one out of five of all adults–say they would sometimes bike to work if better bike lanes or paths existed.

Among major U.S. cities, those with extensive bicycle lanes have three times the rate of bike commuting as other cities.

Other nations have already made bicycling a priority: the Netherlands, for example, spends 10 percent of its roads budget to support bicycle facilities.

British author H. G. Wells may have summed it up best more than a half century ago: “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”

(This piece is excerpted and adapted from Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet.)

See also:

Alan Durning’s Bicycle Neglect series

Published: March 7, 2006