There aren't too many tools that are as ideal today as when they were invented, in just the same form as they were originally conceived. But the bicycle is one. Simple, cheap and accessible, absolutely no existing transportation solution could be better for reducing greenhouse gases, untangling snarled urban streets, and improving human health than getting more people on two wheels. But challenges are many and varied.
While accelerated use of motorized vehicles in developing world cities is quelling traditional dependence on bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles (NMVs), industrialized cities are pushing people to forego auto transport for pedal power. All over the world, bicycles are getting much-deserved reconsideration as a no-brainer solution to fundamental problems in transit, community, and the environment.
In many large Asian cities, NMV transport accounts for well over half of the total means of transit. According to a report from Michael Replogle of Environmental Defense:
"In many low income Asian cities where NMVs predominate, there has been little need to create a separate cycle network because large numbers of NMVs define their own legitimacy to right-of-way. However, as motorization increases, or as traffic congestion worsens, it becomes increasingly important to develop modal separation in high traffic flow corridors. This is particularly vital in mixed traffic cities where NMV use is declining due to competition from growing motorized traffic."
We've talked in the past about creating urban designs that favor harmonious coexistence between motor vehicles, bikes and pedestrians, and technologies that facilitate a convenient car-free existence. We've also discussed the requirements of a successful balancing act of introducing new technology as a means of advancing a growing city, without forcing perfectly effective, less high-tech urban systems into extinction. There are plenty of other efforts and organizations out there analyzing and supporting the sustained use of bikes in changing cities.
Again from Replogle:
In smaller cities, bicycles should have a primary role on their own for work, shopping, and other travel. In larger cities, where trips lengths are longer, bicycles should be seen as most important in providing access to efficient public transport services for work trips and in serving some short distance shopping and other trips. The integration of bicycles with public transport can facilitate efficient polycentric metropolitan development patterns. By linking multiple urban centers together by public transport on its own right-of-way and expanding the service areas of public transport stations with bicycle access, such strategies can favor the evolution of megacities into more manageable constellations of small cities.
WC Ally and guest contributor, Emeka Okafor recently pointed out a Bicycle Reference Manual for Developing Countries compiled by "mobility consultant" Barbara Gruehl Kipke, which provides suggestions and approaches to be considered by urban transportation planners as they work to accomodate increased auto traffic.
WorldBike (formerly known as XAccess, the non-profit associated with Xtracycle) has also been promoting the use of bikes in accomodating heightened demand for the transport of goods and people around cities. Their programs have been providing load-bearing cycles (utility cycles) to people in South Africa, and now Kenya, in partnership with KickStart, with supplemental efforts to establish local manufacturing.
Other methods exist for connecting surplus bikes with communities in need. IBike (the International Bicycle Fund) connects individuals and organizations wishing to donate bikes, parts or maintenance and repair training with those requesting tools and skills abroad. They call it a "Recycling Program," and offer a host of specific suggestions for facilitating a connection and building networks. Similar strategies for facilitating donations, not just abroad but also domestically, are ongoing with Bikes Not Bombs.
With May being National Bike Month in the U.S., a little extra focus has been placed on opting out of the daily car commute. The LA Times ran a long story on Angelenos taking on the city with handlebars and a helmet. The profiled a number of different LA residents who'd each had different reasons to stop driving everywhere in the car-dependent metropolis. An interesting one came from a "self-described conservative Republican and Navy veteran" who called riding a bike "the most patriotic thing that anybody can do at this point in time." LA's also home to the super-rad Bicycle Kitchen (La Bici Cocina), "a cooperatively-run bicycle Culture and repair space dedicated to improving the lives of Angelenos through environmental justice, cultural awareness, community and youth outreach using the bicycle as it's tool."
Unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere, it's summer now and you have no excuse. If you can fall in love with riding while the sun is out, the affair might last into rain and sleet. The best way to get drivers to share the road is to give them someone to share with; the best way to convince planners to add bike lanes is to show them they have someone to plan for.
Make it happen en masse at Critical Mass. Most US cities' next ride is tomorrow, May 26 (and almost always the last Friday of the month).
Excellent post, and a reminder that new technology may not necessarily be the only answer to our looming environmental crisis. Many Americans' car trips are less than 6 miles long, an ideal distance for bike travel.
I want to underscore the point, too, that urban bike travel is most efficient and convenient in conjunction with a healthy mass transit system. Most European countries allow, if not actively encourage, bikes on trains and subways, making it possible to travel all over a large urban landscape without resorting to a car.
One final point: most American cities have growing community bike programs that help provide people in need with serviceable used bikes (and the knowledge to repair them). I encourage you to check out your own local community programs as a way of connecting with, and supporting, bike culture. Definitely world changing.
Great post Sarah. Bruce Hammond, a friend, went to Europe in 1995, courtesy of the German Marshall Fund, to study successful bike-lane and mass-transit programs in small to medium European cities. He found out something important. It's not enough to add a bike lane or a light-rail line - it necessary to remove a car lane, or reduce inner-city parking, or otherwise make car travel less convenient when compared to bicycles and light rail.
Mia Birk, from Portland, Oregon, went to Europe in 1996 courtesy of the German Marshall Fund and learned the same thing.
It's not enough to add bike lanes - bike lanes have to replace car lanes.
Nice info - I've driven 3 times this month, biked the rest.
One problem; "Critical Mass" will NEVER convince the masses to move towards bikes. "The People" HATE the Critical Mass people and CM acts for their own interests, which appears to be against the interests of the average Joe and Jane. When will you ever learn?
Thanks for the post, Sarah. For anyone interested in reading the complete paper, it's on EDF's site at
and is entitled "Non-Motorized Vehicles in Asia: Lessons for Sustainable Transport Planning and Policy." The abstract reads:
"This paper provides an overview of the current use of non-motorized vehicles (NMVs) in Asian cities, the characteristics of NMVs and facilities that serve them, and policies that influence their use. The paper identifies conditions under which NMV use should be encouraged for urban transport, obstacles to the development of NMVs, and identifies desirable steps that might be taken to develop a Non-Motorized Transport Strategy for a city or region, in Asia and other parts of the world."
I suppose I'm an incurable transport nerd for reading papers like this, but hey, maybe somebody else will too-- :)
The first step any community should take that wants to encourage nonmotorized transportation is to update their laws/ordinances to give equal rights and responsibilities to people using the roadways regardless of travel mode. After that step, drill law enforcement agencies on those equal rights until they understand them and act on them. There is really no need to go further than that.
Notice that I also said equal responsibilities. If a pedestrian crashes into another pedestrian, they should be responsible for the consequences, which are generally neglible. If an SUV driver crashes into a pedestrian, the consequences are usually severe and the motorist should be treated as though they wielded a lethal weapon. After all, they could have driven in a way that wouldn't cause harm and/or with a smaller vehicle, like a bike or small car, that would cause less harm.
The communities where biking/walking really work well are usually those communities where the elected authorities and police are working to give pedestrians and cyclists equal rights. I'm not aware of any communities that really hold motorists responsible for their actions. I doubt people would drive automobiles as much in such a community.
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