Peddling Away Down the Road of Life

Raise your hand if you like to ride bikes!

Chances are, many of you responded positively to that question. If I could get everyone in the U.S. who purchased an adult-sized bicycle in 2008 to read this blog, there would be more than 13 million hands raised at this moment.

Early twentieth-century bicycles (from Wikimedia Commons)

Early twentieth-century bicycles (from Wikimedia Commons)

America’s love affair with the “dandy horse” goes way back. After its initial wave of popularity in the 1880s, the bicycle experienced a resurgence in the wake of the Great Depression. In 1936 the magazine Popular Science provided a summary of biking in the states. “Four million Americans now pedal along streets and highways,” revealed author John E. Lodge. “And, last year, factories in the United States turned out 750,000 machines.” As today, people rode for fun, exercise, and as a mode of transportation. Lodge reported that the craze had also swept Hollywood. “One prominent actor pedals ten miles between his home and the studio twice a day, rain or shine.” It was during this period that many urban bike trails were established. Bike technology advanced to include multiple-speed gear shifts, safety features, and conveniences such as softer seats and kick stands.

Bikes have never lost their appeal as a source of fun, entertainment, and exercise. But the past century has seen the automobile roll over every competitor as the number one form of transportation. In 1960 there were about 74 million personal passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, and motorcycles in the United States. Today that number has escalated to more than 250 million. To make this comparison meaningful, of course, we must factor in population change. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. population has increased by about 70 percent since 1960—from 181 million to 307 million. Meanwhile there has been a greater than three-fold increase in the number of vehicles on American roads.

But wait, there’s more! Changes in fuel economy during this half-century have been incrementally slow. Between 1960 and 1990 the average mileage (for all vehicle classes combined) crawled upward from 12.4 to 16.4. Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards determine the mileage for passenger vehicles and light trucks, and they tend to represent the higher end of the mileage spectrum. Even so, the 25-year period beginning in 1980 saw only a 7 percent increase in fuel economy, reaching 24.8 mpg in 2000 and remaining near that level thereafter. New CAFE standards were passed in May 2009. By 2016 passenger vehicles must achieve 42 mpg and light-duty trucks 26 mpg. But poor fuel economy is only part of the problem. Data from the 2007 American Community Survey (a tool used to collect demographics between the 10-year national surveys) reveal that 76 percent of Americans drive alone in their cars to work. I’ll spare you the statistics on the gasoline consumption that results from this behavior—suffice to say that it’s a lot.

Because you’re savvy, I’ll bet you can predict the next fact. A single gallon of gasoline emits 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (The number is slightly higher for diesel.) Burning fossil fuels has been linked to climate change, but also to increasing rates of asthma and other respiratory conditions. Meanwhile, millions of Americans experience heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and the precursors to these life-threatening conditions. Why? Because we don’t get enough exercise.

The National Institutes of Health have a simple solution. To promote a healthier lifestyle, and to protect our environment, NIH recommends biking and walking. (You knew I’d come full-circle eventually, didn’t you?)

“The European countries with the highest levels of walking and cycling have much lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension than the United States. The Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, for example, have obesity rates only a third of the American rate, while Germany’s rate is only half as high… Walking and cycling also help alleviate traffic congestion, save energy, reduce air and noise pollution, conserve land, and produce various other environmental benefits.

What would that entail, and what would be the environmental benefits? A study commissioned by the Rails to Trails Conservancy clarifies these questions. It suggests that half of all the outings we take in a car are so close to home that we could bike there in 20 minutes. Twenty-five percent of our errands are significantly closer—accessible on foot in 20 minutes. Rails to Trails determined that “modest increases” in biking and walking by Americans “could lead to an annual reduction of 70 billion miles of automobile travel… equivalent to cutting oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles by 3 percent.” Doesn’t sound like much? Here’s a little perspective. The U.S. Senate just worked for months to agree on a complex cap-and-trade scenario that might reduce GHGs by 20 percent (below 2005 levels) between now and 2020. Losing 3 percent by an immediate behavioral change looks pretty good by comparison.

The wobbly economy was a good prompt in that direction for some folks, a process that has been aided (in some places) by infrastructure. The City of New York has constructed approximately 200 miles of bike lanes and plans more. Bike traffic has already increased by 35 percent. And despite its harsh winters Minneapolis is ranked as one of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities (second only to Portland, Oregon), offering more than 120 miles of bike lanes and trails, bike-friendly commuter trains, and more. Even Los Angeles, one of the most sprawling cities in the nation, has invested in a detailed plan to encourage and accommodate biking among its population.

Many metro areas now have extensive bike and hike trail systems. This section of trail passes along the Minnesota River bluffs, west of Minneapolis.

Many metro areas now have extensive bike and hike trail systems. This section of trail passes along the Minnesota River bluffs, west of Minneapolis.

As in the 1930s, popularity has bred a host of new biking technologies. Among these is the electric bicycle. Although more expensive than traditional bicycles, e-bikes have a distinct advantage: a built-in motor. You pedal anyway, right? On an e-bike, some of the kinetic energy from that motion is converted to chemical energy and stored in a battery. It’s available when the going gets tough, such as when riding into a headwind or up a hill. So far, China and India represent the biggest markets for e-bikes. Of 23 million e-bikes sold in 2008, fewer than 200,000 were purchased in the U.S. An innovative new alternative is the Hauler. Built more like a recumbent bike, the Hauler’s larger frame offers space to carry passengers or cargo—up to 500 pounds. Its battery is charged by a combination of leg-power and the original source of energy: sunlight. A solar panel is mounted on the slanted “roof,” offering longer battery storage, faster speeds, and more oomph on long and challenging trips. The designers, Lorax Motor Works of Oregon, envision it as an ideal vehicle for any setting: local rides, long-distance trips, or in developing nations where the demand for vehicles is on the rise. And like all e-bikes, the Hauler achieves transportation with no emissions.

Whatever form it takes—from a rusty old Schwinn to the sleekest racer or the most advanced electric model—the bicycle is more than a toy, exercise machine, or vehicle. Albert Einstein claimed to have thought of the theory of relativity while cycling. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony saw the bicycle as a source of independence for women. And author H.G. Wells wrote, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” In 2008 U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared, “The place of cycling in our society is set to grow, and I am committed to doing everything possible to encourage that.” The statistics show that Americans also love biking. But are we willing to put on our helmets and ride as a solution to what plagues us?