Seven Miles per Potato

The United States, which has lagged far behind Europe in developing diversified urban transport systems, is being swept by a “complete streets” movement, an effort to ensure that streets are friendly to pedestrians and bicycles as well as to cars. Many American communities lack sidewalks and bike lanes, making it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to get around safely, particularly where streets are heavily traveled. This cars-only model is being challenged by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a powerful assemblage of citizen groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, AARP (an organization of 38 million older Americans), and local and national cycling organizations. This coalition has aggressively lobbied for “complete streets” policies, which are now in place in fourteen states and forty metropolitan areas, cities, and counties. In early 2008 Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) each introduced national “complete streets” legislation in the U.S. Congress.

Countries that have well-developed urban transit systems and a mature bicycle infrastructure are much better positioned to withstand the stresses of a downturn in world oil production than are countries whose only transport option is the car. With a full array of walking and biking options, the number of trips by car can easily be cut by 10 to 20 percent.

The bicycle has many attractions. It alleviates congestion, lowers air pollution, reduces obesity, emits no climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, reduces the area of pavement needed, and has a price within reach for the billions of people who can’t afford an automobile.

Few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting a bicycle for a car on short trips. A bicycle is a marvel of engineering efficiency, one where an investment in twenty-two pounds of metal and rubber boosts the efficiency of individual mobility by a factor of three. On my bike I estimate that I get easily seven miles per potato. An automobile, which requires at least a ton of material to transport one person, is extraordinarily inefficient by comparison.

The capacity of the bicycle to provide mobility for low-income populations was dramatically demonstrated in China. After the reforms in 1978 that led to an open market economy and rapidly rising incomes, bicycle production and ownership started climbing. The surge to 500 million bicycle owners in China since 1978 provided the greatest increase in human mobility in history.

Many cities are turning to bicycles for various uses. In the United States, nearly 75 percent of police departments serving populations of 50,000 or more now have routine patrols by bicycle. Bicycle messenger services are common in the world’s larger cities simply because they deliver small parcels more quickly than cars can and at a lower cost.

The key to realizing the potential of the bicycle is to create a bicycle-friendly transport system. This means providing both bicycle trails and designated street lanes for bicycles. Among the industrial-country leaders doing so are the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans. The Netherlands has incorporated a vision of the role of bicycles into a Bicycle Master Plan. In addition to creating bike lanes and trails in all its cities, the system also often gives cyclists the advantage over motorists in right-of-way and at traffic lights. Roughly 30 percent of all urban trips in the Netherlands are on bicycle, compared with 1 percent in the United States.

Both the Netherlands and Japan have made a concerted effort to integrate bicycles and rail commuter services by providing bicycle parking at rail stations, making it easier for cyclists to commute by train. In Japan, the use of bicycles for commuting to rail transportation has reached the point where some stations have invested in vertical, multi-level parking garages for bicycles, as is often done for automobiles.

The combination of rail and bicycle, and particularly their integration into a single, overall transport system, makes a city eminently more livable than one that relies almost exclusively on private automobiles. Noise, pollution, congestion, and frustration are all lessened. We and the earth are both healthier.