By Rick Smith International Herald Tribune
Look no further than to the leader of the free world to find a serious promoter of the bicycle. Referring to his newfound passion, President George W. Bush has praised cycling as a way to "chase that fountain of youth" and called himself "Bike Guy." This spring he spent 35 minutes in the Oval Office with half a dozen U.S. cycling advocates, more time than he gives to some government leaders.
But even though Bush is scrambling to find ways to cut U.S. oil consumption, it is not clear whether he sees the bicycle as much more than a virtuous hobby.
He would not be alone. Although an engineer designing from scratch could hardly concoct a better device to unclog modern roads - cheap, nonpolluting, small and silent - the bicycle after nearly a century of mass ownership is still more apt to raise quizzical eyebrows than budget allotments.
"There is a warm and fuzzy feel for cyclists, but it's a different thing when you talk about practical policy," said Tim Blumenthal, director of Bikes Belong, an industry association based in Boulder, Colorado.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that only five of the countries that it follows have comprehensive national cycle campaigns at the moment - Britain, Germany, Finland, the Czech Republic and Latvia. Poland and Spain were singled out as particular laggards.
And, most ominously for a warming globe, China and India seem to be using their new wealth to pave the way for the automobile rather than to preserve long traditions of mass cycling. So it may seem odd that many cycling advocates are getting optimistic of late.
They acknowledge that progress may be slow at the national level, but many see a wave of action swelling up from below - at the city level, where exasperated mayors are connecting the dots.
London, Paris, Chicago, Bogot and Seoul have embarked on major campaigns to incorporate the bicycle into traffic grids. The results have led to substantial shifts in fuel consumption, commuting times and even real estate values.
"A mayor or a deputy mayor can make things happen the fastest," said Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists in Washington. "They are in a unique position and have all the levers to get results quickly."
Consider the case of Enrique Pe?alosa, the mayor of Bogot from 1998 to 2000. In that city of seven million, he set in motion a transformation of the transport grid with measures like peak-hour restrictions on cars and about 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, of bicycle paths. He said that cycling has become a primary mode of transport for 5 percent of the population, up from 0.1 percent when he started. The share using the car as primary mode, by contrast, has fallen to 13 percent of the population from 17 percent.
"It was a war to get car owners off the sidewalks where they used to park and I was almost impeached," he said. "But in the end people loved the new city and the new way of life, and we have saved many hundreds of millions of dollars on road building and maintenance."
Pe?alosa, who was prevented by law from running for another term, has been teaching, writing and serving as a consultant to Mexico City, Jakarta, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the South Bronx in New York City on cycling grids and other transport innovations.
He sees the issue as one of democracy - economic as well as political.
"If all citizens are equal, urban policy should be democratic and not everyone has access to a motor car," he said. "In Bogot, even bus use can take from 13 percent to 26 percent of a minimum wage earner's income and bicycle use over 20 years generates enough savings to buy a house."
London may be the greatest success story in the new wave. When Mayor Ken Livingstone introduced a congestion charge in 2003 on vehicles entering the city center, a surprising side effect was a 28 percent surge in cycling in the first year. The city says overall cycling mileage has doubled in the last five years and it aims to achieve another doubling.
In some cases, merchants who were initially nervous actually saw sales rising as the population of more fluid bus and cycle lanes fed them more customers.
What has also been discovered worldwide is that accident rates have dropped wherever cycling has gained momentum, as cars are forced to slow down and as they become more accustomed to sharing the road.
"We're seeing a lot of people willing to try this and now it's getting safer as we get critical mass," said Silka Kennedy-Todd, an official in London's transport office. "The number of accidents has roughly fallen in half as the number of cyclists has doubled."
In Chicago, Richard Daley, another charismatic mayor who is an avid cyclist, has given that city the most active cycling program among major U.S. cities. Daley, who has been mayor for five terms, started a "Bike 2015 Plan" and wants emergency medical services and the police to put more of their forces on two wheels.
In Seoul, Mayor Myung Bak Lee defied local lobbies and replaced a six-kilometer elevated highway that once covered the Cheonggyecheon River in the city center with parks, walkways and cycle routes.
What planners generally have discovered is that a little money spent on cycling infrastructure can go a long way, even though it may take time to produce results and they are not often easy to track statistically.
Roelof Wittink, director of Interface for Cycling Expertise, a research organization in Utrecht, the Netherlands, said that Bogot's investments in cycling infrastructure eventually produced savings roughly seven times greater. Largely, this resulted from better utilization of urban space and from savings stemming from a slowdown in traffic flow.
Viewed from another perspective, his organization cited studies showing that about 6 percent of funds spent in the Netherlands on road infrastructure were devoted to the bicycle, although it accounted for more than 25 percent of all journeys.
In Kenya and Tanzania, it is estimated that 60 percent of spending is devoted to the car, which accounts for only about 5 percent of journeys.
Such ratios make it clear why many mayors are recasting their budgets.
"We have to start from scratch and retrain city engineers and administrators," Wittink said. "Most still have a mind-set that makes the car the priority and it's a major shift to go to any mixed solution."
One of the easiest and quickest investments is the simple bicycle rack, either randomly scattered in small units, as in Paris, or centralized in large parking lots, as in many Dutch, German and Chinese cities. The standard formula is that one automobile parking space can hold 10 bicycles.
When such facilities are coordinated with rail systems, the volumes become impressive. Nearly 30 percent of Dutch rail passengers cycle to the station, and 12 percent then get on cycles again to reach their final destinations.
Cycle paths are so much cheaper to build and maintain that some cities have gone to extremes to encourage them. Copenhagen finally resorted to providing a fleet of free bicycles.
Of course, the global effect of all this ingenuity and experimentation in the rich West pales compared with the opportunity at risk of being squandered in the developing world.
Poverty long has consigned the bulk of humanity to foot or to human- powered transport, and it means that China, India and Indonesia are far ahead of wealthy nations on this environmental score, even if it is not by choice.
Whether they will improve on the pattern of richer countries is uncertain: Eight years ago roughly 60 percent of Beijing's work force cycled to work but that percentage has dropped below 20 percent.
"A monoculture is dangerous and that is almost what we've created in the United States with the automobile," said Clarke, of the League of American Bicyclists. "We need to own up to that as an example to others."
America, of course, does not have a unique predilection for the comfort and status of the automobile.
"Even in the Netherlands, there were politicians in the 1960s who complained about the nuisance of cyclists," Wittink said. Total kilometers cycled in the Netherlands fell roughly 70 percent as car ownership rose between 1960 and 1980.
Similarly, Copenhagen has seen cycling increase steadily for 30 years, but it still is below the levels of the 1950s, said Thomas Krag, a consultant in Copenhagen who has advised the city and the Danish government.
But the Netherlands and Denmark, the undisputed champions of cycle use,
have come closest to restoring the bicycle to its pre-auto role. Perhaps it is no coincidence that they share one concept: Dutch and Danish cyclists are protected by an extensive legal framework and are fully recognized users of the road.
"It surprised us that neither country has a national bicycle program as such any more," said Mary Crass, a transport policy analyst at the OECD in Paris. "It just wasn't necessary."