The lowly bicycle could be a key to our long-term survival.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 20, 2006
Thanks to the triumph of motorized vehicles over the past century, North Americans, who constitute some five percent of the world's population, consume fully a quarter of the world's energy.
The sprawl built environment that grew out of car use is the most wasteful arrangement in history, swallowing energy, materials, and farmland at a breathtaking rate.
Runaway sprawl, combined with the rise in biofuels production to power more vehicles, has driven the world's grain production into sharp decline, even as the number of people who need to eat continues to grow.
The car's insatiable greed for space has destroyed existing neighbourhoods and deformed new developments. Cars demand wide roads, deep driveways, two- and three-car garages, and vast expanses of surface parking, which pushes destinations so far apart and so compromises pedestrian infrastructure that it becomes difficult to walk or cycle anywhere.
At the same time, the displacement of space and proliferation of highways means commuting distances keep increasing, resulting in more time spent behind the windshield. Weary commuters, in turn, are more likely to eat unhealthy prepared meals and less likely to exercise.
This confluence of factors has stalled the rise in average life expectancies and caused a dangerous spike in obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other so-called lifestyle diseases.
The colossal North American consumption of transportation energy, and the efforts of other economies to catch up, threaten to outstrip the oil industry's capacity to extract and refine petroleum fuels. With so much of our built environment already dependent on cheap, abundant fuel, a global peak in oil production could be devastating once production goes into decline.
Finally, the combustion of all that fuel is releasing carbon into the atmosphere at such levels that the planet's ability to regulate temperatures and water cycles is now compromised. This is already having myriad effects across the planet, and we can only expect this to continue as climate change alters our very seasons.
That climate change is taking place and influenced by human activity is no longer in dispute. In fact, thanks to some unexpected positive feedback loops, the change is accelerating faster than even pessimistic scientists had predicted.
What if someone invented a vehicle that had a long range and an average speed that matched cars in today's city streets, took up very little space for use and storage, operated in a variety of conditions both on-road and off, and provided phenomenal fuel efficiency?
What if that vehicle already exists? I'm talking about the humble bicycle, long considered a child's plaything in North America, but a possible key to our long-term survival.
Bicycles are not just children's toys (RTH file photo)
As Ted Mitchell recently demonstrated, "The bicycle is the most efficient form of personal transportation ever invented." He explains:
People of average fitness can achieve 20 km/h with an average power input of about 1/10 hp, or 75 watts. This level of exertion is minimal and can be kept up for hours.
Leg muscles are about 20 percent efficient, so a five kilometre ride consumes 80 kilocalories, or about one small apple. If you are wondering, this translates into a fuel efficiency of 595 km/l (1,400 mpg) of gasoline. Apples are renewable and clean; gasoline is neither.
Now there's a biofuel I can get behind.
Mitchell points out that in city driving, bicycles average close to the same speed as cars, since they have more available routes and avoid delays to find parking. Further, cars waste a lot of time racing from light to light. Bicycles often end up arriving at intersections behind cars, just as the light is turning green.
Unlike cars, which are major contributors to the rise in chronic disease, bicycles also provide a net improvement to health. Again, as Mitchell argues, "Cycling to work is all the exercise you will ever need. The risk reduction for heart disease and diabetes alone is worth billions of dollars, not to mention the myriad other benefits for which car slaves are experts in denial."
Bicycles are cheap to manufacture and cheap to maintain, and the savings can go toward offseting the inevitable rise in energy costs for home heating and cooling that will come with peak oil.
Cyclists at a Critical Mass bike rally. Hamilton has CM rides on the last Friday of every month, starting at Hess Village
Bicycles would improve the safety and comfort of neighbourhoods. Less massive, quieter, and slower moving than cars, bicycles are much safer for pedestrians than cars - especially when they ride on the road instead of the sidealk - and much less disturbing to passersby and neighbours.
With the aid of bicycles, it may be possible to continue living in suburbs that currently cater to cars. In fact, all that space would suddenly be an asset. Gaps between houses can become paths to connect those winding lanes, bringing destinations closer together and increasing the choice of routes.
Because bicycles use so much less space than cars, garages can turn into apartments or stores, and parking lots can become sites for new multi-use buildings. Those suburbs deemed most likely to survive could gradually intensify into all that space currently set aside for cars.
Also, because bicycles dramatically extend the range that humans can travel, they can help to bridge the gap between today's car-dependent separation of uses and tomorrow's mixed adaptive reuse.
Conventional planning wisdom holds that the average person in a car-dependent development will only walk about half a kilometre, or the distance that an average walker can cover in five minutes. Where cars and "free" parking are ubiquitous, that is probably true. However, personal experience suggests that the average person's walkability index can shift as incentives and disincentives change.
For example, my wife and I went car-free for about six months a few years ago (we're "car-lite" today), and discovered that our sense of what constituted a walkable distance changed dramatically when we no longer had the luxury of jumping in the car and driving around the corner.
Today, I use a bicycle as my main mode of transportation, and when people ask why, I can honestly answer that I ride a bike because I'm lazy and pampered. No, seriously. It takes me about as long to ride to most destinations in the lower city as it would take to drive, and pedaling a bicycle is easy once you're in even moderately good shape. (Note: I am not in particularly good shape.)
It costs nothing in fuel or parking to ride a bike, I can always find a parking spot right next to my destination, and I almost always arrive in a better mood than when I left, since moderate exercise and fresh air are invigorating.
As an added advantage, bicycles grant mobility and convenience to older children and teenagers, who often depend on their parents to chauffer them everywhere or must rely on sporadic, inconvenient transit.
Bikes are not as practical for longer distance trips (although the definition of "long distance" changes once you switch from driving to cycling as your main transportation mode). In these cases, it makes sense to have a good public transit system.
The good news is that with all the available room left by today's car infrastructure, we would have plenty of space to create dedicated transit lines through the city so that bicycles and buses or trolley cars can coexist safely and peacefully. Since their range and uses are distinct, transit and bikes complement each other whereas transit and cars currently compete for space and for users.
The integration of bicycles and long-distance transit are even more compelling. Today, many commuters complain that train service is expensive and infrequent, but trains could partner with bicycles to their mutual benefit.
The catchment area for a bicycle-oriented train station would increase dramatically over mere pedestrian access. The station would no longer require a huge parking lot to accommodate commuters arriving by car, since bicycles take up so much less room. Each station could run very productively and conveniently, with trains at frequent intervals.
Through a combination of cargo trailers and child seats, trail-a-bike trailers or tandem bars, and various types of cargo storage, it is possible for a family to travel together by bicycle. However, it's not easy, and generally consists of cobbled-together, catch-as-catch-can arrangements.
With a little imagination, the basic design behind bicycles could move whole families around in a single, convenient vehicle that incorporates the advantages of cars without all the nasty side-effects. Imagine three- or four-wheeled family cycles with on-board seating for young children and even storage "trunks".
Bicycles can be modified for goods transport and delivery. Many businesses, especially outside North America, already employ bicycle couriers for correspondence, shipment, and food delivery. I've even seen a bicycle pulling a canoe on a trailer.
Just for a moment, set aside all the pragmatic "Yes, but" arguments and just imagine what it would be like to live in a bicycle city. People would have plenty to grouse about, of course, especially in winter, but it's not like the omnipresence of cars has made us happy. Far from it, as the evidence of road rage, stress, and chronic ill-health demonstrate so amply.
Compared to the noisome, dangerous, dirty, alienating car cities we have today, a bicycle city would literally be a whole lungfull of fresh air.
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