Printer Friendly

Breaking away.

On an October afternoon in 1969, a group of University of Minnesota students walked into downtown Minneapolis dragging an automobile engine in a wagon. As a small crowd gathered, the students dropped the motor into a grave, covered it with dirt, and solemnly declared an end to the tyranny of the internal combustion engine over the lungs and lives of civilized people. As traffic rushed past on nearby streets, a young minister read the eulogy:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, for the sake of mankind, iron to rust...

The gesture might have seemed premature. But in a country where the internal combustion automobile engine is a kind of technological sacred cow, it seems any suggestion of change is taken as "premature" - as demonstrated by the experience of another student, Al Gore, who at the time of the burial was finishing his senior year at Harvard. Gore had studied under Roger Revelle, one of the scientists who sounded the alarm about greenhouse warming. Like the students in Minneapolis, he worried about the effects of auto exhaust on the atmosphere. Gore continued to follow the issue over the years, and last year during his campaign for the vice presidency of the United States, he took up the quarter-century-old banner and made a modest suggestion that the pollution-spewing internal combustion engine be phased out in another quarter century. His opponent, Dan Quayle, attacked the idea as "hysterical."

If the Minnesota students of 1969 hoped that more benign forms of transportation would soon begin to supplant cars, statistical trends at that time were harshly unpromising. Sales of cars - all powered by internal combustion engines, of course - had been rising rapidly throughout the 1950s and 1960s and were about to reach an all-time high of 23 million vehicles that year [see Figure on page 12]. In fact, it appeared certain that by 1970, if the trend continued, cars would take over as the number-one choice of personal transportation in the world - and from then on would largely replace bicycles as "less developed" countries upgraded their transportation systems.

But the trend did not continue. Instead, it was bicycle production that surged in 1970, while auto production actually declined. And that year did not turn out to be an anomaly: for the next two decades, worldwide bicycle sales continued to grow while auto sales slowed and flattened. With the aid of hindsight, it now appears that the summer of that long-forgotten symbolic burial was, in fact, a kind of turning point in the world's choice of personal transportation. Between 1970 and 1990, annual car production increased by 14 million, while bike production grew by 60 million.

In 1992, the number of new bikes produced exceeded that of new cars worldwide by almost 3 to 1. And while cars still dominate personal transportation in the United States and Europe, recent developments suggest that much of the world is not likely to adopt an American-style car culture. Instead, many regions appear likely to leapfrog past the auto-dominated phase of transportation history altogether, to ways of moving people that are less luxurious but more ecologically sustainable and humane. Those ways may include a surprisingly large reliance on bicycles - not only in the Third World but in the affluent cities of the West as well.

The Driving Force

That prospect may seem to defy the conventional wisdom that more "advanced" technologies usually replace simpler ones, and are synonymous with "progress." This idea is so deeply ingrained that we easily assume that the bicycle came first and then was succeeded and gradually replaced by the technologically superior automobile. But in fact, the sprocket chain-driven bicycle and gas-fueled internal combustion engine-driven car were both invented in the same year - 1885. The two technologies as we know them today developed side by side.

While cars didn't replace bikes technogically, they did-in time-push bikes off the road. And as motor vehicles increased in numbers and domination of public spaces, it was easy for planners to consider their vastly greater speed and power a clear improvement over the "earlier, more primitive" mode. Projecting that view into the future, it was equally easy to assume cars would eventually replace bicycles (except for recreational purposes) virtually everywhere people had the opportunity to buy them. This equating of technological advancement with a "better life" went virtually unchallenged for half a century or more, during which American urban space was largely taken over by cars. It was only in the post-World War II era of heavy increases in auto ownership that it began to become apparent how the benefits of auto mobility can have enormous costs beyond those of owning a car.

Those costs are so extreme that future historians may wonder how we tolerated them. A likely answer is that we wouldn't have, if we could have foreseen the modern consequences of auto dependence. Each year, cars kill more children, women, and men in accidents than most armies lose in wars; they imprison millions of people for two to three hours a day; contribute to epidemic levels of lung and heart disease; and threaten the stability of the climate itself.

But cars started out quite differently, creating a myth that captured the American soul and became the envy of the world. The myth is familiar because it is now heavily invoked - and kept alive - by advertising. The ads typically depict an open road, a feeling of speed, a sense of freedom, an ability to control one's own movement. Americans invested heavily in that myth: we built an enormously expensive infrastructure, developed gigantic petroleum, steel, rubber, highway construction and automobile manufacturing industries, and developed both a psychological and an economic dependence on the car. Now, in a sense, we are stuck with it. The roads we use for most trips are no longer open; the speed cars are built for is useless; the freedom is mostly gone. Only belatedly have we begun to consider seriously the need for alternatives.

But bicycles? Despite the huge numbers of two-wheelers being produced each year, it may be hard to take bikes seriously as a major transportation mode for the future. Skeptics might easily dismiss the significance of those impressive bicycle production figures on the grounds that the bicycle is basically a recreational product, not made to do the work cars do. Alternatively, they might argue that the reason the bicycle market is so large is that people in poor countries have not yet moved on to cars - and that the existence of that market foretells an even rosier future for cars.

Evidence suggests, however, that both of these assumptions are wrong.

Transportation, Not Recreation

While it is true that recreational bike sales have boomed in the United States and Europe, the great majority of the world's bicycles are used strictly for utilitarian purposes. Bicycles get people to work in China and India, haul produce from fields to villages in Kenya and Indonesia, transport tourists in Botswana and Uganda, and deliver mail in Tanzania. They are used by couriers making "rush" deliveries in the United States and by game wardens pursuing poachers in Zaire. In Malawi, bicycles are used as ambulances - pulling patients on two-wheeled stretchers through city streets on which larger vehicles might be dangerously delayed.

Bicycles, in fact, are the principal means of transport - other than walking - in most countries. In China, home to a fifth of the world's population, there are 250 times as many bicycles as cars - about 300 million in all, with nearly all of them used for utilitarian transport. In India, where there are 30 bikes for every car, 80 percent are used for work-related transport. And while the percentage of bikes used for work is higher in poor countries than in those where car ownership is high, it is significant that even in those countries where most people can afford cars, bikes are gaining ground as serious transportation. In Japan, for example, a higher percentage of owners use their bikes for shopping, commuting, and other short trips (86 percent) than for recreation (28 percent). Even in the United States, which has the world's highest rate of car ownership, an estimated 4 million people commute regularly by bicycle.

As for the idea that large numbers of bicycles merely presage massive future conversions to cars, that may be little more than wishful thinking by troubled auto industry executives - aided by that persistent tendency to equate human progress with increasingly advanced technologies. The evidence, in fact, points to a very different likelihood: that instead of following the U.S. pattern, bike-dependent countries will take a quite different route to the future - bypassing much of the heavy automotive investment that prevents us lucky car-owners from humanizing our cities more quickly - and thereby going on to a more ecologically sound solution ahead of us.

First, and most unavoidably, there is the hard economic reality. The majority of the world's people are poor, and bicycles are cheap. Less than 10 percent of the world's people can afford cars, and in the developing world, where 95 percent of the next century's enormous population growth is expected, it may be as little as I percent, according to World Bank Executive Director Eveline Herfkens. About 80 percent can afford bicycles. And affordability is a criterion for governments, as well as individuals.

The American-style automotive system requires not only a rich populace but a rich public treasury - meaning the citizens have to be wealthy enough not only to buy cars but to pay heavy taxes as well. According to a recent study by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a policy research group located in Washington, D. C., the United States subsidizes motor vehicle transportation by $300 billion a year - more than $1,000 per person, above and beyond the direct costs to car users. About a third of that is the cost of productivity lost to employers because of congestion. Billions more are required for road construction, public parking, and police, among many other taxpayer-funded services. For most governments, funding such a system would be impossible.

Second, bicycles have important functional advantages over cars. That may seem incredible to Americans steeped in the romance of the open road, where cars can leave bikes in their dust. Indeed, for long trips from one city to another, cars are incomparably superior in speed. But the percentage of auto trips that are long-distance is much smaller now than in the mid-century heyday of the automobile. The cross-country auto trips that once seemed such an essential and unforgettable part of the American experience - from family vacation trips to Yellow-stone in the 1940s to the VW-van odysseys of restless youths in the 1960s - have been largely replaced by air travel.

For the shorter trips, roads that were free-flowing 10 or 20 years ago are now heavily congested. More people live in urban areas, and traffic gets slower every year. In Los Angeles, average freeway speed is projected to fall to 11 miles per hour within the next 20 years. For trips of just a few miles, bicycles are increasingly competitive. They are more mobile, and often quicker - as demonstrated not only by couriers who find bikes the fastest way to transport packages, but also by police who use them to apprehend fugitives. In Seattle, for example, police have caught stolen cars on at least five different occasions by chasing them down on bikes.

A third reason for bicycles' bright future, beyond the personal advantages of affordability and mobility, is that they do not inflict the enormous "social costs" of fatal or disabling collisions, diseases caused by auto exhaust, disruption of urban life, and loss of productivity inflicted by chronic traffic delays and frustrations. People who grow up in car-dominated parts of the world rarely stop to add up these costs, and consequently become somewhat inured to them. Yet their magnitude is a matter of growing concern in industrialized and developing countries alike. For example, in Bangkok, traffic congestion reduces the city's economic productivity by 10 percent, according to a study recently reported in The Nation. In Britain, the London Times reported in 1989 that congestion was costing the country $24 billion per year. In the United States, according to the General Accounting Office, these costs amount to $100 billion a year.

While traffic eats away at the world's work day, the social costs of automotive air pollution are more insidious - and, in some respects, incalculable. Losses of productivity due to lung or heart disease, increased medical costs, and crop losses or property damage caused by auto pollution take a toll that has been tabulated by researchers at the University of California at Davis at up to $200 billion (depending on varying estimates of the number of deaths and illnesses attributable to pollution) in the United States alone - even though most U.S. cars are now fitted with pollution-control devices. In most of the world, such devices are not used. The auto-related smog problem is so serious in Mexico City, for example, that health authorities have urged parents with small children to move out of the city altogether.

In addition to the costs that everyone bears, there are the more tangible costs to individuals - not only in lost income but in torn families and human tragedy as well - involved in auto collisions. About as many Americans die in auto crashes in any given year as died in eight years of the Vietnam War - a war traumatic enough to have created a protracted national crisis. One might reasonably ask why the automotive body count is not considered a crisis of equivalent magnitude.

Bicycles exact far smaller social costs in every category. They require only one-tenth to one-fifth as much space per rider as do cars, make no noise, produce no toxic fumes, and evoke no terror in the parents of children playing near streets. They do not create an environment hostile to much of the life of the city, forcing it to retreat behind concrete noise barriers, sealed windows, and air filters. When segregated from auto traffic (and generally even when not), bicycles easily bypass traffic snarls and delays. They arc far safer. Though they outnumber cars 2 to 1 in the world, only 2 percent of traffic fatalities involve bicycles - and of those, 90 percent result from collisions with cars. Thus, when bikes and cars are given their own space, the risk of death is 500 times greater in cars.

A fourth reason most developing countries will not become heavily car dependent is that the kind of car culture "enjoyed" by industrial countries could not be adopted by most of the world. Even if it were affordable, attaining it would inflict irreparable damage on the Earth's environment - and ultimately to the habitability of human communities.

Motor vehicles leave no part of the environment untouched. Building the roads to accommodate them consumes forest and farmland. It destroys or weakens ecosystems and severs migratory routes. Manufacturing motor vehicles requires the extraction of huge quantities of nonrenewable materials, which in turn destroys more land; and using the vehicles consumes large amounts of nonrenewable oil. The burning of that oil contributes heavily to destabilization of the climate and the accumulation of pollutants that sicken forests, endanger wetlands and marine life, and contaminate water.

Bikes not only require no energy to operate - other than that of human metabolism - they also require only 1 to 2 percent as much energy per vehicle to manufacture. And while cars account for 13 percent of the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere, bikes produce only that exhaled by their riders.

No Room to Pave

There's one environmental constraint on expansion of the car culture that may be paramount to those countries more worried about their own survival than about the sustainability of the global economy. Motor vehicles require large amounts of land exactly in those areas most needed for food production. Vast areas of the world's land are uninhabitable desert, mountains, or tundra. Relatively small portions of it are fertile valleys or bottom lands where soil, climate, and fresh water sources are abundant and food can be grown. But as the world's human population surges, it is in those areas that people concentrate - and where their transportation needs must also concentrate.

Those competing demands for land create a dilemma - one that cannot simply be solved by redistributing food from other areas, because food production capacity is slowing almost everywhere. In the mid-1970s, two-thirds of the population of the developing world lived in countries rated "land scarce" by the United Nations Environment Program - and since then the situation has worsened steadily as available farmland is ruined by advancing soil erosion and desertification.

By the year 2000, the total amount of land available for agriculture in the developing countries is projected to be less than one-half acre per person - in East Asia, it will be less than one-quarter of an acre. About a third of the world's population is concentrated in the valleys and floodplains of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Hwang He, and Yangtze rivers - where all arable land is already needed for food production. Confiscating enough of that land to build anything even remotely resembling a Western-style automotive infrastructure is inconceivable.

Parking, for example, is a consideration to which North Americans - with their unusually rich natural resources - give little thought. Most take it for granted that they will be able to find free parking at their homes. But the space taken up by a typical garage and driveway amounts to as much as half of the total living space in the home. For apartment dwellers, comparable space is provided in garages or lots. To provide equivalent parking space for the populations of Bombay or Beijing would require spreading those cities over hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that will be critically needed as those populations continue to grow.

In other population giants, like Brazil and Indonesia, it may seem as though more land is available - but using it for large highway and bridge projects would cut heavily into already-decimated ecological assets. Road building not only entails massive amounts of deforestation, but also compromises forests it doesn't directly destroy, by fragmenting them. Turtles, frogs, and other animals that can cross bike paths with little risk have no chance on roads. Not only are motor vehicles faster than bicycles and more likely to crush everything in their way, but roadways are much wider than bikeways. The wider the swath, the more species are cut off. The more roads there are, the more vital processes - such as seed dispersal, tree pollination, and small animals' food gathering - are disrupted.

Highway Anxiety

Finally, in calculating the costs of unrestrained car use, there is an impact that is hard to quantify but has profound importance: the rising stress to which commuters and other urban drivers are subjected. "Stress" is not a precisely defined term, but in this context it includes a range of both physical and psychological factors that corrode the well-being of urban residents.

Perhaps most obvious among these factors is the daily frustration of getting trapped in gridlock - a frustration that has been severe enough to trigger crimes of violence by more than a few drivers, and ulcers or hypertension in many others. The losses of productivity attributable to congestion are not simply a matter of work time lost or fuel wasted because of traffic delays, but also of employees arriving at their jobs tense and angry instead of relaxed and ready for work. According to WRI's study of the untabulated costs of automobiles, "the toll of congestion ... on the mental well- being of drivers is also very real. " Those losses are inevitably passed on to employees, customers, and shareholders - to society at large.

The frustration of slow-moving traffic may be exacerbated by the incongruity between the "image" of automotive freedom and mobility still perpetuated by advertising and the reality of the daily grind. But this frustration is not the only source of stress. There is also the risk of accidents, and the emotional and financial disruption they cause. In the United States, there are about 15 million motor vehicle accidents each year, resulting in 5 million injuries and some 47,000 deaths.

In economies where people struggle to make ends meet, a sudden or unanticipated increase in auto insurance costs, or the sudden prospect of having to replace a crumpled fender, or the unexpected news from a mechanic that the timing belt needs replacing at a cost of several hundred dollars - on top of the out-of-pocket costs of car payments and gas - can add up not just to a financial burden but to an emotional one as well. To this can be added the noise, the smell, the visual blight, and the worries about depending on a fuel that must be protected by a constant, costly military vigilance in a highly unstable part of the world.

What is remarkable about the bicycle is that it eliminates not only the heavy financial burdens of automotive transportation, but much of the stress as well. Areas where people move by bike instead of by car are quieter, cleaner, safer, more relaxed, and more congenial - in short, more humane. People who ride bikes instead of driving are more physically fit; they arrive at work less adrenalized, more relaxed, and in a state of mind more conducive to productive work. Their mode of travel takes less of a toll on them, their employers, and their society.

Just Starting to Roll

It is not just in its mobility, economy, and kindness to the environment that the bicycle appears to be very much a vehicle of the future. Despite its simpler technology, the bicycle shows more potential for improvement - and consequently, for expanded markets - than the gasoline - powered car. Of course, if the internal combustion engine is replaced with a radically less damaging power plant, and if other major changes are made in the size and intrusiveness of cars, that will be a whole new story. But as cars stand now - and seem likely to remain for many years to come - they have reached a developmental plateau. Technologically, the automobile has advanced very little in the past two decades.

The bicycle, however, is in some respects just beginning to explore its potential as a serious transportation mode. The majority of bikes in the world today are still heavy, hard to push, and troubled by problems with quality. And while the skinny-wheeled Italian-style 10-speeds that became so popular in the United States and Europe during the 1970s were great advances for recreation, they were hardly suitable as utilitarian vehicles for the Third World, where unpaved roads and heavy loads are the rule.

In recent years, however, the surging popularity of "mountain bikes" in the United States and Europe has yielded an unanticipated benefit. The vogue for Italian-style lightweights scared off many potential bicycle commuters; they seemed too vulnerable in traffic. But mountain bikes are more durable, and though originally designed for trails, they have quickly gained popularity for urban and utilitarian use because they combined old-fashioned sturdiness with innovative designs that make them easier to pedal and more comfortable. Mountain bike designs could increase both the number of people worldwide who feel comfortable and secure with bikes, and the range of surfaces on which bikes can be ridden. A technology transfer from American recreational bikes to Third World work bikes could further increase the versatility of bicycles in areas where few can afford cars.

Of course, such improvements will expand ridership only if the bike market still has room to grow. Ownership data compiled by the United Nations and Japan Cycle Press International clearly show that it does. Whereas one of every three people in China own a bike, only one in 20 do in the rest of Asia. One factor that will raise ridership is the continuing trend toward urbanization, since ownership rates are usually higher in cities, where trips are shorter and car traffic is more congested. In India, for example, 36 percent of households own bikes in urban areas, but only 23 percent in rural areas. And even in rural areas, the use of bikes may rise as mountain bike designs make it easier to pedal in hilly or unpaved areas.

The universality of bikes may be further expanded by the development of "green roads" - new kinds of roadways that are cheaper to build and less environmentally destructive than conventional paved roads, and are suitable for bikes and other light-weight transport, but not for cars. In Nepal, for example, engineers have developed roadways using a dense covering of plant growth instead of pavement.

Third World governments coming to grips with future transport needs may find that the prospect of a thriving bike manufacturing and parts industry is incentive enough to encourage bicycle use. Bicycle manufacturing is highly labor intensive, and therefore may provide a valued means by which developing countries can quickly augment their economies. Three of the four largest bicycle-producing countries are in the Third World. China alone produced 32 million bicycles in 1990 - almost as many bikes as the entire world's output of cars. Yet the top five bicycle-making nations account for only 60 percent of world production - leaving room for many others to join in [See Figure 2]. In countries that produce bikes but not cars, governments may be less likely to ignore bikes or let cars push them off the streets.

The potential for growth may also be measured by the extent to which each mode of transportation fits into the overall transportation system for a region. To some degree, the future of bicycles is tied to that of mass transit, which itself will be pushed forward by most of the constraints that limit cars. Like bicycles, mass transit consumes less land, energy, and materials, and is less polluting and disruptive to urban life. But mass transit systems and bikes are more complementary than competitive, since bikes provide the mobility that mass transit lacks-the convenience of door-to-door access. In Japan, bikes have thus been incorporated into the mainstream commuter system as an extension of the mass transit system-the last link from the train station to the doorstep. Japanese train stations now include parking garages for bikes.

Auto Reflex

A countervailing influence on bicycle use could be the seductive lure of the motor vehicle. For Third World people aspiring to the lifestyles of the West, cars have symbolic value so compelling that some people may prefer to drive a car even if it is slower and less mobile. A car pushing through a street full of bikes, scooters, rickshaws, and pedestrians may draw envious stares. Bicycle advocates worry that in Asian cities where bike ridership is already high, an influx of cars could begin driving non-motorized vehicles off the streets, as happened in the United States nearly a century ago.

In areas where incomes are rising and motor vehicle infrastructures already exist, this has already happened to some degree. In countries like Argentina, Mexico, and Russia, demand for cars may continue to grow for some years. But with the economic and environmental costs of cars much higher (and more conspicuous) now than in the past, governments are more inclined to limit the growth of the automotive system. Funds that once went almost entirely to highways are being split up, with more money going to other forms of transportation. Many governments now recognize advantages in bicycles and other alternatives that were not widely recognized in the heyday of the American auto. With prodding from bike activists, some governments are encouraging bicycle use through car-free zones, bike lanes, improved bicycle parking facilities, and programs inducing employers to provide shower facilities.

Advantage: Not Chrysler

Of course, the future of personal transportation is not a simple, winner-take-all contest between bikes and cars. The real future mill be more complex, with most urban areas using a mix of walking, bicycles, non-polluting cars, and mass transit - and perhaps other modes of transportation as well. The mix will vary from one place to another, depending on geographic, climatic, and other factors. But the era of almost complete domination by motor vehicles in the most developed cities may soon be over.

In the next generation, the development of urban transportation will be profoundly affected by factors that were little recognized during the rapid growth of the automotive system. In the past, successful transportation was measured in fairly narrow terms-speed, comfort, and user satisfaction. In the future, different considerations will dominate. The most successful planners will be those who see the movement of people and goods as part of a larger process, in which a personal transport vehicle is not part of an occupying army of aggressive commuters, but an efficient, non-intrusive participant in community life.

Bicycle promoters have shown sensitivity to this vision, emphasizing the ecological and human, as well as economic, role of an integrated transportation system. Their vision contrasts sharply with the prevailing views of automobile executives, who have been persistently oblivious to opportunities to assert leadership in adapting their industry to long-term human needs. That may change, as they awaken to the realities of the global market. But for now, they seem locked into a way of thinking that is incompatible with the need for more energy-efficient and non-destructive ways of moving people. Their blindness is epitomized by a comment made recently by Chrysler Corporation president Robert Lutz, when asked why his company's new cars were so large. "Americans are just big blobs," he explained. "They want big cars."

In Japan, where auto manufacturers have been somewhat more discerning, a different attitude is emerging. Japanese manufacturers may still dream of an expanded car market in the developing world, but they see little evidence of it. Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers are regearing their industry for something they do not like, but recognize as a distinct probability: zero growth.

Whoever the most successful transportation producers of the future turn out to be, they are likely to have taken a hard look at the diverging growth curves of bicycles and cars. One way or another, the personal transportation modes of the future will have to embrace many of the attributes now best exemplified by bicycles.

One thing is almost certain: those quixotic students in Minneapolis 23 years ago were on to something. In the human habitations of the 2 1 st century, there will be no place for death-dealing vehicles powered by exploding gasoline. In thousands of cities, including Minneapolis, the bicycle will be riding high long after the internal combustion engine is gone.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Worldwatch Institute
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:bicycle revolution
Author:Ayres, Ed
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Icy indicators of global warming.
Next Article:Water tight.

Related Articles
When cities take bicycle seriously.
Fitting your bicycle to your body.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters