For Bicyclists, a Widening Patchwork World
U.S. Lags Behind Two-Wheeled Boom

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 31, 2008

TACHIA, Taiwan -- Antony Lo is one happy biker. He is 60 but looks younger, with a body buffed by commuting 130 miles a week on his bike. He is also president of Taiwan-based Giant, the world's largest bicycle company, where sales are soaring, helped along by global anxiety over oil prices. With undisguised glee, Lo says: "High-priced gasoline is here to stay. I tell my people we are just at the beginning of a very big cycling boom."

Boom it is. The number of cyclists has doubled in a decade in cities as disparate as Berlin and Bogota. Global bicycle production has increased for six consecutive years, according to a report by the Earth Policy Institute. Sales at Giant have doubled since 2002 and continue to accelerate, up 24 percent in the first half of this year.

Yet when it comes to using a bike for everyday transportation, the boom appears to have bypassed many countries. While Northern Europe and Japan have figured out how to make bicycle commuting a safe, cheap alternative to driving, the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain have not. And the world's two most populous nations, China and India, are discarding bicycles in favor of cars. A rising middle class in both countries views cycling as an unhappy reminder of the recent past, when nearly everyone was poor.

Still, among the world's most developed countries, a reliable recipe has emerged for making cycling a mainstream means of getting to work.

Commuters in Northern Europe have been lured out of their cars by bike lanes, secure bike parking and easy access to mass transportation. At the same time, steep automobile taxes, congestion-zone fees and go-slow rules have made inner-city driving a costly pain in the neck. In the Netherlands, where such carrot-and-stick policies have been in place for decades, 27 percent of all trips are by bike.

"It is very clear how to do this," said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University and lead author of a global study of strategies that promote cycling. "It is not rocket science."

In the United States, with the exception of a handful of cities, these strategies have been ignored. Car-centric transportation policies and suburban sprawl continue to make bicycle commuting rare, arduous and relatively dangerous. Although millions of Americans recreate on bikes, they ride them for just 0.4 percent of their trips to work, according to the U.S. Census.

Germans are 10 times more likely than Americans to ride a bike and three times less likely to get hurt while doing so. On any given workday, more commuters park their bikes at train and subway stations in Tokyo (704,000) than cycle to work in the entire United States (535,000), according to the Tokyo government and the U.S. Census.

In recent months, bike shops across much of the United States have been flooded with new customers fed up with high gasoline prices, said An Le, the Los Angeles-based global marketing director of Giant.

Yet without major changes in U.S. transportation policy and infrastructure, an earnest desire to save money on gas is not enough to turn American bike owners into everyday cyclists who ride to work, according to urban planners, transportation experts and bicycle company executives.

"In the United States, we simply have not figured out how to fit the pieces together for a coordinated package that puts people on bikes," Pucher said.

Britain Makes a Start

When cities do fit the pieces together, they often see an almost instantaneous surge in cycling.

In Britain, a country whose nationwide transportation system is nearly as inhospitable to cycling as that of the United States, London has emerged as Exhibit A for the quick infrastructure fix that gets commuters out of cars.

In 2003, the city imposed a steep "congestion charge" of about $16 for cars driving into the city center. Within a year, inner-city cycling had increased by about 25 percent. In the past eight years, there has been a 10-fold increase in city spending on bike lanes, bike parking and education programs. The effort has nearly doubled cycling throughout London.

There also seems to have been a fundamental change in the way Londoners think about cycling. It's become cool. Model Elle McPherson, Mick Jagger and Madonna have been spotted on bikes.

Angela Simoes, 55, sold her car seven months ago. When the mother of two needs groceries, three miles away, she cycles. When she visits the doctor, one mile away, she cycles. She is studying to become a teacher, and when she wants to let off steam, she cycles, sometimes for hours.

She rarely uses the subway, but when she does, she locks her bicycle to one of the many bike rails provided outside the station. She also has a folding bike, which she carries on the train like an oversize handbag.

The decision to ditch her car was easy, she said. Gas prices had shot up, she won the folding bike in a contest, and her car needed costly repairs.

She doesn't miss the car. "It's so much quicker to jump on the cycle and get a few things," she said. "There's no pollution and you're keeping fit."

As much as she can, she rides in London's new bike lanes and uses bus lanes that have been opened to cyclists. But Britain still has a long way to go before it connects the cycling dots.

There is "no one long path we can call our own" in London, and roads outside the city are dangerous, she said. "A cyclist has to keep her eyes peeled."

Europe's Full Embrace

Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have been connecting the dots for three decades. They started in the mid-1970s, in the wake of the world's first oil shock and after 25 years of American-style, car-centric traffic management that had coincided with a sharp decline in cycling.

There is now an integrated system of safe bicycling routes in most cities in all three countries. It allows cyclists to go almost everywhere on paths that are separated from automobiles and in "traffic-calmed" neighborhoods. Besides pampering cyclists, these countries punished drivers with fees and restrictions intended to make commuting by car expensive, slow and frustrating.

The policies have resulted in the developed world's highest per-capita rates of cycling and lowest rates of cycling accidents, the Rutgers study found.

In Berlin, biking now accounts for 12 percent of all transportation. The city has 3.4 million residents, and the city estimates that they use their bicycles a million times a day.

One of those cyclists is Michael Abraham, 35, an engineer at Berlin's Technical University. He has been riding a bicycle to stay in shape most of his life, but in the past year, goaded by high gasoline prices, he started cycling to work. "It's simply cheaper with your bike," he said.

Abraham estimates that he now saves about $35 a week on gasoline. That's not the only benefit. Thanks to Berlin's finely tuned cycling network, he also knows exactly how long his 7 1/2 mile commute will take -- 35 minutes. If he drives, the trip takes between 20 minutes and 1 1/2 hours, depending on traffic.

"With a car you can't reliably predict how long your commute will be, but you can with a bike," he said. "You are not affected by traffic jams -- you can just ride through them. It's a real advantage."

Build It and They'll Come

While the northern European model for promoting cycling certainly works, it is costly and requires lots of government intervention. There are other ways to get people on bikes. Japan does not pamper cyclists, but it does provide easy access to mass transit.

In greater Tokyo, where 35 million people live in the world's most populous metro area, there are almost no bike lanes. Guided by vague laws about what cyclists can and cannot do, police tend to ignore them -- except for confiscating illegally parked bikes.

Traffic chases most Tokyo cyclists onto sidewalks, where they periodically bump into pedestrians. Mothers are forbidden by law to carry more than one child on a bicycle, but tens of thousands of them do it every day.

"The manners of Tokyo cyclists are very poor and sometime suicidal," said Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, director general of public works in Edogawa, a Tokyo ward with 640,000 people, most of whom ride bikes. As for government transportation officials in Japan, Tsuchiya said it is difficult to find one who doesn't show some "negative thinking about bicycles. We are far behind our counterparts in Europe."

Still, a bicycle is an essential component of life in Tokyo. Impossibly thin women in four-inch heels ride them, as do important-looking men in black suits. Cycling's chaotic ubiquity is a result of several factors: population density, the high cost of driving and arguably the world's best train and subway system.

Commuters ride bikes often but not for very long -- usually less than 15 minutes. Train stations are no more than 1 1/2 miles apart in most of the city. Compared with walking or taking a bus, riding a bike shaves precious minutes off the daily trip to and from a station.

The one bone that some municipal governments have thrown cyclists is bike parking near stations. This year in Edogawa, that bone went high-tech. The ward government spent $67 million to build a cluster of computerized bicycle parking towers that use robotic arms to snatch bikes away from subway-bound commuters.

Pickup is just as easy as drop-off. At the swipe of a magnetic card, the arm finds the bike and returns it to its home-bound owner. The wait is about 10 seconds.

"It is revolutionary," said Minato Karube, 35, a secretary who had pedaled to the parking tower in high heels and a frilly black dress. "The bike comes back instantly."

Since April, when robots went to work parking bicycles at Edogawa's Kasai station, there has been a 20 percent spike in commuting by bike.

The build-it-and-they-will-come approach has also worked in Bogota, Colombia, where Dutch bicycle engineers were recently imported to build bike lanes and redesign traffic flows. In two years, bike use jumped tenfold, from 0.5 percent of all trips to 5 percent.

It also works in the United States. Rainy Portland, Ore., offers compelling evidence that bike lanes can transform Americans into bike commuters.

A recent study by Portland State University found that while just 15 percent of Portland's streets have bike lanes, they attract half of the city's bike travel. Since 1991, counts of cyclists in the city have jumped 400 percent. Portland now has the highest share of bike trips among major U.S. cities -- about 4 percent.

Asia's Bicycle Cycle

Rapid economic growth often generates a populist backlash against cycling.

In China and India, where middle-class aspirations have trumped concern about gas prices and climate change, cars continue to chase bicycles off the streets.

"People want cars, as it indicates development, progress and that you are more influential," said Nalin Sinha, program director in New Delhi for a nonprofit transportation group. Sinha said that when he began riding a bicycle his friends thought that something had "gone wrong financially."

Two decades ago in New Delhi, bicycles held a 60 percent share of traffic flow; now that figure is about 4 percent.

Bike lanes still run alongside many broad avenues in Beijing and other large cities in China, where 500 million bicycles remain on the road. But the bike fleet has declined in the past decade, from a peak of 670 million, while private car ownership has more than doubled, according to a report by the Earth Policy Institute.

Recent history, though, suggests that the cycling decline in China and India may be short-lived. A similar decline occurred here on the island of Taiwan about 30 years ago, when the export-based economy shifted into high gear. Many of the island's 23 million residents bought motorcycles and then cars, as bicycles disappeared from the commuting mix.

The Taiwan government began pushing about 17 years ago for a modest return to cycling. It built rural bike paths. Taipei, the largest city on the island, joined the campaign, building 155 miles of bike lanes along rivers and through parks. Abundant bike parking was provided at transit stations. A network of 5,000 rental bikes appeared.

In the past year, with better facilities for bikers, a doubling of gasoline prices and growing concern about global warming, cycling has continued its climb. In Taipei, about 3 percent of all commuters ride bicycles, a 35 percent increase in 18 months.

At the headquarters of Giant, the island-based bicycle maker, Antony Lo said that if gasoline prices remain high worldwide, government transportation policies will have to change. Then, he said, everyday cycling will sweep across the United States, and later China and India.

"People are waking up," he said. "This is a long-term trend, not a fad."

Correspondent Edward Cody in Beijing and special correspondents Karla Adam and Jill Colvin in London, Ayesha Manocha in New Delhi, Shannon Smiley in Berlin and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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