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For Bicyclists, a Widening Patchwork World

U.S. Lags Behind Two-Wheeled Boom

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In Tokyo, robotic arms park bicycles, speeding commuters to the office.Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post
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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."

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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.


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