A Washington Post article this week reported the opening of the District of Columbia’s latest set of dedicated bike lanes, part of a citywide effort to encourage cycling. The lanes run down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, the busy thoroughfare that connects the U.S. Capitol and the White House and a high-profile route meant to demonstrate the city’s seriousness about cycling.
The lanes are part of a burgeoning regional network of cycling paths and programs. Washington, D.C. now has more than 50 miles of bike lanes, according to the article, and plans to install 80 miles’ worth in all. The city also has a small public bikes program, with 100 bicycles available at 10 locations to subscribers, and plans to expand this to 1,000 bikes in 100 locations.
The D.C. initiative is just one of a multitude of municipal efforts to give bikes a wider berth in cities around the world. As noted recently in the July/August issue of World Watch magazine, cities struggling with pollution, demands for carbon reduction, rising obesity rates, and squeezed municipal budgets are turning to the bicycle as a multi-pronged solution.
Already, bikes are claiming a large niche of transportation mix in some cities. In many European cities with vigorous bike-centered initiatives, cycling accounts for more than 20 percent of all trips, compared to fewer than 1 percent in the United States, Australia, and other countries with less-developed cycling cultures. The European success is the result of strong, clear, pro-biking policies, including construction of dedicated infrastructure, traffic calming measures, and provision of ample bicycle parking. Creative initiatives like the Velib bike-sharing program in Paris, which sprinkles more than 20,000 bikes for public use on a subscription basis around the city, also help, by enhancing the visibility, convenience, and popularity of bicycle use.
The contributions of bikes to a better quality of urban life are clear. A bicycle commuter who rides four miles to work five days a week in the United States avoids 2,000 miles of driving and about 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year. This amounts to nearly a 5-percent reduction in the average American’s carbon footprint. Moreover, cycling is good exercise. With an estimated 1.6 billion obese adults worldwide, the potential savings in healthcare costs alone are extraordinary.
Meanwhile, biking programs and infrastructure can be far cheaper than automobile infrastructure. A mile’s worth of urban highway can cost US$20–80 million compared to a few thousand dollars or up to a million dollars for biking infrastructure. Similarly, bike parking is some 30 to 300 times cheaper than car parking.
These arguments are not new. Our colleague Marcia Lowe made many of them 21 years ago in the Worldwatch Paper “The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet”. What is new is that many cities are waking up to the advantages of bike use. Washington is just one of dozens of cities worldwide with active cycling promotion policies. If the trend continues, bikes could remake the look and feel of cities this century.