Bicycle Travel Returns for Personal Transportation

Bicycle-friendly communities and increased bicycle production and sales are pedaling the world toward commuting by bike.

| July 6, 2010

Bike to Work

Bicycles not only eliminate carbon emissions but save space. Six bikes can fit in the space one car takes up on the road.


The bicycle has many attractions as a form of personal transportation. It alleviates congestion, lowers air pollution, reduces obesity, increases physical fitness, does not emit climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, and is priced within the reach of the billions of people who cannot afford a car. Bicycles increase mobility while reducing congestion and the area of land paved over. Six bicycles can typically fit into the road space used by one car. For parking, the advantage is even greater, with 20 bicycles occupying the space required to park a car.

Few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting a bicycle for a car on short trips. A bicycle is a marvel of engineering efficiency, one where an investment in 22 pounds of metal and rubber boosts the efficiency of individual mobility by a factor of three. On my bike, I estimate that I get easily 7 miles per potato. An automobile, which requires at least a ton of material to transport one person, is extraordinarily inefficient by comparison.

The bicycle is not only a flexible means of transportation; it is ideal in restoring a balance between caloric intake and expenditure. Regular exercise of the sort provided by cycling to work reduces cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and arthritis, and it strengthens the immune system.

World bicycle production, averaging 94 million per year from 1990 to 2002, climbed to 130 million in 2007, far outstripping automobile production of 70 million. Bicycle sales in some markets are surging as governments devise a myriad of incentives to encourage bicycle use. For example, in 2009 the Italian government began a hefty incentive program to encourage the purchase of bicycles or electric bikes in order to improve urban air quality and reduce the number of cars on the road. The direct payments will cover up to 30 percent of the cost of the bicycle.

China, with 430 million bikes, has the world’s largest fleet, but ownership rates are higher in Europe. The Netherlands has more than one bike per person, while Denmark and Germany have less than one bike per person.

China dramatically demonstrated the capacity of the bicycle to provide mobility for low-income populations. In 1976, this country produced 6 million bicycles. After the reforms in 1978 that led to an open market economy and rapidly rising incomes, bicycle production started climbing, reaching nearly 90 million in 2007. The surge to 430 million bicycle owners in China has provided the greatest increase in mobility in history. Bicycles took over rural roads and city streets. Although China’s rapidly multiplying passenger cars and the urban congestion they cause gets a lot of attention, it is bicycles that provide personal mobility for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

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