Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Is Biking Important?


This single word carries weight in the modern world of transportation planning. While the United States currently has a very low percentage of people using bikes for commuting or errands, the humble bicycle continues to be the number one personal transportation option for the world.

This phenomenon of high bicycle ridership occurs in both developing, undeveloped and highly developed countries. The universal use of the bicycle across the world makes sense because bikes are extremely efficient. Most energy used in cars is not used to move the passenger, but to move the heavy vehicle itself. That means that most fuel used in cars is essentially wasted because very little of it is being used to transport the passenger.

Since bikes are light weight, compact and small, most energy expended by the rider is used to simply move the rider. This makes for a very efficient transportation system. While some may argue that a bicycle can only carry one person (versus a car, which can carry up to 5 people) the vast majority of car trips in the United States are done by vehicles carrying one person.

The best advantage of biking as a transportation alternative is that most people in the United States own a bicycle. Though bicycle commuting is not very popular in the United States, bicycling as a recreational activity is extremely popular. This is a major advantage because:

1. Creating alternative transportation is usually expensive: The top reason any proposal for alternative transportation is shot down (new buses/ bus lines, new train lines, etc.) is due to cost. Focusing on creating major intercity bike networks is relatively cheap. Many time no new pavement needs to be layed; many times the lines just need to be reconfigured. Bus networks require the purchase of new buses every 15 years; bike routes simply require the repainting of lines. Since most people already own bikes, there is a vast amount of potential for successful bike networks across America. No necessary additional investment = much higher success rate.

2. The highest growth regions in the United States have perfect bike weather: Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Texas, California, Florida: these states/cities not only have the highest population growth rates, but they also have great weather all year round! Though year round great weather is not required to create a successful bike network, people are far more likely to bike if there is nice weather.

Though cars are the best option in many transportation situations, there is plenty of room for alternatives. If we can make it easy for people to bike to the store, people will bike to the store. The numbers for bike travel in the United States are inaccurate because they fail to capture how much biking occurs.

For example, lets say the bike commute rate for Albuquerque is around 1%. This 1% number represents the number for the entire metro area. But what about the areas by the university? What about the parts of town that actually have bike infrastructure versus the parts of town that do not?

The percentage of people using bikes is far higher in areas that actually have quality bike infrastructure. If all of Albuquerque had the same level of bike infrastructure/ density that is present in the university area, the numbers would change dramatically.

In this situation, I truly believe the mantra of "if you build it, they will bike."

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