In Close Proximity: In praise of a brilliant machine, the bicycle

Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Perhaps you are counting on technological solutions to our environmental woes. So imagine an invention, a brilliant machine, that can transport people and their favorite belongings and their children and their groceries; that’s great for your health instead of causing asthma and obesity; that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases; that can be locally assembled and simply maintained; and that lets you smell the roses as you zip past but also stop and talk to friends and neighbors. What would that machine look like?

Maybe it would resemble the modern bicycle — conceived over 100 years ago and changed remarkably little since.

Perhaps you already own that wonderful machine: more than 60 million Americans rode a bike last year, up 10 percent from the year before. Commuting to work by bike is on the rise too, up 47 percent during 2000-2011, especially in communities committed to improving bicycling conditions: among communities rated “Bike Friendly” (Northampton is one) by the League of American Bicyclists, bike commuting rose 80 percent. In Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., bike commuting more than doubled, and in Portland, Oregon, it more than tripled. Such cities intentionally improved conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, with bike share programs, bike lane and bike path systems and bike safety education programs. These are popular programs with clean and green results.

The bicycle is the most energy efficient mode of transportation ever invented. America’s favorite mode — the private automobile — is the least. To bike a mile uses only 30 calories of food energy (one-sixth of a slice of bread), while driving a car uses a whopping 1,800 calories worth of gasoline. Meanwhile, private truck and automobile use accounts for some three-quarters of all U.S. oil consumption, and creates one quarter of all U.S. carbon emissions. Automobile driving is the largest contributor to global warming for most American households. It’s environmentalism’s biggest blind spot.

You might think livable cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and San Francisco have always been bike-friendly, that their bicycle culture grew organically. But history shows otherwise. By the 1960s, Amsterdam was over-run by automobiles and about to force highways through its historic center.

But thousands of citizens took to the streets, called for an end to auto-domination, and ushered in a new era of urban planning. Now more trips in Amsterdam are by bike than by car, 57 percent of Amsterdammers use their bike on a daily basis and the city has one of the world’s highest livability indexes and lowest rates of CO2 emission per capita.

Copenhagen has an official policy of reducing by 3 percent yearly the space devoted to parking cars and reallocating it to cyclists, pedestrians and green space. The best way to green our communities is to implement ambitious, intentional bike/pedestrians plans.

Here’s one challenge: the financial deck is so heavily stacked in favor of the automobile. The U.S. government spends some $100 billion yearly on highways, but only $10 billion on all public transit including Amtrak, and a paltry $1 billion on bicycle and pedestrian programs.

Meanwhile, the auto industry spends over $10 billion yearly on advertising alone, while the oil industry spends millions sowing doubt about climate science and lobbying against CO2 regulation. Skeptics of “alternative transportation” spending (bike, pedestrian, transit) call it “subsidies” or “handouts,” while highway and oil spending is “essential.”

Our bike path network stretches across much of the Valley, soon to reach Boston, New Haven, and beyond. Some Amtrak trains along the Connecticut River corridor beginning January will accommodate bikes. Bike lane systems are growing in Westfield, Amherst, Holyoke and Springfield.

Now we must prioritize bike, pedestrian and transit programs over automobile programs, which will require flipping the huge imbalance in federal funding. Much of that decision-making resides in relatively accessible state, regional and local agencies, so we can influence it significantly and relatively easily.

Can everyone bike? No, but everyone will enjoy the benefits of supporting bicycling for those who can bike: less pollution, less traffic, fewer injuries and deaths by automobile, better public health, a more robust local economy, preservation of our historic town centers — a better quality of life.

Our towns retain much of their historic compactness: in Northampton, 43 percent (in Amherst, 25 percent) of residents and off-campus students live within one mile of downtown, an easy walk and even easier bike ride. But we waste that legacy when 65 percent of U.S. trips under one mile are made by automobile.

What stops you from biking that mile instead of driving? Now call your town or city’s leaders and tell them you want a more bike friendly community!

James Lowenthal is professor of astronomy at Smith College and president of MassBike/Pioneer Valley. He wrote this on behalf of the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project.