The New Cycling Revolution
By Wendy Priesnitz
While car culture isn’t quite dead yet, more of us are reducing our
carbon footprints and getting serious about cycling. Bikes are no longer
just for kids: we’re using them for commuting, hauling and delivering goods,
Most of us grew up riding bicycles for fun, and many kids use their bikes for
transportation. However, in North America, the idea of adults using pedal power
for working purposes like commuting or even hauling goods is a relatively recent
phenomenon. Not so in other places, though. Bicycles have long been one of the
world’s most popular forms of transport. They’re inexpensive; convenient;
lightweight; don’t take up much space, either to store or on congested roads;
are energy efficient, non-polluting and healthy.
The annual global
production of bicycles is estimated to be over one hundred million units by the
Worldometers website – compared to forty-three million cars. More than a billion
bicycles are present in the world, with nearly half of them in China. In Canada,
almost half of the population rides bicycles, including more than fourteen
million adults, according to the Canadian Cycling Association. That’s quite
something when it feels like cars have won the hearts and minds of most people!
However, increasing numbers of us are getting out of our cars and onto bikes in
a serious way. And the benefits are huge, both personally and environmentally.
In fact, researchers affiliated with the University of Central Florida’s Bike
Path Project cite twenty-eight reasons to bike. Among them are better physical
and emotional health for people of all ages, improved personal finances and more
equitable living for low income earners, improved municipal finances as less
public money is required for transportation systems, increase in local property
values, greater mobility, increased sense of community, less congested roads,
safer and quieter neighborhoods, better air quality, cleaner surface and ground
water, and greater sustainability including slowed pace of global warming.
Realizing the benefits of a strong cycling culture, many cities have created
special bike committees and task forces made up of environmentally-conscious
cycling advocates. The groups’ purpose is to find ways to facilitate bike travel
and decrease car use. These solutions include dedicated bike lanes on main
streets, expressways exclusively for public transit and cyclists,
cyclist-activated lights at key intersections, buses equipped with bike
carriers, improved sewer grates that don’t trap bike wheels, secure bike
parking, special city maps for cycling commuters, cycling courses that teach you
how to ride in heavy traffic, and “share-the-space” programs to educate
Even with all the challenges, riding a bike is an easy way to
increase your health and fitness level, as well as helping to reduce traffic
congestion and the production of additional global warming pollutants.
Commuting to Work
Corporations are starting to pay attention to
cyclists on staff, and to actually encourage employees to commute to work by
bike. Many companies have installed change rooms, showers and bike parking
facilities to encourage their employees to cycle commute to work. Some of
the reasons cited for encouraging employees to cycle to work include cost
(showers and bike lockers end up being cheaper than creating an on-site
fitness facility), employee health (cycling results in fitness and stress
reduction, which leads to healthier, more productive employees), and an
increase in the company’s green credentials.
If you’re not commuting by
bike, maybe you have a pet “reason,” like it’s too far, it takes too long,
or you can’t afford to buy a special bike. But you don’t need a special bike
– that old “beater” in your garage can be tuned up and ready to go, and
won’t be as attractive to thieves as a fancy new bike. For short trips (five
miles or less), cycling often takes the same amount or less time than
driving; for longer trips, consider that you’re combining your daily
exercise program with your commute. Other issues like clothing and the
inevitable sweatiness can be worked out too. If you ride slowly and skip the
really hot, humid days, you might be able to ride in your business
clothes…some commuters say they seem to command more respect when they leave
the spandex at home. If you can’t convince your employer to install showers,
maybe there’s a gym nearby where you can clean up and change.
people, the excuse involves their need to carry around a bunch of stuff.
There are a variety of solutions for that too. The simplest is a backpack or
messenger bag, which slips diagonally across your body and carries a variety
of light-weight gear like a wallet, cellphone, towel, even a change of
clothes. However, if you’re riding in the summer, bags on your body can make
you hot and sweaty.
To solve that problem, you could install a rack over the back fender.
There are closed containers available that fasten to the rack. Or there’s
the old bungy cord and milk carton trick. Bicycle racks, both rear and
front, also enable you to carry panniers on your bike, which are great for
heavier loads like groceries and books. Be sure the hardware is permanently
attached to your frame and get the right size panniers for the task – their
weight capacity can vary greatly.
Another solution is the front basket, which can be sturdy wire or funky
wicker. However, if you’re an inexperienced bike handler, too heavy a load
up front can impact your steering.
If you’re carrying big loads, pets,
or kids around on a regular basis, you might want to invest in a bike
trailer. There are one- and two-wheel bike trailers. One-wheel trailers are
narrow, making them great for trail riding, but they don’t hold much weight
or volume (although more than panniers). They tend to be stable while in
motion because they lean with the bike, but will tip easily while loading.
Two-wheel trailers have much greater potential cargo capacity and are stable
when loading and unloading. But they can have a tendency to roll over if you
take corners too quickly.
Bikes at Work
Beyond encouraging bicycle commuting, both business and
government sectors are starting to use bikes in the workforce. In summer in
big cities, the police patrol on bikes and paramedics are using bikes to
traverse gridlocked downtown streets.
The delivery of small packages by
bicycle has a history as old as the bicycle itself. But over the past half
century, the role played by bicycles in delivering cargo has been eroded by
motor vehicles. However, delivery of letters and other small packages is now
faster by bicycle in most cities, due to ease of manoeverability around
traffic and the obvious lack of parking issues. Using a bike for deliveries
also opens up a much wider range of possible routes using bike paths, narrow
alleyways, etc., some of which are often much shorter than those available
to motor vehicles.
These “shortcuts” often make transporting cargo by bike
or trike as fast or faster than using an automobile or truck. So bike
messengers have made a come-back and are now part of the urban landscape,
complete with their own unique culture.
cyclists are hauling bigger loads using trailers and specially designed
cargo bikes. There is an ongoing debate about whether it’s better to haul
large loads using a tricycle (or even quad bike) or a trailer. Multi-wheel
bike advocates point to the greater stability and braking performance of
their vehicles, while trailer fans like how they can quickly detach the
extra wheels when a small delivery is called for.
Cargo bikes have a long history in other countries. Until recently, the few in use in North America have
been imported from Europe. There are a variety of makes and designs, and some
custom manufacturers. There are even some tinkers who have made their own from
used bike parts.
Aside from trikes, the cargo bikestyle that seems to have
become the most popular is called a “long john,” thought to have originated in
the 1920s in Denmark and The Netherlands. This two-wheeled load bike with a low
cargo area between the steering pole and the front wheel can carry a lot of
weight, is quite stable, and can be easy to drive once you get the feel of it.
We should also mention the Xtracycle LongTail innovation. It’s an
amalgam of bike rack, bike bag (or pannier or basket), bike trailer, passenger
seat, and baby seat into one cargo bike or sport utility bicycle system. The
company has been offering a kit for the last decade that extends an existing
bike’s wheelbase into something resembling a hitchless trailer, resulting in a
balanced center of gravity and versatile carrying capacity. As a service to the
cycling community, they have taken from the computer industry’s open source
philosophy of sharing application design and posted the basics of their LongTail
design on their website for anyone to use for free.
Across North America –
and especially in warmer climates – small businesses are using bikes for a
variety of purposes. In addition to the messengers, there are bicycle moving
companies, pizza and organic food deliverers, general haulers, landscapers,
flower delivery services, bicycle wedding limos, mobile billboards, bike
mechanics (obviously), the world’s smallest cinema, a brew pub’s mobile bar
(complete with kegs), and, of course, ice cream and other street food carts.
Businesses also offer bike-powered people transport for a fee – often in tourist
areas, as an open-air alternative to taxis. Pedicabs – or cycle rickshaws as
they’re also known – are three-wheeled bikes with a sofa-like seat in back. They
are common in major cities around the world, and ubiquitious in cities of South,
Southeast, and East Asia. There are an estimated eight million human-powered
pedicabs and motor-driven auto-rickshaws in India alone. And India is where
the latest innovation in this ancient business is happening.
rickshaw project put one thousand human-electric hybrids on the
streets of Delhi in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in October. The
Soleckshaws, as they’re called, can carry two passengers at nine miles
per hour for about twenty-five miles per charge. When batteries run out, the
solar-powered pedicab driver will swap the exhausted cells for fully-charged
ones at solar-powered charging stations, which are being installed in major
The Bike to Work Guide: What You Need to Know to Save Gas,
Go Green, Get Fit by Roni Sarig and Paul Dorn (Adams Media, 2008)
The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America by Robert Hurst
Bicycling Magazine’s New Cyclist Handbook by Ben Hewitt
(Rodale Press, 2005)
Atomic Zombie’s Bicycle Builder’s Bonanza by Brad
Graham and Kathy McGowan (McGraw Hill, 2004)
Cycling for Profit: How to
Make a Living With Your Bike by Jim Gregory (Cycle Publishing, 1999)
Bike Commute Tips Blog www.bikecommutetips.blogspot.com
League of American Bicyclists
International Bicycle Fund
Long John-style Cargo Bikes
Museum of Tradesmen’s Delivery Bikes
This article was published in Natural
Life Magazine in 2010.