America is known for its enduring love affair with the automobile. But in the last few years cities across the US have reported a surge in bicycle use, as people search for greener, healthier – and cheaper – transport options. The BBC’s Daniel Nasaw looks at what Washington DC is doing to push two-wheeled travel.
America is a land of long distances, of thousands of virtually empty square miles of prairie, farmland and baking desert and frozen tundra.
US cities sprawl on a level unseen in Europe, Canada, and Australia, a consequence of transport priorities that have long favoured motor vehicles. And in all but a handful of US cities, it is virtually impossible to get by without a car.
But in recent years, amid widespread concern about US dependence on foreign oil, high petrol prices, signs of global warming and an obesity epidemic, a number of US cities have taken steps to increase bicycle usage.
These cities hope that by adding relatively low-cost bicycle lanes, bike parking and bike sharing programmes and making other city plan adjustments, they can lessen traffic congestion, reduce the strain on public transport, and promote healthier citizens.
Jim Sebastian, head of Washington DC’s bicycle and pedestrian programme, says his goal is to make the nation’s capital “one of the most bike friendly cities in the country”.
“This is something that’s clean, healthy, efficient,” he said. “People are demanding it. It’s going to bring people to the city and keep people in the city.”
n recent years, the US capital has painted bicycle lanes onto busy thoroughfares, shielded bike tracks from traffic behind lines of parked cars, and altered traffic lights to accommodate cyclists.
A new bike sharing programme lets members borrow a cycle from a station near, say, the office, and it ride home – or to the pub – where it can be returned to another sharing station.
The effort has got Washington commuters pedalling, with roughly 2.3% of residents biking to work in 2008, up from 1.16% in 2000, according to the US census. That number has likely grown in the last two years. Nationwide, the figure is about 0.6%.
“The newer bike facilities have made more people excited about biking and feel better about biking,” said Lori Leibowitz, a 29-year-old HIV/Aids policy analyst who commutes several miles every day on her bicycle.
“It’s more fun than the Metro, it’s more fun than walking, it’s way more fun than driving. It’s like taking what used to be the least fun part of the day and making it among the most fun part of the day.”
As cycling has increased, statistics show little discernable increase in deaths in cycling road accidents. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Board, three cyclists were killed in DC traffic accidents in 2005 – and none in 2009.
Nationally, cities that have invested in bicycle infrastructure have seen a marked increase in cycling as compared to those content to rely on automotive traffic. According to the League of American Bicyclists, the most bicycle friendly cities saw a 69% increase in bike commuting between 2000 and 2008, compared to 48% for the top 70 US cities on average.
While cycle-commuting proponents laud the progress, they note even the most bike-friendly US cities have years to go before catching European cities such as Copenhagen, where an estimated 30% of residents commute to work or school on a bicycle.