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When a bike beats a car: how appropriate is our transport?

If we were truly a society addicted to speed, more of us would get out of our cars. The average speed of morning traffic in Manhattan is 8.5 miles per hour, and those going cross-town average just 5.2 mph.

Driving speeds in many downtowns are easily beaten by bike and it’s been proven in downtown London. Even though the average speed of London traffic has jumped – from 14.3 kilometers per hour (8.9 mph) to 16.7 km/h (10.4 mph) – with the implementation of the city’s congestion tax (£8/vehicle), the car is still not the fastest way to travel.

Neither is public transportation, nor a speed boat (on the Thames). And this is according to a show established to celebrate the automobile.

Some time ago, the BBC‘s show Top Gear set up a race across London between a Mercedes 4×4, a £50,000 racing boat, a £1,700 Specialized road bike and public transportation.

The result had the producers joking about the demise of their show, primarily focused on cars: “In a shock result that could spell the end of Top Gear as we know it, the bicycle came first, then the speedboat, then the Oyster card [public transport card], and finally the car.”

It’s easy to blame a lack of municipal infrastructure like bike lanes for one’s personal decision not to switch to two wheels, but as more cities are attempting cycle-friendly makeovers (in our article “Bike commuting goes broadband” we discuss the efforts of cities like London, Chicago and New York), why should cycle transport continue to be ghettoized to the streets of cities like Amsterdam (where 40% of residents commute by bike)?

Jan VanderTuin from the Center for Appropriate Transport thinks we’re just stuck in antiquated thinking, “I just don’t think that people have been educated as to what’s possible.”

Moving cycling from sport to transport

When I first heard about the Center for Appropriate Transport (CAT), it seemed a place of self-evident research. While parking in front of the Eugene, Oregon headquarters in a borrowed Prius last summer, I felt I’d made an appropriate choice of vehicle, but once inside the center, I realized I had no idea just how tailor-made cycle transportation could be.

I walked in believing options for a bike were mountain or road, but few of the bikes lining the floor and ceiling of CAT resembled my 10-speed or mountain bike. To free cycling from the sports ghetto where it often resides outside the Netherlands or Denmark and to help it transition to a viable means of transport, those at CAT believe in diversity of product.

“Just as a monoculture system impairs the health of agriculture, one basic bike frame form limits the potential of human-powered transportation.” (I shot a video of CAT’s unique product line.)

In the US, 1 in 8 drivers owns an SUV (add minivans and pickup trucks and they account for more than a third of all vehicles) so it’s only logical that when we choose a cycle to replace our cars, we’re going to want something that can carry a load.

At CAT, bikes are built for transport and like any good vehicle, many of them can haul substantial loads- from groceries to kids-. VanderTuin specializes in creating, and customizing, these SUVs of bikes: human powered vehicles with large front carriers or attached trailers, also known as workbikes, freight bicycles or cargo bikes.

These aren’t just bikes with panniers or kids seats, but stylish city bikes with wooden super-sized baskets up front capable of fitting 4 children and trikes with trailers that can carry up to 900 pounds (those at CAT have carried a full-grown tree, moved apartments and regularly haul organic waste from Eugene’s organic restaurants for their worm composting program).


It was 8am when I arrived at the center and I was just in time to videotape Pat from the center’s Pedalers Express courier service load up his cargo bike – capable of handling 300 pounds in its waterproof fibreglass “basket” – for his delivery shift. This type of service fit in with bike-loving Eugene, but VanderTuin explained that it also made sense in any congested downtown.

“The average speed of a van, for example, in New York City is 9 miles per hour. They cost a whole lot of money, 10s of thousands of dollars and they use fuel and their parking is horrendous. They can go 125 miles per hour and they’re doing 9 miles an hour so why not replace them with something that is more appropriate, so to speak.”

I had never even considered why companies like UPS use huge trucks to creap through congested downtowns or for the stop and go of dense neighborhoods. It turns out UPS seems to be asking the same question. During the 2007 Christmas holiday season they tested cargo-bikes in Vermont (Rutland, White River Junction, Barre and Burlington).

Forgoing the $40,000 delivery vans for simple $150 refurbished “basic, beater commuter bikes” with trailers attached to the back, the riders- in UPS uniforms- delivered packages to the flatter parts of town.In parts of Maine, UPS also hires cyclists to make holiday deliveries, but in Atlanta, it’s not a seasonal thing, but simply the fastest option for a congested downtown year round.

Reggie Kempson is one of the riders who started making deliveries when UPS switched to two wheels back in 2000. He says bikes are faster not only because they don’t need to re-fuel or sit in traffic, but because they aren’t as limited in their route: “we take shortcuts down alleys and across paths that trucks could never make it through.”

Burning calories on the streets of LA

It’s not just the big dense cities like London or New York where bikes are beating cars, but smaller spots like York, England where a local newspaper staff performed their own tests of traffic congestion and found average rush hour speeds of just 5.6mph.

Even in Los Angeles where highways are the way around town, many bikers could match (if they were legal on freeways) commute hour traffic speeds. According to the Southern California Association of Governments, sensors buried under Los Angeles freeways show that the average speed during rush hour is about 20 mph.

And one university website advising students on traffic conditions gives speeds during peak hours for highways 60, 134, 210 and 605 as low as 5 mph.
While it’s easy to beat such speeds on even a city cruiser- not to mention a cycle like the Lightning F40 that reaches 35 mph on flat terrain-, few people in places like LA really abandon their cars for a bike because it’s faster.

Given that Los Angeles and Orange county drivers waste an average of 72 hours per year sitting in rush-hour traffic (an increase of 20 hours in the past 2 decades), cycling is gaining converts who hope to improve their quality of life.
One blogger began making the 90 mile round trip commute to work and back by bike and found:

Gridlock illusion

When Slate writer and fourth generation Southern Californian Andy Bowers rebelled against his inherited proclivity toward the automobile and made the switch to two wheels, he discovered a second Los Angeles.
“Not only has riding my bike enabled me to glide past all this gridlock (in fact, I’m often not even aware it’s happening), but it has made me realize that it’s an illusion.

The city itself is not gridlocked—merely the narrow asphalt ribbons onto which we squeeze all our single-occupant cars. On the back streets I now take, everything is quiet and serene. The main roads may mimic Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but the areas between L.A.’s clogged arteries comprise mile after square mile of low-density, low-stress residential bliss (the same is true, I suspect, of most American cities).”

He advises those wishing to emulate his switch to two-wheeled commuting to consult Google earth to plot a route. To those forced to take major roads in LA (even if just for a short stretch), he tips that “L.A.’s municipal code allows bikers on the sidewalk as long as they yield to pedestrians”.

We rarely stray far from home

Even for those of us excited about the idea of bike commuting, it’s easy to assume it’s too much work to actually get anywhere by bike. But the reality is, even in sprawling America half of us commute 5 miles or less to work. And in a city like Los Angeles that covers 469 square miles, nearly half of the 12 car trips made per household daily are within three miles from home.

So if distance isn’t a problem for most of our trips, perhaps we just need more options: we need to become 4, or 8, bike households. In the Netherlands, on average there are more than two bikes per person and each bike serves a different purpose.

When the New York Times took a look at the Dutch love affair with bikes, they profiled 61-year-old Hendrik de Buyzer who owns two touring bicycles, a tandem for himself and his wife (who also has her own bike) and a Brompton folding bike that he takes on his boat.

He had also recently bought his daughter a $3,000 Christiania bicycle so she could cart around her pre-school kids.

A bicycle SUV

It’s easy to assume once you have a couple of kids, your days of freewheeling are numbered. One kid seat might be doable, but two, and with groceries? The Dutch have a cyclist’s answer to the minivan. It’s called a “bakfiets”- a cargobike that resembles a rideable wheelbarrow- and every good Dutch yuppie has one (your status can be displayed with chrome finishes and accessories).

Even families with three children (or more) can put them all in the basket- and belt them in (the standard model has 2 harnesses, the long model has 3)-. Even parents of newborns don’t give up their cycling habit: carseats go directly into the cargo hold.

Even for parents of twins, two sleeping newborns fit stacked in their carseats in the hold of the bakfiets “long” bike.
Chrome finishes and accessories, like a rain canopy for the kids, have become a way for many class conscious Dutch to display their wealth: this, according to an AP article from last summer.

In the Netherlands, it’s definitely a custom that reaches to the highest levels of the land: even the Prince and Princess use one to cart around the royal children.

The iPhone of cargobikes

On foreign soil, the bakfiets is gaining popularity as just the right accessory for hip parents in the know. While it hasn’t gone mainstream yet major newspapers are reviewing it. The New York Times called it “safe and sturdy” with “smooth” gears that allow it to “to keep the same pace over rolling hills.”

The bike has gained a cult following online: there are discussion groups, blogs and flickr sites dedicated to talking up its virtues. One American blogger, who uses it to transport his 2 children, calls it as a solid work of craftmanship. “The Dutch have had enough iterations on the design to get things right – every detail is well designed.

The box up front is made of marine grade plywood, so you can spray it down with a hose. If your kids were to…say… drop a milkshake in the box (true story) it’s not a big deal.”
An Oregon-based blogger describes his first encounters with the bike as a glimpse into another reality of how cool a car-free lifestyle could be.

“A couple years ago, just after we moved into our leafy old Portland neighborhood, I kept having sightings of this luminous and energetic being – a beautiful blond Dutch woman with cute little kids – whizzing around on a classic black, short wheelbase Bakfiets.”

“I would often see the bike sitting in front of the bakery or local hair stylist or pass her as she disappeared behind the green of a roundabout with a big load of groceries then go home mumbling over and over to myself b – a – k – f – i – e – t – s – . – n – l.”

The cycling/obesity equation

The cool factor of bikes like the bakfiets, the Brompton (a British foldable) and city bikes (from fixies to the ultra upright)  may help to convince reluctant drivers to get out of their cars and recover some of that lost time stuck in traffic.

But there’s another element- besides rising gas prices- that might motivate those less inclined to follow the trends for new gear: biking burns calories.
The Worldwatch Institute collected a few statistics to demonstrate that countries with more bikes/bikers have less problems with obesity:

Bicycles per 1,000 people (mid-1990s)

  • In United States: 385
  • In Germany: 588
  • In the Netherlands: 1,000

Percent of urban travel accounted for by cycling

  • In the United States (1995): 1
  • Percent in Germany: 12
  • Percent in the Netherlands: 28

Percent of adults that are obese:

  • In the United States (2003): 30.6
  • Percent in Germany: 12.9
  • Percent in the Netherlands: 10.0