Cities Turning to Bicycles to Cut Costs, Pollution, and Crime

12:00 PM (Noon) EDT
August 26, 1998


by Gary Gardner

For safer streets, less congestion, and cleaner air, the bicycle is poised to become an integral part of urban transportation systems for the 21st century, says the Worldwatch Institute in a new report. Too often relegated to weekend jaunts and children's use, bicycles are emerging as a solution to some of today's most intractable urban problems.

Putting bicycles to work could produce enormous savings, like reduced air and noise pollution, better land use, less congestion and lower health costs. "Americans drive cars and taxis more than 1.5 trillion miles each year," said Gary Gardner, author of "When Cities Take Bicycles Seriously," an article in the September/October issue of World Watch. "Shifting just 5 percent of those miles to bicycles would save at least $100 billion."

Much of urban travel is already "bike-sized": 40 percent of all trips in the United States (and 50 percent in Britain) are 2 miles or shorter. More than 25 percent of all trips are under a mile in the United States. "Cycling could eliminate some of these short, air-polluting trips," Gardner said, citing estimates that 90 percent of emissions in a 7-mile trip are generated in the first mile before the engine warms up.

Strong support from citizens and local officials has been driving new bike policies around the world. In several major cities in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, bicycles now account for 20 to 30 percent of all trips. In many Asian cities, the bicycle's share of trips is even higher, accounting for more than half of all trips in some Chinese cities-more than buses, cars, and walking combined. In stark contrast, bicycles are used for less than 1 percent of all trips in Canada and the United States.

In addition to bicycles' environmental and health benefits, mayors all over the world are finding that bicycles can also fight crime and cut administrative costs. City inspectors, health workers, meter readers, parks and recreation officials, paramedics, and a host of other employees can use bikes for at least some of their work.

Bicycle use by police departments has mushroomed in the past decade. The International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA) estimates that more than 2,000 police departments in the United States, Canada, Australia, Iceland, and Russia have bicycle units, with some 10,000 officers on bikes.

Even better, the IPMBA reports that half of the police departments it surveyed saw a jump in arrest rates-by an average of 24 percent-when bicycles were introduced into patrol areas. Putting cops on bikes also improves community relations and cuts costs.

The average car costs 12 cents per mile to operate, while bicycles run for less than 1 cent per mile. One patrol car costs about $23,000 and requires $3,000 to $4,000 each year in maintenance. One police bicycle costs about $1,000 and requires $100 each year in maintenance.

Gardner cites numerous examples of how cities around the world are encouraging the use of bicycles by making inexpensive but effective changes in their transportation systems:

  • In Muenster, Germany, bus lanes can be used by bicycles, but not by cars. Special lanes near intersections feed cyclists to a stop area ahead of cars, while an advance green light for cyclists ensures that they get through the intersection before cars behind them begin to move.
  • In Japan, local governments bolstered the "bike and ride" link with railways. The number of train station bike parking spaces rose from 600,000 in 1977 to nearly 2.4 million in 1987, maintaining the high levels of railway use despite rising levels of car ownership. (Construction of covered and locked bike racks costs from $50 to $500 per space-a fraction of the $12,000 to $18,000 to build garage space for each car.)
  • In Lima, Peru, the city set up a micro-credit program to help low-income citizens buy bicycles. By eliminating dependence on public transportation, which runs about $25 per month, workers making $200 per month would see their income effectively rise by 8 percent during the repayment period, and by more than 12 percent once the loan is paid off.
  • Copenhagen's City Bike program makes 2,300 bicycles available for public use around the city. Users pay 20 krona (about $3) to check out a two-wheeler, but the fee is refunded when the bike is returned. The bikes are intensively used: a Danish newspaper reported that the City Bike it tracked for 12 hours spent only 8 minutes at bike stands waiting for new patrons. This program is a public-private partnership, with businesses buying the bikes in return for advertising space on the bikes.

"By 2025, the share of people living in cities is expected to reach 5 billion," said Gardner. "Increasing bicycle use will be key to making the urban habitat, now home to nearly half of humanity, a far more livable space."