The bike boom (+video)
Americans are using bicycles for transportation and recreation in record numbers as the fitness and green movements, as well as high energy costs, spur a two-wheel revolution.
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Yet cyclists need to do their part as well if the nation's streets are going to be safe for both SUVs and Schwinns. Some riders routinely cut in front of vehicles or weave through traffic. A few bike messengers are famous for grabbing onto taxis or drafting behind buses – activities that have been glorified in YouTube videos. "The rebel period has to end," says Peter Flax, editor in chief of Bicycling magazine.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Urban biking: the wheel story
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If cyclists don't curb their behavior on their own, police might do it for them. In Santa Monica, Calif., a cyclist was recently sentenced to three years' probation and 30 days of community service after pleading guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. His offense: running a red light and striking and injuring a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
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Reckless or not, biking has long held a grip on the American imagination. In the 1880s and '90s, intrigued by the novelty of the new machines, Americans flocked to bikes in such numbers that it resulted in a push for paved roads and led women to wear practical clothing so they could ride as well.
In the 1960s and '70s, Americans donned spandex and jumped on lightweight European road-racing bikes as gasoline prices soared.
"We're really now at the beginning of what we think will be the third boom in biking," says Carolyn Szczepanski of the League of American Bicyclists.
The current wave is being driven by elements of the earlier ones: practicality, transportation, recreation, ecological awareness. But there is an added catalyst, too, especially for cities and institutions – raw economics.
Consider just these statistics: Chicago recently paid more than $600,000 for a single mass transit bus and has a fleet of 1,781 buses. New York is building a new subway line along Second Avenue. Just the first phase of the project is projected to cost $4.45 billion.
By contrast, Long Beach's entire system of bike lanes, bike racks, and special traffic lights that sense riders will cost about $25 million, most of it paid by a federal grant. New York is setting up a rental program, with 6,000 bikes, that will cost a fraction of other mass-transit expenditures.
"Citi Bike isn't just a bike network; it's New York City's first new public transit system in more than 75 years," said Janette Sadik-Khan, New York's commissioner of transportation, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the program.
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Biking advocates also point to the benefits two-wheeled transportation brings to the planet. In a 2008 report, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, estimated that only a "modest" increase in walking and riding could save the US 3.8 billion gallons of gasoline per year. The annual savings in carbon emissions would be 33 million tons – the equivalent of 10 coal-fired power plants.
The biggest change in all of this, however, may be how Americans view their own transportation. In the future, instead of hopping in the Land Rover to get a quart of milk, they may jump on a commuter bike. As Eustice, the handbag executive in New York, puts it: "Our children love to ride. And when I get too old to balance, I will just get a big trike, so I don't imagine a bike not being part of my life."
• Contributing to this report were staff writer Daniel B. Wood from Long Beach, Calif., and contributors Elizabeth Armstrong Moore from Portland, Ore.; Carolyn Abate from San Francisco; and Andrew Averill from Boston.