Bicycle becomes big wheel once again

"The wheel is come full circle," wrote Shakespeare in "King Lear." The bard did not have the bicycle in mind when he penned this verse, but, in a roundabout way, it applies.

From aristocrat's toy, to mass transportation, to child's plaything: The bicycle's place in Western society has gone through one full circle already. Now it appears on the verge of another major swing. The rising cost of gasoline , environmental concern, and a desire for exercise are driving an increasing number of Americans out of the driver's seat of their automobiles and onto the narrow saddle of a modern 10-speed.

Since 1972, bicycles have been outselling automobiles in the United States. There are currently an estimated 90 million bicycles in the nation. What began eight years ago as a popular fad now shows signs of becoming a major change in lifestyle. "Bicycles," begins an article on this subject in the May issue of Quest magazine, "like wood stoves, solar panels, and save-the-whale stickers, are loadstones of new directions, barometers of social pressure."

In a recent study by World Watch Institute on the future of the automobile, the researchers concluded, "As governments begin to focus on energy-conserving yet convenient alternatives to the automobile, the bicycle must be placed near the head of the list.Requiring no petroleum-based fuel, and nearly as fast as the car for short urban trips, the bicycle's attraction is obvious."

This appears to be happening. Percolating through the bureaucratic channels of the US Department of Transportation (DOT) are the outlines of a program to promote bicycle use in the United States. The DOT may require cities borrowing federal money for mass transit systems to provide facilities for bicycles. And there is an internal debate going on over whether federal money should be specifically earmarked for construction of bikeways.

At the same time, from sunny Davis, Calif., to the gray, stone canyons of Gotham City, community leaders are taking the bicycle more seriously -- establishing bike lanes and bike paths, setting bicycle education programs for the cyclist and driver alike.

Katie Moran of the Mountain Bicycle Association here has conducted a number of studies on bicycle usage and potential energy savings for the DOT. "We found that about 14 million Americans ride daily. Of these, about 470,000 are commuters," Miss Moran says. These regular pedalers save the US about 360 million gallons of gasoline a year. "With a serious effort the number of bicycle commuters could be increased by 1 million to 2 million by 1985 with a resulting energy savings of 670 to 1,000 million gallons per year," she adds.

Of course, the ultimate potential for the bicycle is far greater. If three-quarters of the owners of those 90 million bicycles used them to commute to work only half the time, the resulting savings would be roughly 71 million gallons of gas a day, more than 75 percent of the gasoline the US imported in 1979.

"The greatest obstacle to increased bicycle use is the lack of confidence on the part of the individual and lack of information on the part of institutions," Miss Moran says. A somewhat startling statistic indicates cyclists' lack of knowledge: Bicycle manufacturers estimate that as many as 80 percent of the 10 -speed bicycles in the US have never been shifted.

A related problem is lack of knowledge on the part of motorists. Many cyclists report frequent examples of hostility on the part of motorists. Much of this has to do with the fact that the motorists are not familiar with bicycles and are afraid they may hurt the cyclists. This fear can be transformed into hostility in an unexpected encounter. Also contributing to a strained relationship are the liberties some bicyclers take with traffic laws, particularly running red lights, Miss Moran says.

Safety is a major issue concerning bicycles. "No matter how much energy it conserves, no matter how much pollution it eliminates, people are not going to ride bicycles if they think they are not safe," points out Thomas O'Hara, director of the Mountain Bicycle Association.

While this is a real problem, it has been exaggerated to a certain extent. The Consumer Product Safety Commission more than a year ago rated the bicycle as the most hazardous product in the US. "But in coming to this conclusion they weighed accidents to children much heavier than those to adults," Miss Moran says. As a result, the rating does not speak directly to the risks which an adult bicycler takes.

Statistically, bicycling is much more dangerous for children than for adults. As a result, Miss Moran says she believes states soon will begin licensing bicycle riders. Children below a certain age will be required to take a competency test before they will be allowed to ride.

Last year, 900 US cyclists were killed. This translates into a significantly higher fatality rate per mile traveled than that for automobiles. However, studies have shown that 70 to 80 percent of these accidents either were caused by negligence on the part of the cyclist or, if the cyclist had been alert or experienced, could have been avoided.

"As a result, we are focusing on education," Mr. O'Hara explains. The organization recently received $219,000 from the Gates Corporation, whose president is an avid cyclist, to put together an educational program on bicycling. The presentations will be tailored to elementary school, high school , college, and adult levels. Besides safety and rider skills, the program will cover how to purchase the right bicycle, the correct clothing to wear, and repair and maintenance.

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