Global Pedal Power


WE have California friends who value horses almost as much as people. And their motto seems to be: If you can get there on a mount, don't drive. Like virtually all Californians, they do use cars, but they also have an Ford Mustang license bearing the letters: ``IMAHORSE.'' The luxury of travel-by-trot has all but been lost in technological societies today, but the disenchantment with motorized transportation continues to grow with high gas prices, urban gridlock, and rising levels of air pollution.

What's a commuter to do? One solution is to garage the car and resort to pedal power. And that is just what is happening in many parts of the world. The bicycle revolution is on a roll.

In fact, points out Marcia Lowe, author of a new Worldwatch Institute paper, ``The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet,'' the global use of bicycles outnumbers cars by 2 to 1. Ms. Lowe explains that human-powered vehicles are the main source of livelihood for millions in the developing world and ``often their only way to reach jobs, schools, markets, and vital social services.''

``Sturdy two-and-three-wheelers are sometimes the only alternative to walking long distances with crushing burdens,'' she writes. ``Cycle rickshaws are the taxis of Asia, and heavy-duty tricycles, hauling up to half-ton loads, are its light trucks.''

The Worldwatch study points out that many nations actively encourage the use of bicycles over private autos and even mass transit.

China, for example, pays workers a monthly allowance for commuting by bike to relieve the pressure on overcrowded buses. Japan uses public funds to build bicycle parking at transit stations. Some of its rail stops have parking towers with automatic cranes that hoist thousands of bikes out of harm's way.

Even highly developed auto societies are learning respect for the bicycle. The Netherlands, for example, has developed long cycleways along with its roads and boasts a high percentage - up to 50 percent - of urban trips made by pedaling. And in the United States, where motor cars dominate transportation, ``bicycle-friendly'' towns are popping up. Davis, Calif., for instance, reports that 25 percent of local trips are made by bicycle. Another northern California community, Palo Alto, has penned building ordinances that provide bicycle parking.

What does all this prove? That we are wheeling down the road to a worldwide society of pedalers? Probably not, at least not in the industrialized world.

The Worldwatch report concedes that pedal power still has little political clout. In the US, in particular, cyclists are tolerated - even viewed as somewhat quaint - but their needs are seldom woven into public policy. The Department of Commerce still refers queries about bicycles to its Division of Toys and Games.

Cycling should be encouraged, Lowe says, not only by providing better cycling paths and bicycle parking at government expense - but by placing a heavier burden on car users, such as removing subsidized parking and revising tax structures to reflect road investments and pollution costs.

Many of us who grew up in megalopolises, and dodged cars playing in the streets, didn't learn to ride bicycles until we were adults or moved to the suburbs. We don't pretend we will put our cars up on the rack or even pledge ourselves to riding the rails.

We need a new ethic, perhaps one similar to that in the Netherlands where cyclists get the same respect as drivers. Perhaps when the roads get so cluttered that we can't move our cars or gasoline prices soar beyond our budgets, we'll be ready to pedal into a quieter, saner society.

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