WHETHER it's for carrying baskets full of grain from field to village or just for getting to a commuter bus stop, the bicycle has sharply increased as the leading means of personal transportation worldwide in the past 20 years, a new Worldwatch Institute report says.
The environmental group's Vital Signs Brief No. 6 - part of a series of trend reports - is a sort of roundup of the state of the bike.
As worldwide automobile production has remained roughly level since the 1970s at between 30 million and 35 million units a year, bicycle production has accelerated more than 100 percent in the same period to 100 million produced annually, data gathered by Worldwatch show.
"It may stretch credulity that we seriously compare [autos and bikes] and say there's increased bicycle production," says Ed Ayres, Worldwatch senior editor, "but we consider them in the same league [because] the overwhelming majority of bicycles are used for carrying grain from fields to villages and to get to work."
The trend suggests a significant shift away from the prevailing post-World War II assumption that as the world industrialized and affluence spread, so would the American ideal of a car in every garage, says the report.
While the dream of owning a car may exist all over the world, realities such as the oil-price shocks of the 1970s, growing air pollution from cars, and the high costs of buying and maintaining cars have limited that dream, says Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch.
"The future isn't going to be a Super Bowl contest between cars and bikes," says Mr. Ayers, but the widespread use of bicycles as a business alternative in congested urban areas is already a reality.
For example, messenger service by bike is frequently the quickest reliable in-town delivery method. Domino's Pizza has begun using bicycle fleets. So have urban police departments, who have found that pedaling can be an easier way to chase fugitives than using cars, he says.
Worldwatch expects the trend - which now puts bicycle ownership at 800 million worldwide, compared with auto ownership of 460 million - to continue. That growing popularity calls for more recognition of biker needs - such as improved, more extensive bike paths, the report says.