Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Will Oil Prices and Pollution Lead to a Bicycle Renaissance?

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  July 27 / 08

Zack Gross

With the consumer price for gasoline up at least 25% over the past year in North America and Europe – and with continuing concern in the public mind about the environmental cost of our car culture – many people are embracing the bicycle as the “new” way to get around town, to shop, visit or go to work and school. 

However, in China, where millions of citizens are excited about the benefits of new-found wealth and industrial development, many are abandoning the bike, which they’ve ridden for generations, in favour of cars, trains and buses.

David Cameron, current Leader of the Britain’s Conservative Party, was an early champion of bicycling, taking a high-profile ride to the House of Commons every day, and convincing some of his colleagues to do the same.  His first journey to work as leader three years ago was actually broadcast in its entirety by hovering TV news helicopters. 

Cracks in his green armour emerged later, when it was revealed that a staff car followed him regularly, carrying his briefcase, lunch and walking shoes.  Investigative reporters also caught him going through red lights and cycling the wrong way up one-say streets!  Finally, a few days ago, he made the news again, when someone stole his bike while he was grocery shopping.

Cameron isn’t the only celebrity to take up the bicycle.  Historically, Queen Elizabeth I cycled to her castle to work.  The bike, says BBC News Magazine writer Clive James, was completely covered up by her crinoline, so that her adoring public thought that she skimmed along the ground at remarkable speeds using unearthly powers. 

Louis XIV of France used a bike to get from one romantic liaison to another as quickly as possible (so as not to inconvenience the ladies involved, he argued). 

Napoleon refused to ride a bike to the Battle of Waterloo.  He opted for a fancy but slow coach.  The Duke of Wellington, who defeated him there, showed up early on a lightweight bike and therefore took the best military position.

In today’s world, Asia has always been the largest market for two-wheelers.  The boom continues in motorcycle and bicycle sales as consumers face not only economic and environmental concerns, but also growing traffic snarls and a desire to keep fit. 

In 2006, 33 million motorcycles of various sizes were sold in Asia, while Latin American, North American and European sales each hovered in the two million range.   Says Singapore’s Trade Minister Lee Yi Shyan, as Asians become middle class by global standards, they often aspire to owning cars but ultimately choose expensive motorcycles or bicycles as a cheaper alternative in both initial cost  and in operation and maintenance.  Sales of motorbikes made by Malaysia’s Demak Corporation have risen 40% over the past three years.

In the U.S., mileage traveled has been reduced significantly since gas prices began to rise.  Comparing March 2007 to March 2008, Americans drove eleven billion fewer vehicle miles, a drop of 4.3%.  This was the sharpest yearly drop in 66 years and the first time in 30 years that there was a drop in March driving.  The good environmental news is that the U.S. Department of Transportation therefore estimated that greenhouse gas emissions fell by nine million metric tons for the first quarter of 2008. 

U.S. National Bike to Work Day in May, however, showed that Americans aren’t quite ready to adopt the bicycle as their means of transport.  In surveys, they say that they have just  too far to go and too much to carry to use a bike.  Some fear the dangers of traffic-choked streets while others won’t let their kids use bikes due to a fear of crime.  An aging and unfit American population is also less able to get around by bike.

Bicycle use in America is actually at its lowest ebb in 25 years.  Only about 10% of the population uses a bike at least six times per year.  Environmentalists hope that if more people won’t opt for a bike, maybe they will at least use public transportation more.

A poll recently done by CTV shows that Canadian gasoline consumption is down.  While prices in May went up 8.8% from April, sales increased by only 2.4%, meaning that litres sold dropped.  While prices generally are up for consumer goods in Canada, from food to clothing to beverages, no other sector had such a drop in sales as gasoline did.  Many cities are looking for ways to make independence from car culture more attractive – building bike paths, sponsoring commuter challenges, and offering deals on public transit.  For instance, Brandon is offering all post-secondary students free bus rides all of September in an attempt to encourage ridership year round.

Change on a massive scale is often driven by economics.  Fewer miles traveled by car, plane and other gas-guzzling forms of transportation will save people money, help save our environment and possibly make people more fit.  At the same time, we must keep in mind that the closing of automobile plants, the canceling of flights and other measures are also costing people jobs.  It may be naïve to hope that green industries will be able to hire back the labour that is currently suffering as our lifestyle literally shifts gears. 

There are still great challenges ahead to make our global society economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.


Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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