The Un-American Activity

What gets the equivalent of 1,000 miles per gallon, doesn't pollute, will save the world, and transports you in breezy style? Your bike.

Jan 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
But let's be honest. we live in a car culture. Except for a few lucky places where public transport is efficient and convenient, it is difficult to live a full life in America without using a car. The automobile is here to stay. Prohibition didn't work for drinking and it would never work for driving. It's driving too much, just like drinking too much, that is the real issue.

There are more than 200 million cars in America. Cars and light trucks blow 16 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere—emissions that may exacerbate global warming. Automobile exhaust contributes to air pollution that degrades the health of tens of thousands of citizens; traffic accidents kill 40,000 Americans a year. Beyond the human costs, there's money. A hundred billion in taxes a year for highway maintenance and construction. Another hundred billion in tax dollars spent on the military budget defending the Middle East, source of 25 percent of our oil. And beyond the hidden costs of paved highways and parking lots and environmental problems, car ownership costs an average of $6,500 a year.

Don't get the wrong idea. Automobiles and their manufacturers are not evil. I own a car and drive it for longer trips, to get into the mountains, to travel cross-country. But I believe there should be a better balance between driving and bicycling. The bicycle will not replace the minivan for family vacations or the pickup for hauling firewood or the SUV for weekend road trips. On the other hand, the bicycle should be seen as an inspired means of transportation for short urban trips and should be the preferred method for commuting to work.

The bicycle is one of the most efficient machines ever devised. Converting calories to gasoline, a bicycle gets 1,000 miles to the gallon. If American workers biked to the job only two days a week, it would completely eliminate our dependence on Middle East oil. Twelve bicycles fit into the parking space needed for one car. In Holland, a country one-third the size of the state of New York, there are 10,000 miles of bike paths; in New York State, 250. In America, 1.67 percent of our citizens commute by bicycle. In Groningen, 50 percent commute by bicycle.

Why did all my neighbors in Holland ride their bikes? Why do they still do it? Not because the country is flat—it is, but it's also as windy as Wyoming. Not because the weather is good—it's not, it's rainy and cold. And not because the Dutch are poor—Holland is a prosperous country with the world's second-lowest poverty rate. The Dutch bicycle because the Dutch government built bicycle paths and bike lanes. Beginning after the Second World War, for every guilder that was spent on highways, a few pfennigs went to building bikeways. Between 1975 and 1985 alone, the Dutch government spent $230 million on bike paths and bike parking.

But if America, a country unashamedly in love with the automobile, invested more in bicycle facilities, would people really begin to bike?

In 1990 the New York City Department of Transportation conducted a survey in which office workers were asked whether they would bike to work if bike lanes, indoor bike parking, and shower facilities were provided. Of those living zero to five miles from work, 45 percent said they would ride. Of those living five to ten miles from work, 54 percent said they would bicycle. Of those living more than ten miles from work—a 20-mile round-trip commute—one in five still said they would ride their bikes. Even if half those people were lying, this study shows that many more Americans would bike if given bicycle-friendly conditions.

(I can hear the cynics saying it will never happen. But before antitobacco legislation, 54 percent of Americans smoked; today it's half that. And the National Parks Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act show that enlightened federal policy can dramatically shape values and behavior.)

So why isn't our government investing in bicycling? Actually, it is. And much of it is because of one man, a Democratic Congressman from Minnesota named James Oberstar.