EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Redesigning Cities for People: Urban Rail and Bicycle Systems

Urban transport systems based on a combination of rail, bicycles, and pedestrian walkways offer the best of all possible worlds in providing low-cost transportation and a healthy urban environment. Large cities invariably need rail systems to provide adequate mobility. Whether cities develop underground rail systems, light-rail surface systems, or both depends in part on size. Megacities almost certainly need underground rail systems to move a large volume of passengers in a timely fashion. For cities of intermediate size, light rail might provide a better base for efficient transport.

A rail system provides the foundation on which a city's transportation system can be developed. Trains are a fixed service, providing a permanent means of transportation that people can count on in a location-specific manner. Once in place, the nodes on such a system become the obvious places to concentrate office buildings, high-rise apartment buildings, factories, and shops.

The bicycle, a form of personal transportation, provides the versatility to complement the rail system. The bicycle's attractions are many. It alleviates congestion, lowers pollution, reduces obesity, increases physical fitness, does not emit climate-disrupting carbon dioxide, and is affordable for billions of people who cannot buy an automobile.

The bicycle can increase mobility while reducing congestion and the amount of land paved over. Six bicycles can typically fit into the road space used by one car. For parking, the advantage is even greater, with 20 bicycles occupying the space required to park one car.37

Few characteristics of car-centered cities are more annoying than persistent pollution, which affects both those who use the cars and those who do not. The bicycle is an ideal antidote to pollution, especially for short trips. Automobile engines burn least efficiently when they are first started. Once they are warmed up, they burn fuel more cleanly, but by that time short trips are over. Although global public attention focuses on the 885,000 auto-related fatalities each year, this figure is overshadowed by the estimated 3 million urban lives lost annually to air pollution.38

The bicycle is not only a flexible means of transportation, it is an ideal way of restoring a balance between caloric intake and expenditure. Exercise has value in its own right. Regular exercise of the sort provided by cycling to work reduces cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and arthritis and strengthens the immune system. Millions of people pay a monthly fee to use a fitness center (which they often drive to), where they ride stationary bikes, trying to achieve the same benefits.

Few methods of reducing carbon emissions are as effective as substituting the bicycle for the automobile on short trips. A bicycle, which typically weighs 13 kilograms (28 pounds), is from an engineering point of view a marvel of efficiency. An automobile, which requires 1-2 tons of material to transport often only one person, is extraordinarily inefficient in comparison. In addition to providing mobility and helping the rider to be physically fit, the bicycle also helps stabilize climate whenever it substitutes for a car.

The capacity of the bicycle to provide mobility for low-income populations has been dramatically demonstrated in China. In 1976, China was producing 6 million bicycles a year. After the reforms in 1978 that led to rapid economic growth, rising incomes, and a market economy in which people could exercise their preferences, annual bicycle production started climbing, eventually soaring over 40 million in 1988. After the market was largely saturated, production dropped somewhat and has remained between 20 million and 40 million a year since then. This vast surge to 540 million bicycle owners in China after the economic reforms in 1978 provided the greatest increase in human mobility in history. Bicycles took over city streets and rural roads.39

Cities in many parts of the world are turning back to bicycles for numerous uses. In the United States, more than 80 percent of police departments serving populations of 50,000 to 249,999 and 96 percent of those serving over 250,000 residents now have routine patrols by bicycle. Officers on bikes are more productive in cities partly because they are more mobile and can reach the scene of an accident or crime quicker. They typically make 50 percent more arrests per day than officers in squad cars. For fiscally sensitive officials, the cost of operating a bicycle is trivial compared with a car. Higher productivity at lower cost is a winning formula in the minds of many city managers. Better community relations for officers on bikes provides an additional bonus.40

Urban bicycle messenger services are common in the world's larger cities. Bicycles can usually deliver small parcels in cities much more quickly and efficiently than motor vehicles can and at a much lower cost. As the information economy unfolds and as e-commerce expands, the need for quick, reliable, urban delivery services is escalating. For many competitive Internet marketing firms, quick delivery wins customers. In a city like New York, this creates an enormous potential for the use of bicycle messengers. As of 2000, an estimated 300 bicycle messenger firms were operating in New York City, competing for $700 million worth of business each year. In large cities, the bicycle is becoming an integral part of the support system for e-commerce.41

The key to realizing the potential of the bicycle is to create a bicycle-friendly transport system. This means providing both bicycle trails and designated lanes on streets for bicycles. These should be designed to serve both commuters and people biking for recreation. In addition, bicycle use is enhanced by the provision of parking facilities and showers at workplaces. Among the industrial-country leaders in designing bicycle-friendly transport systems are the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans.42

The Netherlands, the unquestioned leader among industrial countries, has incorporated a vision of the role of bicycles into a Bicycle Master Plan. In addition to creating bicycle lanes and trails in all its cities, the system also gives cyclists the advantage over motorists in right-of-ways and at traffic lights. Traffic signals permit cyclists to move out before cars.43

Roughly 30 percent of all urban trips in the Netherlands are on bicycle. This compares with 1 percent in the United States. Both the Netherlands and Japan have made a concerted effort to integrate bicycles and rail commuter services by providing for bicycle parking at each rail station, making it easier for cyclists to commute to the station. In Japan, the use of bicycles for commuting to rail transportation has reached the point where some stations invested in vertical parking garages for bicycles, much as is often done for automobiles.44

Spain, one of the latest countries to climb on the bicycle bandwagon, had opened 80 newly constructed bicycle trails by the end of 2000. It now has some 965 kilometers (about 600 miles) with new surface and signposts. Another 640 kilometers have been designated and can be used, but have not yet been surfaced.45

The combination of rail and bicycle, and particularly their integration into a single, overall transport system, makes cities eminently more livable than those centered around car transport systems. Noise, pollution, congestion, and frustration are all lessened. Both the people and the environment are healthier.

  Previous Table of Contents Next

37. Sheehan, op. cit. note 2, p. 45.

38. Ibid., p. 44.

39. China's bicycle production compiled from United Nations, The Growth of World Industry: 1969 Edition, vol. 1 (New York: 1970), Yearbook of Industrial Statistics, various years, and Industrial Commodity Statistics Yearbook (New York: various years); "World Market Report," Interbike Directory (Laguna Beach, CA: Miller-Freeman, various years); Edward A. Gragan, "Booming China Has Fewer Bikes on Road Ahead," Seattle Times, 4 October 2000.

40. Number of police forces in Matthew Hickman and Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments 1999 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2001); arrest rate from a conversation with a member of the Washington, DC, police force.

41. Glenn Collins, "Old Form of Delivery Thrives in New World of E-Commerce," New York Times, 24 December 1999.

42. Sheehan, op. cit. note 2, pp. 47-48.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.; Japan from personal observation.

45. Jonathan Theobald, "The Lanes in Spain Run Mainly on the Plain," Environmental News Network, 6 November 2000.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute