Viva bikes!

2009-04-09 00:00

With international mountain bikers flooding into the city this week, as well as the economic and environmental crises dominating most conversations, it seems a particularly apt moment to give very serious attention to the humble bicycle, probably the most efficient and environmentally-friendly form of transportation ever invented.

Pietermaritzburg appears to have discovered the economic value of hosting cycling events, but has largely ignored the possibility of championing the cycle as a form of daily transport, or as a weekend sport for the thousands of owners of beautiful racing and mountain bikes — people, young and more elderly, who enjoy being able to take a ride around the suburbs or further afield on a pleasant morning.

Many cities worldwide are recognising the wisdom of promoting bikes as an inexpensive, efficient and healthy alternative mode of traversing inner-city areas; one that creates no carbon emissions and improves the sustainability of city life.

A recent visit to Paris revealed the enthusiastic use of bikes even among the speeding boulevards of motorised traffic, and the Freedom Bikes system has created hundreds of bike stations for hiring bikes by placing a coin in a slot. Apparently this has increased cycling by 50%, estimated to have reduced carbon emissions by nine percent. Bike lanes are being constructed to ensure safer cycling and squares are being enlarged to encourage community life for the meeting of cyclists. Even London has its hordes of cyclists weaving through the gridlocked traffic.

The New Internationalist cites France, Germany, Denmark, China, and some central African countries, as promoting and facilitating the use of bikes. The average daily journey of motorcar commuting in the average city is estimated at well under 10 kilometres, making the use of bikes the obvious way to reduce carbon emissions. With estimates that car emissions kill up to 10 000 people in France every year, as well as causing numerous respiratory ailments, it is in the interests of overall health, as well as sound economics, to develop sustainable cities that highlight and promote the health of the environment. Dr David McKeown, medical officer of health in Toronto, claims that 440 premature deaths yearly in that city are attributable to car emissions, and that a 30% reduction in vehicle emissions would save nearly 200 lives a year.

In addition to these considerations, the continued construction of mega highways destroys millions of hectares of farmland every year, polluting the countryside and increasing urban sprawl. Cars tend to push communities apart, whereas bikes are more likely to pull them together. The New Internationalist estimates that one car takes the road space of four to eight bicycles and requires 20 times as much space to park.

The affordability of bikes is significant in developing countries, something that has been promoted in Lima and Bogota, South American countries where micro-credit loan programmes encourage workers to buy and use bikes rather than public transport, and where bike paths have been enormously extended. Bogota bans cars from certain city roads on Sundays, creating a popular space for bikers, inline skaters and walkers. Some cities have dedicated shared lanes for buses and cycles, and in rural areas, as well as crowded cities, bike ambulances have proved to be cheap and efficient ways of getting people to hospitals and clinics.

New Internationalist also reports on a project developed by the Earth Institute at Columbia University where a bike constructed from bamboo has been designed which is strong, inexpensive, easy to build and is being promoted in various parts of Africa. It is hoped that investors will sponsor bamboo-bike building projects, possibly setting up a workshop where potential cyclists can share tools and be taught to build their own bikes, and encourage others to adopt the idea of two-wheeled power.

And Pietermaritzburg’s own E-bikes entrepreneur, homeopath Rouen Bruni, is promoting the electrically assisted bike for those with rather less pedal-push and rather more cash.

What our city now needs is passionate, imaginative individuals to take up the challenge of designing and building a network of bike paths connecting various key areas of the city, as well as safe lock-ups for bikes, to convert Pietermartizburg into a bike-friendly city and help the bicycle “to claim its rightful place as a healthy and sustainable alternative that creates liveable cities and does its part to fight climate change” (New Internationalist, November 2008 p.25).

• For more cycling stories see page 15.

• Dr Alleyn Diesel is an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, specialising in Hinduism in the province.


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