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US Cities Encourage Bicycles as Alternative Transportation - 2003-01-03


It is another Monday morning in Washington D.C., and after some weekend relaxation, most people are back on the road trying to get to work, often stuck in traffic. But for Rick Seifert, his morning commute is like going to a picnic. Rick is not driving, but instead biking his way to his office in Washington.

Mr. Seifert is not alone. He is only one of many who have discovered a way to go places without further clogging traffic-choked streets. With roads jammed and pollution at unhealthy levels, Washington area local governments are encouraging commuters to bicycle more than at any time since the 1970s.

James Sebastian heads the bicycle program in the nation's capital. He believes this is the right time to revive the idea.

"For one thing, in Washington D.C., we have strong political support from the city government, both the mayor and transportation director are cyclists and want to increase bicycling and walking and public transportation in the city. The D.C. area is experiencing unprecedented congestion and air pollution and anything we can do to help people to leave their cars at home, will help," he says. "And finally, the neighboring cities and counties in the Washington area are also increasing their efforts to make their jurisdictions more bicycle friendly. So it is a good time for all of us to work together to make the region better for cycling."

Mr. Sebastian lives eight kilometers from work, and commutes by bike three days a week. As one of the area transportation officials, his goal is to help create a nationwide network of bike trails or specially designated lanes for cyclists. As an additional incentive, Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. have recently spent more than a million and a half dollars in federal funds to install bicycle racks on every bus in the area.

However, if more people bicycle, there will be increasing demands to share the road. Some of the new bike lanes designated on streets might mean there's less room for cars. As a result, a clash has escalated between Washington's car culture and two-wheeled commuters who believe they deserve more of the road.

But, Mr. Sebastian adds that Washington D.C. hopes to please both types of commuters. "We believe we can improve conditions for cycling without reducing the capacity for cars very much," he says. "And there are streets around the city that are great for cycling that do not have high-speed traffic."

Lon Anderson is the director of public and government relations for Mid-Atlantic AAA¸ an automobile club. He doesn't think bikes can offer any major relief from traffic congestion. "In the Washington metropolitan area, I think biking can help around the edges, around the margins," he says. "But frankly I do not think it is a real solution for the Washington Metropolitan area. We have the third worst congestion in the United States. And frankly we have a lot of hills and we have a lot of bad weather, whether it is cold weather or hot weather.

"And there are periods of the year when we have a lot of rain. It is certainly possible that we can get thousands of more folks to switch from their cars to their bicycles for some days a week, but even that is not going to have much impact on our traffic here. It is interesting that a colleague of mine noted that at a time when tens of thousands of Chinese are switching from bicycles to cars, it is probably unrealistic to think that we are going to have tens of thousands of Washingtonians switching from cars to bikes."

Both Lon Anderson and James Sebastian agree that the solution to modern city traffic congestion could be a combination of many alternatives, including not just bicycling, but more mass transit, expanding road capacity in some places, more carpooling and telecommuting.

To make the bicycle a more popular alternative, Bill Wilkinson, the executive director of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, suggests two things must be done. One is to continue to improve streets; bridges and highways to better accommodate bicycles. The other is to encourage people to change their commuting habits.

Mr. Wilkinson also recommends teaching young kids biking-related skills and safety tips. "Bicycling has always been part of the child's independence and freedom. It is something that would take them to where they wanted to go," he says. "And a lot of parents these days are not comfortable with allowing their children that kind of freedom. And, from the standpoint of a bicycle advocate or someone who is looking at long-term transportation trends, they [the children] are growing up perhaps without the knowledge and skills of riding a bicycle. And it is going to be a lot harder to get them to choose to bicycle as adults, if they've never learned to ride."

As roads become more congested and parking becomes less available, bicycle advocates in the Washington area hope that more people will choose and consider the healthy alternative of riding their bicycles.

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