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US Urban Cycling 'Here to Stay'

“The cat is out of the bag!” says Greg Billing from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) when asked if urban cycling is in the U.S. to stay.

Billing is part of a group of two-wheel enthusiasts who are working towards smoothing the path for a new American mode of transportation - the bicycle.

Cities such as Washington, Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle and New York are experiencing this change, mainly among 20 and 30-year-olds. “They now own fewer cars and drive fewer miles than their parents’ and their grandparents’ generations at the same age,” says Ralph Buehler, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, and the author of a book about urban biking.

Money matters

For Marissa Smith, a recent college graduate working in Washington, biking is one of the cheapest and most equitable modes of transportation. "Almost anyone can afford a bike,” she said.

And as Greg Billing points out, “The money that people have in their wallets today is a lot different than what people had thirty or fifty years ago."

"There is less spending money; people are looking into ways to stay in the city,” he adds.

The fashion industry has not been left behind by this new trend. The wave of bike commuters has inspired a high-end clothing market that aims to combine safety with style. Sarah Canner, owner of Vespertine, a New York-based boutique specialized in clothing for city riders, said in a VOA interview that she studies how people allocate their money.

“You might spend $60 to fill your gas tank but you might say, ‘Ohh, 60 dollars is too much for a safety vest,’ she said. "But a safety vest can save your life and you can wear it for many years, while gas would only last for a week or two."

The challenge

However, the bike does not have it easy. For decades, the automobile has been the symbol of freedom, the icon of the American Way, progress and industrialization. After World War II, the auto assembly line drove America out of the post-war recession and helped establish the middle class.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were fewer than 8,000 cars in the United States. Today, there are more than 192 million light duty vehicles registered, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

'Cool' mobility

Today the car is "losing its status symbol, and it’s becoming a mobility tool,” says Professor Buehler. The bike is no longer something you use in the park or ride for a workout, but is “something that gets you from A to B.”

A few years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau started asking Americans how they get to work, and since 2000 the number of bike commuters has doubled.

For many, pedaling to work is the only opportunity to connect with their local environment.

“People like the idea that they are supporting jobs in their community. So if it’s produced locally, that means that somebody is making it locally and they are being paid locally and the money goes back to the community and enriches the community,” said Sarah Canner.

Judging from the numbers, the new “cool” in the U.S. could be transitioning from fast, oil-powered and global-oriented transport to healthy, self-powered, locally-oriented transport.

But Professor Buehler says it's too early to tell whether the trend toward bicycling will last as the current bike generation gets older. “We don’t know what happens when they get to 35-40 years-old-will they then adapt to the lifestyle of their parents? Or will they remain different? Only the future can tell.”