"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race." ~H.G. Wells
JANUARY 17, 2050 (San Diego) -- Four decades ago, in 2010, the San Diego Association of Governments introduced the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, California's first RTP to reach the board of directors approval stage while trying to comply with state-mandated pollution reduction goals. It included $2.58 billion to create a system of expanded and interconnected bike paths to serve commuter and recreational cyclists.
Considering that the United States accounts for half of the total global emission of automobile carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas, the move towards human-powered transport has been a necessary one.
" The bicycle is a curious vehicle," Australian prime minister John Howard once said. " Its passenger is its engine." That curiosity is precisely what makes it healthy not only for the planet, but also for the rider. According to the American Heart Association, one pound equals 3,500 calories, and countless of them have been successfully burned off through bike riding (which many kinesiologists will agree is easier on your joints than running or speed-walking).
Also in 2010, Bicycling.com released "America's Best Bike Cities," a list of the 50 most two-wheel-friendly cities in the nation. The top 10 in descending order were Chicago, Tucson, New York, Madison, San Francisco, Eugene (Oregon), Seattle, Boulder, Portland (Oregon) and Minneapolis.
"In cities the number of street lanes dedicated to public vehicles and bicycles would increase and more people would choose to walk or ride a bike to work," predicted the 2005 report "Energy to 2050: Scenarios for a Sustainable Future" by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. "In many cities the trend towards increased urban sprawl would start to be reversed, and city planning would encourage more compact city development patterns."
Indeed, over the past four decades, the growth of urban sprawl has slowed down to a crawl as people have accumulated in cities. Some suburbs have emptied out. San Diego's population has doubled in the past four decades, to 2.6 million. California's population is approaching 60 million, adding nearly 23 million people in the last 50 years. The majority of them are in the mega-cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco. And a lot of them are riding bikes.
In addition to the rise of bike riding, public transportation has become central to urban life. Some mega-cities like New York have banned automobiles altogether. "The car system's resource appropriation is a black hole," according to BanTheCar.com. "It consumes an enormous amount of energy, labour and material in space monopolisation, collision remediation, the doughnut effect [and] inflated infrastructure costs."
High-end, super-efficient bicycles have eclipsed automobiles (even hybrid ones) as the latest status symbols. Apartments have remained relatively small in cities, while new houses continue to be downsized in the name of efficiency and carbon footprint reduction. In these compact spaces, bicycles make sense.
"As recently as 1965, world production of cars and bikes was essentially the same, with each at nearly 20 million, but as of 2003 bike production had climbed to over 100 million per year compared with 42 million cars," according to the statistics website Worldometers.
Many cities have adopted public transit systems for urban cyclists, such as the one introduced at the beginning of the century by the Colorado-based firm Bicycle Transit Systems (BTS), which features an enclosed airflow enhanced system to make cycling 90% more efficient than riding outdoors. In 2010, Transport for London (TFL) announced a 70% increase in bike ridership over the same period during the previous year thanks to the city's "Cycle Superhighways." That translates to less carbon dioxide emissions -- and better health for cycling Londoners.
But the rise of bicycles is not just a Western world trend. In Africa, sustainable and inexpensive bamboo bikes are now available across the continent. And four of the top five producers of bicycles are Asian -- China, India, Taiwan and Japan. Along with the European Union, these nations constitute 87% of global production, according to Worldometers, which also notes that in 2004, China alone had around 58% of the world market. It is nearly impossible to calculate, but there are billions of bicycles in the world. And it is probably safe to say that around half of them are in China.
"The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man," wrote British author Iris Murdoch in her 1965 novel The Red and the Green . "Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart."
Today, this pure-hearted, two-wheeled, human-powered vehicle is helping the Earth -- and Earthlings -- breathe an unpolluted sigh of relief.
[Part of the series " Reports from 2050 ."]