Science Matters, By David Suzuki
A U.K. man recently built a bicycle entirely out of wood, with no plastic or metal parts. Everything, including the wheels, gears, and seat, are wood. Inventor Michael Thompson, who made the “SplinterBike” on a bet with a friend, says it can travel up to 50 kilometres an hour.
What’s amazing is that, almost 200 years after the first two-wheeler was made, people are still able to come up with innovative ideas for one of the simplest and most practical and efficient transportation devices ever invented. Even though I’m impressed by Thompson’s wooden bike, and by those with bamboo or wood frames, I’ll stick with my old metal-frame bike. I’m just happy that cycling is becoming more popular all the time, and that the city where I live, Vancouver, is making life easier for cyclists.
After all, riding a bike is good for your health and the environment. As the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition points out in its promotion of Bike to Work Week (May 30 – June 5 in several Canadian cities), cycling to work is enjoyable, helps you get and stay in shape, and burns off stress. And when you consider gridlock and traffic, it’s often as fast as or faster than driving. It’s also way more efficient than car travel. According to the WorldWatch Institute, a bicycle needs 35 calories per passenger mile, while a car uses 1,860.
Reducing your need to stop at the gas pump is both good for the environment and for your pocketbook, especially as gas prices continue to rise. Private automobiles create about 12 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and road transportation in general creates as much as one quarter. Riding a bike doesn’t create any emissions. And it’s not just gas that costs money. Buying, insuring, and maintaining a car, not to mention paying for parking, costs thousands of dollars a year.
Of course, cycling isn’t practical for everyone, and it’s not always possible to ride – although I’ve seen my share of die-hard cyclists even on rare Vancouver snow days. But with proper clothing and gear, many people can ride for most of the year in urban centres. And the money saved from not driving is often enough to pay for public transit or taxis on days when cycling isn’t possible.
Our cities will become more livable and our environment cleaner when more people get out of their cars and onto their bikes. But we still have a long way to go in Canada. Only about one per cent of trips are made by bike here (although Vancouver is higher, at about four per cent), whereas in many parts of Europe, the number is more than 30 per cent. In Amsterdam, 38 per cent of trips are made by bike, thanks to pro-cycling policies adopted since the 1970s.
Resistance to change is inevitable, and in Vancouver we’ve seen some backlash against the expanding network of bike lanes. Many people still believe we should be shelling out loads of money for pavement and parking lots so that individual people can propel themselves to work and shopping in a two-tonne emissions-spewing machine. Others have complained that, because the bike lanes were not immediately crammed with cyclists, they’re a waste of money and get in the way of cars and business. But as Amsterdam shows, investing in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure eventually pays off in many ways.
As more people take up cycling, it also becomes safer. Although, those who worry about the safety of cycling might be interested in a British Medical Association study that found the health risks of inactivity are 20 times greater than the risks from cycling.
For employers, the benefits of encouraging cycling are numerous. A Dutch study found that people who cycle to work take fewer sick days, and research has shown they are generally happier and less stressed. Cyclists can also avoid traffic jams and are not as likely to be late for work. And bike lock-ups cost far less than car-parking facilities.
Whether your bike has a state-of-the-art bamboo frame or is a clunky old off-roader, why not try riding it to work, and not just during Bike to Work week? You’ll be happy you did.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington.
Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.