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You can help break cycle of relying on vehicles

Harrisburg Sunday Patriot News
Sunday, May 7, 2006

By Thomas Hylton

Republican Lynn Swann isn’t making many promises about what he’d do if elected governor, but one tradition he’s likely to revive is Pennsylvania’s Keystone Ride.  Each fall during their terms, former governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker led enthusiasts of all ages on a two-day bicycle trip across various regions of the Commonwealth to promote travel and tourism.

It’s easy to picture the athletic Swann in bright cycling togs, effortlessly leading a horde of fitness buffs over the Laurel Highlands or past the carefully tended farm fields of Lancaster County.  Swann might even take his first spin prior to the November election, just to show off his vigor in contrast to the sedentary incumbent.

But Gov. Rendell need not despair.  Although most Pennsylvanians think of bicycling as primarily a sport, it can – and should be – a lot more than that.  For short trips, bicycles are a superior means of basic transportation -- cheap, healthy, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly.  Gov. Rendell can promote everyday cycling and doesn’t need a personal training regime to do it.

Bicycles are easy to use.  They can move three times faster than walkers, and thanks to saddlebags, they can carry a respectable amount of cargo.  One quarter of all daily trips in America cover less than a mile. On a bicycle, such a trip takes five to eight minutes, max. In metropolitan areas throughout western Europe, anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of all trips are made by riding a bicycle. That’s an enormous amount of energy saved and traffic congestion prevented. Using bicycles instead of cars for those trips reduces the need for expansive (and expensive) highways and parking lots. 

I bought my first bicycle at age 45, inspired by a former mayor of Toronto, John Sewell. As part of a fellowship on land use planning, I interviewed Sewell in a downtown Toronto restaurant in 1993. Afterward, I was surprised to see Sewell unhitch a battered bicycle from one of city’s ubiquitous bike stands, toss his briefcase in its saddlebag, and pedal off (in a specially marked bike lane) to his next appointment.

Twelve years of everyday cycling in my home town of Pottstown, a borough of five square miles, have me convinced of its numerous merits. Few destinations take more than 10 minutes to reach, parking is never a problem, and daily exercise has become engrained in my life.  Moreover, I enjoy my town at a much closer and personal level than I ever did by car – really seeing people, buildings, and yards that, from behind a windshield, are just a blur.

Anyone who has visited the Netherlands knows just how much bicycles can add to the quality of people’s lives. Nearly a third of all trips there are made by bicycle. Dedicated bicycle lanes adjoin virtually every street, and many paths lead places cars cannot go. Cycling is routine for folks for all ages: Children, young people (even on dates!), men in business suits, carefully coiffed women, the elderly. This widespread use of bicycles means Dutch cities and towns are not checker boarded with surface parking lots. It means they are quiet. It means the streets are alive with people (not cars), integrating the old and young to a degree seldom seen in this country. 

The Dutch maintain a strict separation between towns and countryside, and compact development allows everyone to enjoy the great outdoors. In Amsterdam, the largest Dutch city, you can safely ride a bicycle from the heart of the downtown to open countryside in 25 minutes. Residents of smaller cities and towns are five to 10 minutes from green pastures. Thanks to separated bike lanes and the occasional motorized scooter, even the elderly can get to the beach without assistance, or pedal through the countryside.  Back here in Pennsylvania, it’s not so easy to get around. Traffic congestion is increasing throughout central Pennsylvania.  All those slow-moving cars raise noise levels and air pollution. Short trips take longer and longer. And because we’re sitting so much, two-thirds of us are overweight.

In recent years, PennDOT has formally recognized that bicycles have a serious role to play in transportation.  In fact, PennDOT has adopted a statewide bicycle and pedestrian master plan with these impressive goals:

  • Half of all trips in city downtowns will be by foot or bicycle.
  • Twenty percent of all commuting trips in small cities will be by foot or bicycle.
  • Twenty percent of all non-work trips of less than three miles in suburban areas will be by foot or bicycle.

But PennDOT’s plan didn’t give itself (or us) a deadline. Without a firm commitment (and timetable) to redesign our streets and roads to accommodate bicycles, the goals will never be achieved. The fact is that trying to ride to the office or the store in most of Pennsylvania is downright dangerous. So in spite of the Commonwealth’s great record for creating recreational biking trails, everyday bike use is unlikely to increase. 

Even if Gov. Rendell can’t ride for two hours, much less two days, he can still highlight practical bicycling. His daily commute is perfect. The executive mansion is 1.5 miles from the capitol building –– less than 10 minutes’ pedaling. Why, he won’t even break a sweat. But he’ll set a great example for all Pennsylvanians.



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