In terms of consumer trends, it’s one of the most environmental shifts to happen in the marketplace. This pandemic-fueled boom for a product that has been around for 200 years could help shift communities toward a better future.
What is this amazing product? It’s the bicycle — the most efficient and environmental form of transportation the world has ever known.
When the pandemic struck in early 2020, people stuck at home looking for fun activities proceeded to empty the racks at local bike shops. There is great hope that the interest in cycling will last and that people will keep riding their new bikes. But there is also concern that they won’t, as so many Americans live in places that are not inherently friendly to bicycles. Seaside is distinctly not one of those places, as it is specifically designed to favor travel by bicycle and on foot.
That deliberate choice by town founder Robert Davis was in part a recognition of the efficiency of the bicycle. In terms of forward movement, a typical car with one passenger uses 50-80 times more energy to travel the same distance as an average person on a bicycle. Right now, most automobiles are powered by petroleum, with each gallon of gasoline weighing over six pounds, and when burned, all of it is released to pollute our air and water and accelerate climate change. For most Americans, our daily use of the automobile is thousands of times more damaging to the planet than the little things we often fret about, from product packaging to takeout containers.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s about the use of space — land — our most valuable physical resource. It’s been calculated that between 10 and 20 bicycles can fit in the space reserved for one car, with that upper range possible with stacked parking systems. We can see this at work on a busy day in Seaside, with dozens of bicycles parked in a space that can only accommodate a few cars.
We’re in the midst of a transition away from fossil fuels and on to a world powered by clean energy from the wind and sun. Cars are going electric as part of that transition, but many of the familiar problems that cars create remain: Places built around automobiles are not very pleasant places to be.
Take a look at listings of the most and least bike-friendly cities in America, and an interesting pattern emerges. The most bike-friendly cities are those we hear touted by friends as great places to visit.
There are big cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. on the list, along with medium-sized cities like Boulder, Colo., and a number of popular vacation towns such as Provincetown, Mass., and Traverse City, Mich. In all of these places much of the built environment delivers the things that most humans favor. It’s street trees, bike paths and human-scale neighborhoods with buildings aligned in ways that nurture great public spaces for people. There are still cars around, but they are slowed down and relegated to the side, to the periphery, rather than being a dominating force. Does that sound a lot like our favorite little Florida Panhandle beach town?
On the least bike-friendly cities list are lots of places that we don’t hear our friends recommend, nor do we read much about in travel magazines. It’s Houston, Phoenix, Bakersfield, Calif., and many others where cars rule, and the built environment favors parking lots, and fast and wide roadways that make them miserable places for bicycling and walking.
Interestingly, what makes them such terrible places to ride a bicycle also makes them places that people generally do not find attractive or enjoyable. All of this is a big part of why we never hear anybody say, “You’ve got to visit Houston!”
Seaside is, of course, in that former category of places built largely around people. In these places, humans have shown that they can make a perfectly rational choice to set aside the personal auto.
If it’s more pleasant to ride a bicycle than to drive, that’s what we do. This allows us to take spaces once devoted to the automobile and reimagine them. That can mean new park spaces, outdoor seating for restaurants, bicycle parking, better streets for walking and bicycling and so much more.
In this age of climate change, the efficiency of bicycles will help push the design of communities toward more bikes and people and fewer cars. Though in the end the impetus for better design will most likely be that communities designed for walking and biking are just more pleasant and fun.
When a community is designed right, riding a bicycle is a richer, more sensory and more enjoyable experience than driving. As a friend once told me about how much he enjoys bicycling around the urban area where he lives: “It’s the only thing I do that makes me feel like a kid again.”
Christian Wagley is principal of Sustainable Town Concepts, working with communities to improve their environmental performance.