Many of us underestimate the uniqueness, longevity, and versatility of the bicycle. This simple two-wheeled device has been reliably serving humanity for decades if not centuries, and is a clean green player in transportation, environmental stewardship, and health. There is also something very special about bikes. The synergy between the bike and the user fosters creativity, social engagement, and gives the rider an immediate awareness of the local environment. As a tool for development, a simple bicycle can mean not just transportation but employment—even access to education and healthcare.
Although Leonardo da Vinci drew some rough sketches of a contraption that looked like a bicycle, it was a Frenchman, De Sivrac, who built the first bicycle-type vehicle in 1690. Pedals were added in 1840 by Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who is said to have invented the first real bicycle.
Cycling as a sport was born in the 19th Century. The first recorded short race took place in 1868 over a 1,200-meter course in Parc Saint-Cloud, Paris. The following year saw the organization of the first endurance event— a 123 kilometer race from Paris to Rouen. The amazing popularity of cycling as a “new” competitive sport was evident as the 400 cyclists who were there at the start were encouraged by thousands of spectators. The rest of cycling’s history is better known. In 1896, cycling became part of the modern Olympics in Athens. One hundred years later, at Atlanta in 1996, mountain bikes joined track and road cycling on the Olympic program. The youngest cycling discipline, BMX, made its Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008. With four disciplines on the Olympic program, two on the Paralympic program, and with the success of professional cycling today, we can say that cycling is a truly global sport. Teams and riders from all around the world compete in events spread over six continents.
According to the Guinness Book of the World Records the most electricity generated by pedaling on bicycles for 24 hours was achieved by a group from Hong Kong, led by Brian Cha on June 7-8, 2014. His group totaled 26,963 watts of electricity. This fact alone could serve as an inspiration to young entrepreneurs who might find a way to harness the opportunity available through pedaling and make the switch from green culture to the real green.
In recent decades our appetite for the high-tech world that includes computers, mobile phones, and the Internet has overshadowed the bicycle. All of these tech products are great, but they also lead to a sedentary lifestyle. It is interesting to note that the total number of computers sold for all time is approximately 4,187 billion, the number of active mobile phones is estimated at over 7.3 billion, and there are more than 3 billion Internet users in the world. However, with over 2 billion bicycles and counting we should realize that the bicycle remains an important staple in the global marketplace. Bicycles are inherently versatile, but if we invest in the proper infrastructure, bicycles can be even more accessible and provide an exciting option for personal and planetary health.
Pollution is also toxic to our economies and exerts a higher burden on the cost of health care. It results in lost productivity and leads to a diminished quality of life. Investing in bicycles and the infrastructure needed to make them convenient and affordable would help in many ways to reclaim a cleaner environment and make a contribution to the mental and physical health of the population.
Some see the bike as just a form of recreation or kids play. However, bicycles are a major and practical form of transportation for hundreds of millions, and it could be for billions. One-third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are from motorized transport, yet half of all car trips are just 5 km or less. Such a distance takes only 15 minutes on a bike. Of course, cycling may not be the best option for every trip or by everyone. But if we improve the availability of bicycles and the facilities to support safe cycling, then they could offer a zero-carbon alternative to the car. It would also save us from billions of tons of CO2 emissions in the coming decades.