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May 20, 2022
City slickers who trade in their car for a bike just one day a week reduce their carbon footprint by about half a ton of CO₂per year — and research indicates that “active travel” (cycling or walking) could be a valuable part of a global strategy to achieve net zero carbon targets. Today’s Daily Dose checks out part of the storied history of the humble two-wheeler — and how cycling could save your life.
– with reporting by Matthew Blackman from Cape Town, South Africa
Will bike for freedom
Cycle of war, and protest
The first known use of bicycles in war was the 1896 Jameson Raid in South Africa, followed by the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). In both cases the British used bikes in order to spare their horses. In 1913 the South African journalist and politician Sol Plaatje took to his bicycle to protest the Natives Land Act, which restricted Black people, who made up 80% of the population, to 7% of the land. Plaatje rode across the countryside documenting the devastating effects of displacement and forced removal. He published these findings in his famous book “Native Life in South Africa.”
China’s next revolution?
After the communist revolution in China, the bicycle became a symbol of equality. It was called “the freedom vehicle,” and China was once known as the “Kingdom of Bicycles.” The Chinese-built Flying Pigeon bicycle, with its iconic badge, became a symbol of modernity, and by the 1990s there were some 523 million Flying Pigeons on China’s roadways. But with the rise of economic and industrial development, the status symbol of the motor car eclipsed the bicycle, and use of the two-wheeler plummeted. However, the government’s recent “Healthy China 2030” initiative lists cycling as important in promoting physical health. Perhaps the Bicycle Kingdom will reign again.
Bikes for everybody
Cape Town is synonymous with cycling in Africa and holds the continent's biggest cycling race. The city is also on a mission to bring the benefits of the bicycle to its impoverished, sprawling townships, where the typical home is a corrugated iron shack. Seeking to help are such nonprofit organizations as Bicycle Empowerment Network, Grassroots Youth and Velokhaya. One relevant hero is Nicholas Dlamini, who grew up in a local township and in 2021 became the first Black South African to compete in the Tour de France.
Cycle of change
Recent research suggests that, in countries with comparatively few bicyclists, women are far less likely to cycle than men. However, the same study also found that, in countries with a well-developed cycling culture, women are “at least as likely” as men to cycle. One positive note about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it was apparently conducive to increased cycling: In 2020 the number of cycling trips made by U.K. women rose by more than 50% from the prior year.
New York style
Since the beginning of the pandemic, New York witnessed an increase not only in bicycle use but also in electric cargo bikes designed to hold passengers. Parents across the city have turned to pedal power to transport kids to school. In 2021, New York City announced plans to build 30 miles of new protected bike lanes — which are making cycling a more accessible and safer method of family transportation. CitiBike, the growing bike-share program, recorded nearly 28 million rides in 2021.
According to Yale professor Stephen Stearns, before the bicycle was invented, the average distance between the birthplaces of married couples in England was one mile. The freedom to bike to other towns and villages, however, saw the average distance increase to 30 miles. And across the Atlantic, a bicycle craze swept the late 19th century U.S. An 1896 issue of The New York Times declared that “the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give.”
The Netherlands is home to 22.1 million bicycles, which works out to a whopping 1.3 bicycles per person. The Dutch put all those bikes to good use: Cycling is the main mode of transport for 36% of the population. According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme, Dutch pedalling has climate benefits equivalent to planting 54 million trees every year. And research indicates the health benefits of cycling in the Netherlands include the prevention of 6,500 deaths each year.
According to Harvard University, cycling at a moderate speed of 12-to-13.9-mph will result in a 155-pound person burning 288 calories in 30 minutes. At the slightly faster pace of 14-to-15.9-mph, a person of the same weight will burn 360 calories. Cycling is also associated with reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease, along with providing significant mental health benefits. And for the select few cyclists who make it to the Tour de France, the race burns an average of 7,000 calories each day.
What changes would make cycling more accessible and popular where you live?
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