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The Journey, Not the Destination

November 7, 2011 - Now here's a word I definitely think is destined to become a part of everyone's vocabulary: ecomobility. Meaning, of course, getting around in an environmentally friendly way. You know what the examples would be - things like walking, biking, taking the bus or a train. In fact, Inter Press Service, in their article titled "EcoMobility Gaining Ground, Step by Step," defines it according to what it is not: mobility without private cars. I think that's quite elegant, actually.

Cities as geographically disparate as Berlin, Tokyo, New York and Bogota have all decided that the cost of cars and their pollution, noise and congestion is a price they are eager to forego. (Paris is allegedly on this list, too, but I have to say that when I was there last year, I saw lots of the publicly available bicycles lined up in their bike stands, very ostentatiously being ignored.) Perhaps that was the rub, because it's not as simple as merely making bikes, buses and trains available. They have to work in conjunction with each other. Connectivity, it's called.

Let's say you need to get from Point A to Point B. You'll ride your bike 1 1/2 miles to the bus stop, ride the bus to within a block of your destination, and then probably walk your bike the rest of the way. All of which is doable as long as the bus is outfitted with a bike rack. If your connection involves a subway or train, there need to be cars for bike riders. In other words, connectivity depends upon the accommodations mass transit providers are willing to make. The pay off, in terms of enhanced accessibility, is prodigious.

Did you know that a standard city street has a maximum capacity of 2,000 people in cars per hour? Now put those same people on bikes. They, and 12,000 other commuters on bikes, will all be able to use that street during the course of an hour. What a difference! It gets even better: the same 14,000 people could be joined by an additional 5,000, if they all travel on foot. Light rail produces another significant improvement - 22,000 people - but busing beats them all: 43,000 people can now use that standard city street over the space of an hour.

Some of you will remember, as I do, seeing magazine pictures of hundreds and hundreds of Chinese people riding their bikes to work. Bikes were the predominant mode of travel up until about 20 years ago. However, as entrepreneurship and quasi-capitalism took hold, the disposable income necessary to support car ownership became more widely dispersed. Today, the picture is very different, though it's unlikely that a picture of Chinese traffic congestion would ever be confused with rush hour anyplace else. Numbers tell the story, and it's an awful one. The noise, pollution, and congestion previously alluded to find their most complete, pervasive expression on China's roads. Far too many people have lead to far too many cars.

Happily, some cities have not forgotten the pleasures of bicycle riding, and are determined to regain the commensurate clean air and lack of congestion. Zhongshan City, in southern China, has initiated a bike sharing program. Four thousand bikes are now free to the public for up to an hour at a time. An online platform gives riders real-time information about the closest stands and the number of bikes available. And Zhongshan is not alone. China is installing bicycle networks at an unprecedented rate. The need for them is great, with the air in some locales virtually unbreathable. You might say China has joined the ranks of those who are finding that everything old is new again.

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