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Novelist and futurist H. G. Wells once said "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." It's a notion we might well adopt for Northwest Arkansas cities. Imagine what it would mean if, say, 50 percent of our commuters got out of their cars and bicycled to work. This is not pie in the sky. In the much larger city of Copenhagen, population 500,000 -- three Little Rocks -- where one might think bicycling is more difficult than in smaller towns, 56 percent of those who work or study in the city commute by bike every day. Many European cities achieve similar figures.

You can chalk it up to suburban sprawl, obesity, laziness, America's irrationally low gasoline prices, and our infatuation -- now fading -- with the automobile: Only 0.5 percent of Americans bicycle to work. Another 3 percent walk, 5 percent use transit, while 87 percent commute by car, nearly all of them alone rather than in carpools. This slovenly habit is a drag on our nation and our region.

Bicycling has been a big factor in my own enjoyment of life. It's provided me with healthy, cheap, fast, environmentally friendly and above all enjoyable transportation to the university campus since 1972. Bicycles on campus were rare in 1972, but today I'm delighted to see piles of them at racks near most campus buildings.

Bicycles have an admirable distinction among all forms of transportation in the animal and technological kingdoms. Per unit of transported weight, bicycles are by far the most energy-efficient travel mode. The input energy is, of course, food calories. Bicycles are two times more energy efficient than swimming animals such as salmon, four times more efficient than humans or other land mammals, 10 times more than rail, 40 times more than airlines, and 100 times more than automobiles. There are good physics reasons for this: Unlike other animals, humans on bikes roll on wheels and unlike other technologies, bikes do not require a heat engine.

Marie and I have enjoyed seven bicycling vacations traveling from town to town in Europe. Lots of people of all ages are enjoying such vacations. Companies offer multiple routes all over Europe. You choose a route at your preferred level of difficulty, they reserve hotels, provide bicycles (or you can bring your own), give you a good map, and move your luggage between hotels. We usually choose easy days of 30 miles or less, leaving time for a long lunch break, snooping around several towns, and early arrival at the next hotel. Many bicyclers reserve their own hotels and plan their own routes or rough it outdoors with camping gear stowed in saddle bags. Bicycle touring has become hugely popular: We encountered numerous bicyclers at all our hotels in France this summer. It's beginning to happen in America. "Inn-to-inn self-guided cycling tours" are available along the Katy Trail from Clinton, Mo., to the suburbs of St. Louis, mostly downhill along the Missouri River, 237 miles in all. I've heard that the upper reaches are hilly, while the lower portion along the river is flat.

Transportation and adventure by bicycle are expanding rapidly in Northwest Arkansas. The Regional Greenway Trail is a jewel and the centerpiece of a network that is spreading into many towns. Marie and I enjoyed a trip from Fayetteville up to Bentonville where we rented a room for two nights, spent the second day at the wonderful Crystal Bridges museum, and bicycled back the third day.

To really popularize bicycling, Northwest Arkansas must provide routes within cities where average people feel safe bicycling. To its great credit, the city of Rogers, assisted by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, recently embarked on such a program. A city where only spandex-clad athletes are out on the streets is not a bicycling city. In a true bicycling city, elderly people and children feel comfortable and safe pedaling to the store, library, square, post office, school, etc., on a separated trail or a highly visible designated bicycle lane on the street or sidewalk. Lanes need to connect the places where people want to go.

I recall visiting Copenhagen several years ago and noticing signs around the city proclaiming it to be Copenhagen's goal that most of its citizens will travel by bicycle, and that the vast majority of them will declare, when polled, that they "feel safe bicycling in Copenhagen." This should be a goal of every Northwest Arkansas City.

Commentary on 11/08/2016

Print Headline: The power of pedaling

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