Let's get the nation riding bicycles

By Chang Hsin-wen 張馨文  / 

Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 8

Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) has proposed a plan to construct 1,000km of bike trails and 10,000km of walking paths. Media reports have also said that the Ministry of Education is drawing up a plan to encourage students to walk to school and use bicycles around campus.

It's wonderful that politicians have taken notice of bicycles, because not only do they improve one's health, but in a new world of environmental protection and energy conservation, they are also a green form of personal transportation.

Bicycles have been around for a long time, but they are still relevant to lifestyles today. In the early 18th century, they were fashionable toys for European nobility. By the end of the 19th century, they had become a worldwide craze. In the 1930s, the British believed that the bicycle gave their country a new kind of outdoor culture.

Bicycling is not only safe for the environment, but also good for people's physical and psychological health. They bring communities down to a more personal and human scale, allowing people to have meaningful interaction with one another, whereas driving cars limits chances for human contact.

Government agencies should look at the bigger picture and consider expanding the use of environmentally friendly bicycles.

At a conference in the US earlier this year, I met an engineer from the Georgia Department of Transportation named David. His research showed that 30 years ago, 66 percent of children in the US walked or rode a bike to school. With parents concerned that increasing traffic has made the roads unsafe for their children, now only 13 percent of children walk or ride a bike to school.

This change has led to problems such as traffic congestion and increased pollution in school areas, as well as child obesity. US health and education experts believe that walking or riding a bicycle to school helps children get to know their community, develop social skills and foster a sense of responsibility and independence -- all the while giving them a chance to exercise.

In Britain, a sizeable private organization called Sustrans is promoting "Goal 2012." Its aim is to establish bike and walking trails around the River Thames in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. This organization is also pushing to create safe bicycle tracks which children can use to ride to school.

To encourage children to ride their bicycles to school, the group has developed a comprehensive plan that combines practical measures with education. In addition, the Royal Society announced in 1993 that environmental considerations required less driving and a quadrupling of bicycle riding.

The British government began a plan in 1947 to improve bicycle riding skills across the country by providing training to children nine and 10 years old. Then in 1993 it established the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and each year 300,000 children -- about 40 percent of children that age -- began receiving training in how to ride a bike.

Local governments are responsible for carrying out the program through road safety bureaus and volunteers. The curriculum includes riding skills, emergency braking procedures and what to look for when crossing the road. After the classes, there is a riding test as well as a written test on traffic laws.

Academics in Norway have investigated the relationship between the age at which children first learn to ride bicycles and the instances of injury. A sample survey of 1,200 children between four and 15 years old found that children who began riding when they were seven and eight years old had the lowest injury rate. The research suggested that children should not start learning at four or five, but instead wait until turning seven or eight.

Taiwan manufactures bicycles, but as they are mainly for export, Taiwanese themselves ride very little. As Taiwan has become more wealthy, cars and motorscooters have became more widespread. As these replaced walking as the preferred form of transportation, the number of cars and scooters has risen to 6 million and 12 million respectively in a country of 23 million people.

As people searched for faster ways to acquire wealth, automobiles became inseparable from the Taiwanese way of life and a staple of its economy. Because of their mobility, convenience and easy parking, scooters became the most common feature of Taiwanese traffic.

Because streets are mostly constructed with cars in mind, they are now the kings of the road. Although scooters aren't as dominant as cars, they are still a mainstream form of transportation. The problem is that most riders are scared off by the danger of being engulfed in chaotic traffic. Since bicycles don't have any rights on the road in practical terms, they have gradually been abandoned.

However, with so many people living in such a small place, Taiwan needs to consider the use of bicycles on its roads as soon as possible. It needs to develop new traffic regulations and decide how to use its land based on the needs of pedestrians and cyclists. If Taiwan wants to ensure that children can safely walk or ride a bike to school, it must first review land use policies and the state of the road network.

The energy crisis in the 1970s forced Western countries to re-examine the role that bikes play in traffic and transportation. This included the race to build bicycle-friendly cities.

Northern European countries have a thriving bicycle culture and have made many feel that riding bikes is a part of life. Copenhagen, Denmark, has even put forward plans to make bicycles available in cities for free. Traffic and transportation planning firms in the US have dispatched experts to northern Europe to study bicycle culture as they try to develop their own networks. Facing the possible exhaustion of gas and oil energy, the US is once again turning to biking, walking and mass transportation as developmental options.

Because bicycle use is low in Taiwan, appropriate laws are inadequate: Bicycles come under the same category as scooters and motorcycles. When it comes to creating a bicycle-friendly environment, Taiwan must improve its game.

Chang Hsin-wen is a lecturer at Chung Hua University's Department of Leisure and Recreational Management.

Translated by Marc Langer