Bicycles as More Than Recreation

by Jim Shanman

So many of us learn to ride bicycles as part of the ritual of growing up. We enjoy the new found freedom a bike brings and in time our bikes become our primary mode of transportation. Later, some learn to have fun in the BMX world or explore other regions via mountain bikes. While still others continue riding as adults, commuting and eventually teaching their kids. It’s an endless cycle of fun, recreation and tradition all wrapped into what we now call alternative transportation.

Bicycles have been a key component of economies and transportation for 150 years. Although the bicycle itself has changed little since its introduction around 1870, it has evolved in some interesting ways. The use of exotic metals to make bikes lighter and faster, disk brakes, unusual frame geometry, shock absorbers, electric motors and bike share programs are just some of the recent improvements.

Today, over 109 million bikes are produced annually worldwide. As cities look to reduce congestion and improve qualities of life, bicycles are becoming an essential component to the equation. They offer an affordable, pollution-free solution that also has enormous health benefits. Here are a few examples of bicycle use other than pure recreation:

Beach Cruisers

Due to the depression, bicycle sales, then considered a luxury item, dropped off heavily. In an effort to go after the youth market, Schwinn introduced the cruiser style bike with a heavier frame and balloon tires. The style really took hold in the forties and fifties, as they became the “vehicle” of choice for paperboys and couriers. When lighter, more nimble bikes with gears from Europe took hold in the sixties, cruiser bikes again fell out of favor.

Mountain Bikes, BMX

In northern California, cruisers were used to race downhill for pure joy. When Joe Breeze and Gary Fischer started modifying them with gears and better brakes in the early seventies so they could ride uphill as well as down, modern mountain biking was born. Bicycle motorcross – BMX – soon followed. Mountain biking is now enjoyed by millions around the world and in 1996 was added to the Olympics. Besides the sporting aspect, mountain bikes are an environmentally friendly way for park visitors to cover more ground than hiking and explore a larger range of wilderness areas, without adding to pollution and congestion.


Cycle rickshaws, or pedicabs, are pedal-powered passenger transport vehicles. Initially very popular in Asia, they can be seen in cities throughout the world as an environmentally friendly and entertaining form of transit. San Diego now has a very popular program in place serving their downtown areas, helping to eliminate congestion and provide a boost to the tourist economy as well.

Electric “assist” Bikes

Electric bikes allow riders to utilize a small, onboard motor to help them ride uphill, carry cargo and enjoy longer rides. The motors generally run off a battery pack that can be plugged into any outlet. This convenience allows a wider segment of the population to experience riding in urban environments. Some of the benefits include: saving money, protecting the environment, more exercise and easier parking. Electric assist bikes come in many sizes and styles and are helping reduce congestion and encouraging more physical activity. The Copenhagen Wheel is a new invention that converts any bicycle to an electric assist bike by simply swapping out the rear wheel.

Bike Sharing Programs

First started in Amsterdam in the 1960’s, bike sharing programs are becoming more popular throughout the world today. Often called Community Bikes or Public Bikes, the programs usually consist of a public entity or municipality making available a number of bikes for public use, often for a small fee. The programs allow more users to leave their cars behind and travel throughout a small urban area by bike. Washington, DC, Portland, Denver and Chicago are just some of the cities in the U.S that have successful programs. They allow residents and tourists alike to make short trips while encouraging physical activity, reducing congestion and curbing pollution.

The new Expo Line station in Culver City is scheduled to included a mobility center, but it has yet to be determined if it will also include a hub for a bike sharing program or not. Just imagine visitors taking the Expo Line to Culver City, checking out a bike at the mobility center and make the short ride to Town Plaza where they can safely park the bike, see a movie and have lunch before heading back, without the use of adding congestion to our city. It’s a wonderful vision.


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