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Leah McLaren

Pedal power to the people - ride on! Add to ...

There's an urban transportation revolution afoot, but it's not the one you think.

The British government recently launched a £250-million strategy to introduce the electric car to mainstream London. The initiative, which includes citywide charging points, battery-swapping stations and hefty consumer incentives, is well-intentioned, but you won't see me signing up for an electromobile any time soon.

As it stands, there is only one convenient way of getting around the modern urban landscape, and that is the almighty bicycle.

Hopping on a bike is cheaper, faster, healthier, more pleasant and more environmentally sound than any other mode of transportation known to humankind. Old-fashioned as it might seem, cycling is the way of the future.

No need for initiatives or incentives here. People are way ahead of their governments on this one. The recent numbers are astonishing. Last year, the New York City department of transportation reported that, in 2007-08, bicycle commuting went up by 35 per cent. London is reporting a similar increase in the wake of the inner-city traffic congestion charge that was introduced a couple of years ago. Today, an estimated quarter of a million Londoners travel to and from work by bike.

Toronto - a city without the benefit of a year-round bike-friendly climate - is also on the upswing. Statistics Canada reported a 32-per-cent increase in pedal-pushers on the roads from 2001 to 2006 - and that was before the downturn.

As a committed lifelong cyclist, it's heartening to see so many people finally coming around to the same obvious conclusion. If you care about your health, the environment and your bank account and are physically able, biking just makes sense, full stop.

And yet in spite of its increased popularity, there are still a puzzling number of people who are resistant to cycling on the grounds that it's dangerous or impractical. In fact, though, London statistics show that the number of biking accidents actually goes down as the number of cyclists goes up.

In Germany, where bike riding is part of the normal culture, people are 10 times more likely to ride a bike than Americans and three times less likely to get hurt while doing so.

The problem with cycling in North America and Britain (as opposed to, say, the Netherlands or Japan) is that it's treated like a recreational sport rather than a normal way of getting around. Instead of increasing bike lanes, North American governments prefer to pass mandatory helmet laws. The irony is, of course, that cycling accident rates in continental Europe, where helmets are almost unheard of, are generally much lower.

The lesson here is simple: The more stylish cycling becomes, the safer and more practical it will be.

Luckily, cycling culture is in the midst of a much-needed makeover. The days of middle-aged sportos spinning to work in spandex crotch pads and clip-in shoes are all but over, replaced by a new generation of smartly dressed Audrey Hepburns, trundling along with terriers tucked into their baskets.

Street style and cycling are no longer mutually exclusive. And to this end, British-based retailer Topshop is coming out with a new collection of fashionable cycling duds. The line, which is said to include reflective jewel-cuffed trousers, tartan bar grip tape and even an assortment of satin "riding capes," sounds so wacky it just might work.

And clothiers aren't the only ones benefiting from the two-wheel boom. As the number of cyclists rises, so of course does the demand for new bikes. Despite or perhaps because of the recession, some shops in London are reporting a 20-per-cent increase in sales in recent months.

In New York, meanwhile, the classic Dutch bicycle - a black metal, old-school cruiser - was recently heralded in The New York Times as "the first status symbol of the Great Downturn."

These upright European style bikes are as ubiquitous as cupcakes these days. So much so that my Toronto-based friend Lenni recently lamented that she feels less original by the day. "I've been riding my vintage bike in high heels for years," she complained. "Then all these 22-year-old hipsters come along and act like they invented the idea. It's not fair!"

Indeed, as cycling becomes more common, it will also lose its lingering whiff of eccentricity. While some, like Lenni, will miss the stigma (kooky can be cute, if you know how to pull it off), many other more conventional folks will be able to seriously contemplate the idea of riding to the office in a suit and high heels for the first time.

As someone just as likely to ride my bike to the park as I am to a black-tie gala, I've always found it curious when people find my mode of transportation "cute." It's faster than walking, after all, and cheaper than a taxi.

And, judging by the numbers, I'm not the only one who thinks so. Increasingly, the people are opting for pedal power. Perhaps the British government should take its money out of electric cars and reinvest it in satin riding capes instead.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 

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