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WASHINGTON (Reuters Life!) - At a time of soaring gasoline prices, expanding waistlines, and growing worry over climate change, more Americans are getting on their bikes.
American cities including Portland, Oregon, Louisville, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C. are aggressively promoting bicycling as a clean, efficient and healthy means of transport, and many of their citizens are taking to two wheels for short urban journeys.
"The public is getting the message and they want to do it" said Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, the leading U.S. advocacy group for bikes as a means of transportation.
"There is a palpable increase in the number of people cycling," he added in an interview at the National Bike Summit.
About 500 people including bike enthusiasts and industry and government officials attended the summit sponsored by the bicycling lobby. They attended workshops, training and meetings to promote policies to get more people riding bikes.
Bicycle advocates say the bike should be used for the 40 percent of urban journeys that are less than two miles (3.2 km), especially since 90 percent of those journeys are done by car.
Between 1991 and 2007, the number of daily riders in Portland jumped to 15,000 from 2,500. The city has recorded double-digit growth in the last three years, said Roger Geller, the city's bicycle coordinator, at the summit.
In Washington, D.C., there has been a 50 percent growth in bike use since 2000, according to Emeka Monomee, director of the city's transportation department.
The city has added 700 bike racks since 2001, spent $10 million on paved bike trails, and is planning a bike-sharing program to mimic those in Paris and Lyon in France.
"Cycling is becoming a way of life in our city," he said.
Despite a growing appreciation of the bicycle, America still lags far behind many European countries. In the Netherlands 27 percent of all journeys are done by bike. It is slightly less in Denmark with 18 percent. But in the United States the figure is only one percent, according to figures from the European Conference of Transport Ministers.
Still, some U.S. corporations are doing their bit to encourage cycling. One is Humana Inc., a healthcare company based in Louisville, Kentucky which last September launched a bike-sharing program for its 8,000 employees, more than a quarter of whom have signed up, said Nate Kvamme, who runs the program.
The increased demand for bikes hasn't escaped the notice of individual bike retailers who are calling on local governments to enhance facilities for cyclists by building bike lanes, and locking stations, and improving links with public transit.
Alan Snel, who represents seven bike shops in southwest Florida, said the owners recognize that people aren't going to buy bikes unless they feel they have somewhere to ride them safely.
"Bike shops need to be advocates too," he said.