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Heels and Wheels

Local Matters


Published May 28, 2003 at 3:33 p.m.

As ecological footprints go, the United States is the planet's undisputed Bigfoot, even when it comes to humanity's most environmentally friendly mode of transportation: the bicycle. Every year, Americans buy 20 million new bikes and send 15 million old ones to the landfill or scrap heap. Millions more gather rust and dust in garages and tool sheds while our bellies and butts expand into neighboring zip codes. Apart from the obvious health consequences of our sedentary lifestyles -- epidemic levels of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and so on -- we're literally throwing away tons of precious commodities that could be improving the environment and raising standards of living around the globe.

A coalition of local groups is getting huffy about this issue. The Chittenden Solid Waste District, Local Motion, FedEx, the Essex Rotary and the Green Mountain Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have teamed up with Pedals for Progress, a nonprofit organization in New Jersey that collects used bikes and ships them to developing countries. Overseas, the bikes are refurbished by local mechanics and sold at a fraction of their cost. Their new owners use them to get to work, carry goods to market, bring doctors to remote locations and even serve as taxis and police transports.

"The problem is not a lack of employment in the developing world. It's the ability of people to get to where they need to be to work," says Pedals for Progress founder David Schweidenback, a former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. "By introducing mankind's greatest invention, the wheel, you can grow these economies so that these people help themselves."

In the last 12 years, Pedals for Progress has distributed nearly 65,000 bikes worldwide, making it the world's largest bicycle recycler.

On Saturday, June 7, Burlingtonians can prove that what goes around comes around. Used but reusable bikes will be accepted for donation from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. The cycles must be in reasonably good shape -- no bent or cracked frames or major rust -- but can be missing minor parts. FedEx will ship the bikes to Pedals for Progress in New Jersey at no cost, but donors are asked to contribute $10 toward the cost of shipping the bikes abroad. Soon, Queen City wheels will be hitting the roads of Barbados, El Salvador, South Africa, Panama, Ghana, Honduras and Guatemala.

Last year's event netted 100 bikes; this year organizers are hoping to clear 300. For those who can't make it June 7, the Chittenden Solid Waste District will be collecting old bikes at their Williston drop-off center for the next six months. Just be sure to take the baseball cards out of the spokes first.

Winning over hearts and soles: Not long ago, referring to a city as "walkable" would have been redundant. Within the last century, most American cities were pedestrian-friendly, with nearly all essential goods and services accessible within a 10-minute walk from home or work. The mixed-use neighborhood was the primary model for development until World War II, when it was nudged aside by the more space-hungry model of suburban sprawl. Designing communities around the needs of the automobile chewed up real estate, separated homes from businesses and forced people behind the wheel every time they needed to go to the grocery store. Anyone too young to drive became dependent on their elders to get around; those too old to drive lost their independence and self-sufficiency. And nearly everyone became dependent upon fossil fuels.

But one organization is working to restore the walkability of cities. On June 5, expert trainers from the National Center for Bicycling and Walking (NCBW) will be in Chittenden County to conduct Walkable Community Workshops. Elected officials, city planners and citizens will hear new ideas for slowing traffic, creating pedestrian-friendly intersections, improving sidewalks and getting kids to school in safer, healthier ways. Burlington was one of only a handful of cities nationwide selected to participate in the half-day "pedestrian road shows."

The point? Urban planners consider pedestrians to be the canaries in the coal mine. Their presence, or absence, indicates a population's overall health. According to NCBW, fewer than one-third of American adults get enough physical activity; 40 percent never get off their butts at all except to walk to the fridge. Burlington does a bit better than the national average when it comes to non-motorized travel. According to the 2000 census, nearly 17 percent of Burlingtonians commute by walking, and another 1.2 percent bike to work. And yes, that's high compared to the rest of the country.

Still, Burlington could be more walkable. If you doubt that, stand on Battery Street and see how long it takes an elderly or disabled person to get to the other side -- if they dare cross there at all.