Strapped Europeans Swap Cars For Bikes

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Marc Hill / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A cyclist carries her shopping in the basket of her bicycle in Pescara, Italy, on July 13, 2011

Italy is home to Ferrari and Lamborghini, two of the world’s most legendary automakers. But the country’s troubled economy has forced an increasing number of Italians to downside the number of wheels on their vehicles: For the first time since World War II, sales of bicycles surpassed those of cars in Italy. 

U.K. newspaper the Telegraph reports, “1,750,000 bikes were bought in 2011 compared to 1,748,000 motor vehicles.” This is a big switch for a country that the Economist reported in 2009 had the fourth-highest rate of car ownership rates in the world. (Despite our love affair with cars, the United States came in 16th in the magazine’s ranking by country.)

The Telegraph blames rising unemployment, austerity cuts imposed by E.U. leadership, and an increased cost of living — including a rise in the price of gas. It says gasoline costs about €2 per liter — in American terms, that’s close to $10 a gallon. This is why a little more than 10% of Italians now rely on pedal power to get to school or work, while more than one in six use their bikes to get around other times, such as on weekends.

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Italy isn’t the only cash-strapped European country to swap four wheels for two. In August, Reuters reported that Greeks also are turning from cars to bicycles as the country struggles to adapt to austerity measures and unemployment that has risen above 55% among people under 25. The number of cars being driven plummeted by 40%, while bike sales have risen about 25%.

The silver lining is that some entrepreneurial Greeks have seen opportunity in this cultural shift. “Shops selling bicycles, and equipment ranging from helmets to knee pads, are spreading fast,” Reuters says.

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Even in some parts of the U.S., bike ridership is on the rise, albeit not quite as dramatically. Portland, Oregon, saw a 6.4% increase year-over-year, while 3.5% of Minneapolis residents brave that city’s cold winters to ride to work — a number government officials say will double in two years.