Sat Oct 1, 9:15 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AFP) - More bicycles than cars have been sold in the United States over the past 12 months, with rising gas prices prompting commuters to opt for two wheels instead of four.
Not since the oil crisis of 1973 have bicycles sold in such big numbers, according to Tim Blumenthal, executive director of Bikes Belong, an industry association.
"Bicycle sales are near an all-time high with 19 million sold last year -- close to the 20 million sold during the oil embargo in the early 1970s," said Blumenthal, whose association is based in Boulder in the western state of Colorado.
The US Chamber of Commerce says more bicycles have been sold than cars over the past 12 months.
In a country where most of the population still relies heavily on cars, some 87 million people have climbed on a bike in the past 12 months, Blumenthal said.
While less than car sales, bike sales generate about five to six billion dollars of business a year, he said.
Bicycles are back mainly because the sharp increase in gas prices has made them a practical alternative, said Paul Gaiser, owner of Scooter Commuter in Bethesda, Maryland.
"Above all it's the higher price of gas, but also it's concern for the environment and the cost of another car," Gaiser told AFP.
The average price of gas in the United States has increased 47.3 percent in a year, according to figures published last week by the American Automobile Association.
Gaiser believes the bicycle trend is no passing fad.
"Our sales have quadrupled in the last two months," he said. "I think it's a major paradigm shift. It's here to stay."
Cyclists on the streets of the US capital agreed.
"I bought my first bike six months ago to go to college. I could not do without it. It's faster in traffic and less expensive," said Erik Lubell, a student at George Washington University wearing a multi-colored helmet.
Near the affluent district of Georgetown, Stella Hardwood said she had a different motivation.
"I don't want to put on weight and my bike forces me to exercise," Hardwood said.
The superstar status of cycling champion Lance Armstrong, who has won the Tour de France seven times, has also helped spark interest in the sport.
The US government has also done its part to promote a more bicycle-friendly environment. Some 3.5 million dollars in federal money has been set aside to create cycling trails over the next four years.