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A few weeks ago, the front page of the Boston Globe ran an unusual article: some good news. It seems the Boston Police Department has established a bike patrol unit, which has been garnering praise from citizens and officials alike, according to the Globe:

“In the city’s most violent neighborhoods, they have received positive reaction from residents and, police say, made a dent in crime. Bike unit officers have seized guns and…made more than 50 arrests….”

And it’s just been active since June.

Actually, Boston’s move to put police officers on bikes isn’t exactly news: dozens of cities and towns in the United States have been doing so for about two decades. It began in Seattle in 1987. Evidently, someone there realized it would be a good way for patrolmen to maneuver around blocked streets during construction on a metro bus tunnel.

Today, some 15,000 police officers in the U.S. ride two-wheelers. Even the New York City Housing Authority Police Department has 75 bicycle patrol officers. And given the financial pressures hitting virtually all U.S. municipalities nowadays with skyrocketed gas prices, pedal-powered policing is only likely to spread.

Even without the gas-price crisis, though, the idea make sense. One hesitates to apply the phrase “appropriate technology,” because it’s sometimes used patronizingly, especially in less-developed places (“They don’t need electrical pumps – animal-powered wheels will suffice.”) It can be a valid concept, though. Refering to the new bike patrols, for instance, Boston’s Deputy Superintendent Darrin Greeley told the Globe: “They’re silent, very mobile…and they’ve been very successful.”

In fact, there’s an irony here: a 150-year-old, human-powered technology appears to be doing as much to make urban environments safer as computerized databases, video surveillance equipment, cell phones, and the latest wireless communications devices. Forget the Trio 650. Hop on a Trek Bruiser 3.

Ah, but not so fast. The Globe article goes on:

“The officers…patrol on 21-speed, aluminum, Smith & Wesson mountain bikes. Their bikes…are outfitted with Kevlar wraps to prevent flat tires and feature flashing blue lights and a horn that can mimic a police siren.”

Now, it’s true that constabularies were riding on bikes in the early 1900s in some U.S. cities. In fact, the practice disappeared only when automobiles took over. As a regular commuter by bike, though (to the Technology Review offices in Cambridge MA), I can testify that riding effectively among the often impatient, distracted, over-horsepowered drivers in a major U.S. city today wouldn’t be possible without quite a few engineering advances, including frames made out of new alloys, hydraulic suspension systems, the latest in cantilevered brake designs, LCD lights, longer-lasting batteries, and stronger tire materials. In Seattle the bike police are using handheld Blackberry devices to relay information to cruisers. Throw in GPS capability and you’ve got an even better crime-fighting machine. – By Paul Angiolillo

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