Cycling cities are sustainable cities

Cyclists on their bikes in Copenhagen. In the foreground, a woman is cycling with a child in a bike seat. The child is looking into the camera.

writer icon Jon Joshua Perera     Henning Hjorth   |   City     🕐 31. Aug. 2018

By the early 20th Century, the bicycle represented a dawning of a new era of individual freedom. Cheap transport, embraced by Chinese communists, US capitalists and European liberal socialists alike.

A cycling renaissance
The rekindling of interest in cycling takes shape in what is being called a cycling renaissance. This cheap, clean, healthy and efficient mode of urban transport is making a comeback, and many cities are already seeing the effects.

The Netherlands and Denmark are world leaders when it comes to usage and ownership. It is no coincidence that their respective cities showcase some of the first and most advanced cycle-friendly city infrastructures in the world.

The advantages of a bike over a car for short distance city transport are undeniable. Although other forms of car-replacement through public transport systems are also attracting huge investment, the value and popularity of cycling is being recognised among city planners and investors alike. 

Obstacles to overcome
Each city, however, presents its own obstacles to the introduction of bicycles. Steep hills or extreme weather might rule out serious cycling investment, just like a lack of these might encourage it.

Automotive cities, as built in Australia and North America over the past century, rely heavily on cars. Adding alternative forms of transport often requires replacement and redevelopment of roads, rather than simple integration. Progress is inevitably slowed, as local government is always bound by economic and public image constraints.

New York City
In New York City, the Department of Transport has been pouring millions of dollars into making its dense and growing city more cyclist-friendly. Over 100km of bike lanes were added last year alone and bike-related accidents are dropping.

Despite a lack of funds, New Zealand and Australia have been pushing ahead with numerous low-cost programmes to promote cycling, from bike safety education to increasing city parking facilities.

Both countries are reversing pro-car policies in a bid to reduce pollution, ease congestion and take the pressure off sometimes expensive and inefficient public transport systems.

London faces hurdles
London may not be designed as a car city, but it still faces its own problems when it comes to promoting cycling. Much has been done to improve biker safety. However, without serious investment, public willpower, or a drastic removal of cars from the city centre, London will not reach Danish or Dutch standards.

Contrary to London, locals in Copenhagen have a history of fighting for their bikes against more tarmac-friendly policies. Their position was strengthened by a pre-existent biking culture generating serious public support.

Increase availability
One method of encouraging cycling is simply making bikes more available. Bike sharing schemes tend to involve subsidised bikes at docking stations, with time-based payment schemes, usually managed through phone apps.

Their success has been varied as they face issues such as profitability, local or national bike laws, vandalism or the human and natural environment.

China’s take on bike-sharing has been a little different to others. Where it is often external factors that would influence the success of these and other bike promotion schemes, China has simply maximised supply to increase popularity, forcing change through popular demand.

Keeping it cheap
In China, several factors have combined leading to a barely-four-year-old explosion of bike use in its first-tier cities. Privately funded start-ups, such as Mobike, began by building a huge supply of publicly available bikes. They keep prices cheap at around $0.15 per 30mins, use GPS tracking to avoid the need for docking stations, and take advantage of a lack of laws concerning bike use and parking, meaning you can pick up and drop off a bike from literally anywhere.

Chinese authorities have had to play catch-up, building designated lanes, parking places and impounding badly parked or abandoned bikes.

Necessity over choice
The popularity of the bike came first, forcing biker friendliness on city planners as a necessity rather than choice. This is Chinese free market economics at its finest. Investment opportunity and bureaucratic flexibility allow fast expansion of new start-up businesses. Though talk of an economic bubble in this new industry is already underway.

One must always take the good with the bad. There are cracks showing already, which global media groups have been quick to point out.

Bike graveyards
Some cyclists simply dump the bikes after use. This causes physical and aesthetic problems. Police are impounding bikes in the thousands.

Due to low production costs, companies are simply replacing the abandoned bikes with new ones, rather than organising collection or recycling projects. The result is so-called bike graveyards, on an unprecedented scale.

Electric powered bikes
Another relevant factor is the rise of electric powered E-bikes. Reliable and efficient, these bikes are getting cheaper to buy. Several designs are foldable, making them legal to carry on public transport.

These low-powered electric bikes will continue to push authorities on cycling infrastructure. They may even impact the spread of traditional and public cycling services, such as the rickshaw.

India is a long way from becoming cycle friendly. To reduce pollution and congestion, public transport and car sharing are promoted. Meanwhile, motorbikes and auto rickshaws dominate the roads in both urban and rural areas. Bicycles are reserved for the poorest commuters or the wealthy health-conscious.

Dangerous and bad roads, extreme heat conditions, and cheap alternative transport with no political or public incentive. All of these factors work against the development of a biking culture. 

Worldwide change
Whether pre-existing biking habits as in Northern Europe, re-orientation away from the car as in Australia and North America, or financial incentives from private enterprises as in Asia, there is certainly a renaissance of sorts occurring in the biking world.

We can see this on the small scale, such as offices providing lockers and parking space for their cycling workforce. Then there is the large scale, such as a 50-year project, currently halfway through, to connect North America’s entire 3000mile eastern seaboard with a cycle route.

There are limitations. Stiff competition from other means of transport, the heat, bad cycling environments, and a lack of suitable infrastructure, all serve to dissuade bicycle use.

Eco-friendly revolution
Even the car itself is undergoing an eco-friendly revolution and may yet kick back against cycling trends. Buses and trains are also becoming more efficient and better integrated into the cityscape.

The focus is predominantly inside the cities. Only the most advanced biking cultures push cycle routes into the commuter belt regions, and only the wealthiest or greenest of these have ideas for rural or long-distance investment.

Where you do not see bikes today, you should not expect the renaissance to hit anytime soon. The exception is in the form of Chinese-style bike sharing.

Where you do see bikes, you will see more in the future. Particularly where the motive to remove cars from the city centre is strongest. Here bikes will remain, alongside future forms of public transport, and the timeless pedestrian.

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