Bikes are back
Cycling is healthy and good for the environment – so no wonder bicycle use in some European cities has doubled since the early 2000s.
- According to a study by the International Cycling Union, the average speed of a car in Mexico City is 4 km/h.
- Germany and the Netherlands have long had a firmly rooted bicycle culture. In countries like France, cycling is making a comeback.
Between urban growth, high petrol prices and traffic congestion, “the bicycle is the best way to get around cities,” says Professor Gebhard Wulfhorst, expert in urban transport planning at the Technical University of Munich. “Distance is a factor, but in cities cycling is at least as fast as public transport.” Not to mention autos. According to a study by the International Cycling Union, the average speed of a car in Mexico City is 4 km/h.
Germany and the Netherlands have always had a firmly rooted bicycle culture. In countries like France, on the other hand, cycling is making a comeback after several decades of decline. The number of bike lanes continues to grow, and urban bicycle sales have risen to more than 300,000 a year. “Bike use is increasing even in the U.S., where it has been slow to catch on,” notes Thomas Alexander Sick Nielsen, a transport policy researcher at the Technical University of Denmark.
New bikes, new uses
A number of innovations have helped bring about the revival. “Better materials mean bikes today are lighter, while new propulsion systems, like electric assistance, have developed,” says Nielsen. These changes make it easier to get around hilly cities while also making cycling accessible to new sectors of the population, like senior citizens. What’s more, “one of our labs has shown that younger generations are also changing their habits,” says Wulfhorst. “They no longer use their bikes just to commute to work, but to do their shopping as well. The electric motor makes it easier to support extra weight.” As a result, sales of electric bicycles in France are growing by 15% a year. And there is still plenty of innovation underway. The latest product to hit the market is Halfbike. Part scooter and part bicycle, itis pedal-powered but has no saddle. The rider steers by leaning. It’s perfect for younger athletic (and trendy) riders.
Another phenomenon is the growth of sharing, competing with the self-service bike networks that are already widely used, such as Bicing in Barcelona and BIXI in Montreal. One example is Spinlister, a peer-to-peer bike-rental app available in 60 different countries. The platform aims to revolutionise sharing in big cities – which won’t be easy, as some cities are more advanced than others.
Adapting the city
Why is bicycle use so much higher in cities like Copenhagen, Bern and Munich? The answer may have little to do with geography or weather. “Weather does play somewhat of a role,” says Wulfhorst. “But in Quebec and the Netherlands, people cycle in rain and snow all the time – as long as they’re properly dressed.”
For Isabelle Lesens, a municipal councillor in Paris’ 15th arrondissement, the real problem lies elsewhere: safety. “Cycling in cities is safer than in the countryside – but it can be scary.” So are our urban environments poorly adapted? Yes, she says. “Public officials will have to focus on this over the next 20 years. It’s not enough just to provide more self-service bicycles, even though they’re needed in cities like London and Paris, where it’s hard to store bicycles at home. If we want to encourage more people to cycle, we need to adapt the urban space to make it safer and more practical.”
“We need to create the right conditions to make cycling easy,” says Wulfhorst. “The key is having an accessible urban space, complementary modes of transport and secure parking areas.” In other words, cycling needs to be more convenient. “The division between bike lanes and car lanes has to be clearer. The more people demand it, the more likely the authorities are to address it.”
This necessary urban development is a political issue that raises questions of cost – an argument that Lesens rejects. “Setting up a network of self-service bikes costs more than creating special lanes for non-motorised vehicles or building secure parking stations.” She says the rest will fall into place naturally as more people start using their own bikes instead of self-service models.
France’s two-wheel Crusader
Isabelle Lesens is an avid cyclist in Paris’ 15th arrondissement, where she serves on the municipal council, but she is not always a tease on her two wheels. “Cycling in cities can be scary,” she says, what with the absence of dedicated lanes that would keep bikes away from the threat of cars, trucks and buses. Although Lesens is a fan of Paris’ innovative Vélib sharing system, with its 14,500 bicycles and 1,230 locations, she says that the city should not rest on its laurels. “If we want to encourage more people to cycle, we need to adapt the urban space to make it safer and more practical.”
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