How The Humble Bicycle Can Save Our Cities

Here's a blueprint for how cities can welcome the bicycle – and all the positive outcomes that a bike-centric city brings.

Mikael Colville-Andersen rides his bike everywhere in Copenhagen, but he would never introduce himself as a cyclist. “I’m just one of the 400,000 people riding a bike in this city because it makes our daily lives more effective,” he says.

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Bikes enable more people to move through the streets as cities tackle overpopulation and congestion.

The founder of Copenhagenize, a design studio that specializes in bike infrastructure, as well as several blogs about urban cycling, Colville-Andersen is well-versed in what makes a city good for cycling – and cycling good for cities.

His new book, Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism, “is a way to bring it all together,” he says.

At the center of it all is Colville-Andersen’s mission: To renormalize the bicycle.

A successful cycling city, he says, is not one where the dominant commuter zips by on her 18-speed road bike, decked out in spandex, but where she pedals an all-purpose bike, maybe with kids in tow in a cargo attachment and shopping bags swinging from the handlebars, while talking on the phone.

[Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen/Flickr]

(The gender designation here matters – good cycling cities see higher rates of women riding bikes.)

Designing a city for bicycles is not just a pleasant idea for the cyclists among us. Designing a city for bikes will also achieve the goals we want for our future urban centers, making them more equitable, healthy, efficient and clean.

Cities that prioritize bikes over cars effectively reduce carbon emissions, and support public health both by creating clearer air for people to breathe and more opportunities for safe, active transportation. Bikes also enable many more people to move through the streets at a time than do cars, and when cities are especially concerned with overpopulation and congestion on the roads, bikes emerge as the more efficient option.

The bicycle’s ability to address all these concerns makes now, according to Colville-Andersen, an ideal time for cities to re-embrace the bicycle as a primary mode of urban transit.

“It’s tricky,” he says. “We live in an age of tech and over-complication, where we like to look to things we haven’t invented yet as solutions.” But in doing so, “a lot of really good, already existing ideas get swept under the rug.”

The bicycle is a prime example of that. While it may seem antithetical to the forward-looking ethos of our tech-dominated culture, Colville-Andersen is convinced that cycling is the mode of transit of the future. Getting there, though, will take some changes.

Start with the facts

“It’s a question I get all the time: ‘What makes a good street?’” Colville-Andersen says.

His answer is simple: It’s one that moves a lot of people, where nobody dies, and where people improve their health by using the street. “That’s a bike lane,” he says.

In Copenhagen, around 5,900 people per hour bike along the city’s cycle track – a designated lane for bicyclists. (Around 10 bikes can fit in the space of one car.)

As cities grapple with congestion and gridlock, cycling emerges as a spatially efficient, high-density alternative to vehicular traffic – and one that can complement mass-transit service like buses, instead of competing with it.

[Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen/Flickr]

Cycling also addresses obesity and declining mental health.

“It’s incredibly important for our survival for people to be able to choose an active mobility form,” Colville-Andersen says, referring to the exercise benefits of cycling. But there are also more intangible positives: Because cyclists are more engaged with the street and their surroundings, researchers have found that cycling alleviates some of the loneliness often held up as a major driver of mental illness.

(This also applies to walking and the transition away from car culture that will welcome bikes will also encourage pedestrianization.)

And the last but most pressing consideration: safety.

Drivers kill around 1.3 million people each year. Statistics for deaths caused by cyclists are harder to pin down, but a study found that in 2016 in Great Britain, three people died after being struck by a cyclist (the number of vehicular-driven fatalities that year in the U.K.: 1,792).

Still, the idea that people on bikes are hazards persists: In Queens, New York, a woman spoke out against protected bike lanes running next to a school, saying that the lanes “put children at risk of being hit by cyclists instead of cars.” Those arguments often ignore the fact that vehicular crashes are by far the more dangerous.

“There’s a misconception that cycling creates danger in cities,” Colville-Andersen says, “but there’s no statistical evidence to back this claim.” In fact, cities that have increased the bicycling mode-share report significantly lower road fatality rates than those dominated by cars.

Build for bikes

But how can cities go about increasing the number of people on bikes? Colville-Andersen suggests they look to what happened when cars took over.

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If engineers start building streets for cyclists and pedestrians, they’ll signal their cities are for people.

For the first time, cities employed traffic engineers to design the flow of cars on city streets, “in tandem with the rising belief that cars were the vehicle of a glorious future,” he writes.

Up until the 1940s or so, streets were largely unregulated spaces, where children played freely and cyclists and pedestrians traveled. That changed with the advent of the car and traffic engineering, which set speed limits, subdivided streets into lanes and sequestered pedestrians on sidewalks and kids in playgrounds.

Cyclists in these midcentury cities had no space. But traffic engineers still work in transportation departments around the world, and they still have the power to design streets to best accommodate traffic flows.

[Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen/Flickr]

If engineers start building streets for cyclists and pedestrians – adding separated protected bike lanes and widening sidewalks – they’ll send the signal that their cities are for people, just as the engineers of the 1950s used design to say they were for cars.

Create political will

While activists in many U.S. cities have begun pushing for more bike and pedestrian-friendly policies, “at the end of the day, it seems that policymakers exercising top-down leadership are the catalysts for real change,” Colville-Andersen writes.

In Copenhagenize, he points out that people still fondly remember political leaders like Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, and Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner for New York City’s department of transportation, for the improvements they made in their respective cities.

Both effectively jump-started cycling culture in their cities, and did so through a process of engaging with constituents and addressing sustainability and mobility needs. “We want to hear stories about people with conviction and passion who bucked the trend and got work done in cities,” Colville-Andersen writes.

Advocating for and installing cycling infrastructure is an easy and inexpensive way for political leaders to make a tangible mark on their cities. Copenhagen, home to what is regarded as the best bicycling network in the world, spent around $4.7 million in the mid-2000s on upgrading its infrastructure – a tiny percentage of the hundreds of millions often funneled into urban highway projects.

That small investment created more connections between protected bike paths – and between bike infrastructure and public transit – and increased the volume of bike parking throughout the city by at least 1,000 spaces.

 Make the economic case

Often, the critique of adding bike infrastructure centers around the loss of parking spaces, which are often removed to build good-quality bike lanes and protected intersections, but often sparks fears that local businesses will suffer without a place for their customers to park.

Locals in San Francisco were embroiled in debate for around two years over a plan to add protected bike lanes to Polk Street, one of the busiest cycling corridors in the city, and fears around the loss of 140 parking spaces were a main driver of the debate.

“That’s ignorance,” Colville-Andersen says. “Look at studies from the past 40 years – none show that bike infrastructure causes shops to lose business. In fact, profits increase.” When New York City installed the U.S.’s first protected bike lanes on 8th and 9th Avenues in 2008, retail sales along the corridors spiked 49 percent.

[Photo: Andrew Gook/Unsplash]

In fairness, for people who drive in cities, finding parking is often enough of a struggle – San Francisco drivers spend 83 hours a year looking for parking – that the thought of losing even more spots is daunting. But that is not necessarily bad news for local merchants.

Business owners often overestimate how many of their customers actually arrive by car: In Toronto, a survey of business owners found that they guessed that 25 percent of their customers drove, when in reality, only 4 percent did – 72 percent of visitors walked or biked. 

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Business owners often overestimate how many of their customers actually arrive by car.

Make tweaks, not overhauls

Fundamentally, Colville-Andersen says, the bike and the street design and culture to support it have existed for well over a century.

“We don’t need to reinvent anything,” he says. “But we can polish, tweak, make things a little better.” Simple interventions like Copenhagen’s “green wave,” which ensures that cyclists get a continuous green light along the cycle track as they ride into the city center during morning rush hour and away from it at the end of the day “make a huge difference,” he adds.

In Denmark and the Netherlands, weather sensors affixed to streetlights detect when it’s raining or snowing – difficult conditions in which to navigate a bike – and allow cyclists longer lights to cross intersections.

A countdown clock in Copenhagen shows cyclists approaching intersections when their next green light will be so they can speed up or slow down accordingly to cross without stopping.

“I hear all the time that Copenhagen is spoiling its cyclists, but these are cheap ways for a city to send the signal that they appreciate and prioritize cyclists,” he says.

Creating strong, connected signaling infrastructure that prioritizes cyclists and pedestrians will become ever more important as cities anticipate the arrival of autonomous vehicles and the myriad safety concerns these innovations pose.

 How you know you’ve got it right

This is what you will see in a truly bike friendly city: People of all ages riding at a pace that works for them, on a clear, wide path free of cars. Gender parity is one of the surest signs of a good cycling city, so you will see an equal number of men and women. 

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Gender parity is one of the surest signs of a good cycling city.

The city will have assumed responsibility for safe design and infrastructure. People will be wearing normal clothes, not spandex.

Cyclists in this ideal city “will just be like faster-moving pedestrians,” Colville-Andersen says. The bike is the ideal tool to speed up mobility in cities but keep them human-scale and social.

It may be old-school, Colville-Andersen says, but in this century, urban cycling is revolutionary.

This article originally appeared on Fast Company and was republished with permission.

[Top Photo: Susan Yin/Unsplash]

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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