Our life expectancy is six years longer if we start to cycle at least one hour per week at the age of 30. That is the result of a study by Bo Lars Andersen from Denmark. Whether it is a trip to school, work, the supermarket or friends – you look for a bike path and reach your destination. Cycling is not only the healthiest but also the greenest way of getting around.
Photo: Troels Heien Source: www.kk.dk/cityofcyclists
No vehicle deserves a low-emission certificate as much as a bicycle. However, many people find it easier to get into the saddle in the country and in small towns than in that busy monster, the big city. Amidst the hooting and hassling there, it’s the car that wins when push comes to shove. And the fact is that in 2050, 70 percent of people worldwide will be living in cities and megacities. If a culture of cycling is going to hold its own in tomorrow’s cities, in order to ease the pressure on traffic and the environment, urban planners will have to take a good many things into consideration in future. Their aim is to make bike-friendly cities – places where cyclists feel safe and enjoy stepping on the pedals because they know it will be a pleasant journey. So what exactly is involved when an urban planner wants to make an automobile city into a bike city? “In principle you have to approach it in exactly the same way as you used to do for motorized vehicles, “ explains Prof. Dr.-Ing. Gerhard Steinebach, who has the chair of Spacial and Environmental Planning at the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern in southwest Germany.
“Like cars, bikes need their own lanes, which have to be marked and separated.“
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Gerhard Steinebach
This can be done either in the form of special bike paths or by using so-called bike protection lanes that allow cycle traffic to flow along the street. This prevents bikes and motorized vehicles from getting in each other’s way, which makes the journey safer. In cities where he has seen good infrastructure for bikes, Prof. Steinebach has usually observed “a long tradition of cycling, favorable topographical conditions, planning for safety, and that cycling is rooted in society. When people in a city are used to bikes, they also behave differently towards each other. “Inconsiderate behavior and lack of interest in rules are often the issue between cyclists and other traffic participants.“ If you never see anyone on a bike, you don’t have the confidence to cycle yourself because of a stronger fear that people have no consideration for bikes and underestimate their vulnerability.
But there is much more to a bicycle city: For pedaling to be really fun, it is necessary to give it priority. For example, it is helpful to officially allow cyclists to use certain areas of a pedestrian zone or to go along a one-way street in both directions. “Often car drivers get angry about that. But they are forgetting one distinction: A cyclist moves by powering himself. If a car has to take a detour, the driver simply puts his foot on the gas pedal.“ One further ingredient that is essential in the recipe for a bike-friendly city is space. Cyclists have to keep a distance in order to be able to travel safely. In megacities like Istanbul, Mumbai or Shanghai this could become a problem, because there is too little space there anyway for all the people who want to get around. “You need more space for a hundred people on bikes than for a hundred people who go by bus.” Moreover, bikes are slower and the volume of traffic in kilometers is lower, while the distances in large cities can hardly be overcome on a bike.“Pedaling 30 kilometers to work just like that is not what people want. They would do that in their leisure time. Or perhaps with an electric-powered bike.“ Professor Steinebach thinks large metropolises are unsuitable for a further, quite different reason, as far as bike-friendliness is concerned: “I wouldn’t travel by bike there. Because of the air pollution alone. I often visit cities like Shanghai, and they have a lot of problems there with fog, smog and other pollution.”
Copenhagen, on the other hand, ticks all the boxes in terms of being bike-friendly. Cycling culture is thriving here. Half of the inhabitants go to work or school by bike. The Danish capital is regarded as a model for the whole world, as the bike-friendliest city. Bike paths, bridges, parking garages and highways characterize the face of the city. Marie Kastrup, the spokesperson of IBIKECPH.dk, attributes this in a video to the long history of cycling culture in Copenhagen: “Since the energy crisis in the late seventies, the city of Copenhagen has been investing massively in the bicycling infrastructure“. In this way the culture of cycling has grown in the course of years. The effects on life in the city are plain to see: People move about a lot without emissions and without taking up space on the roads for cars. People are healthy because they exercise and because the air is better, and also the natural environment in Copenhagen is less polluted than in other cities of a similar size. For transporting several people or large items, special solutions have been created that occupy the streets instead of cars. Occasionally you see a rickshaw rolling past, or one of the cargo bikes that the people of Copenhagen affectionately call a “Long John“. One major factor driving Copenhagen’s cycling project is the generally very high level of environmental awareness in Scandinavian countries, which is evident in numerous state subsidies to promote electromobility, for example.
The USA, by contrast, is known for its automobile culture. However, the remarkable example of the city of Portland in the state of Oregon shows that there are alternatives. Portland is one of the few American cities where you don’t need a car. It has been described as the greenest city in the USA. Two components combined in planning the cycling infrastructure for Portland: The population was growing constantly, and across the board the state of Oregon had a high environmental awareness in its investments. In order to reduce the emissions produced by cars, an alternative means of transport had to be found that favored the environment: “Biking was something that really made that happen,“ as Rob Sadowsky, director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance of Portland says to US Today in a video. Last year Portland was again voted the number-one bike city in the USA by Bicycling magazine. This is despite the fact that it rains at least one third of the year there. Nevertheless, around six percent of residents commute to work daily by bicycle. The criteria for awarding Portland top status are its well-developed infrastructure for bikes (180 miles of bike paths on the roads and 79 miles of separate bike paths), a living cycling culture (parking spaces for bikes, repair workshops, and the ability to take bikes on trains). Jennifer Dill, director of the Oregon Transportation Research Institute, explains the city planners’ principle to US today in a video: “The planners here are not trying to force you out of your car, they are trying to give you an option.” So when people in Portland want to move from A to B, they can choose between the car, the bike or public transportation. “Instead of leaving in a place where the only reasonable decision is to drive your car. Which is the way many American cities are.” Rob Sadowsky points out a sign that that cycling has become rooted in society in Portland: “Some of the bars that have bicycle racks that replace one single parking spot with twelve are some of the most popular bars in town.“ It will be interesting to see how long Portland can stay in first place in the USA as the cyclists’ city, as other American cities are following its lead. Second place was awarded to Minnesota, which in 2010 was the first city in the USA to initiate a bike-sharing system and in 2011 opened the first “bike freeway” in the United States.
Experts are convinced that it is still possible to establish a culture of cycling in many cities. However, this does not happen on its own. Time and money are needed, and that is exactly what the cities most affected by traffic chaos do not have. Professor Steinebach too doubts that it is possible to increase the amount of travel by bike in big Asian cities in particular. “Because if, in planning terms and on a large scale, it is difficult to create a properly functioning network of public local transport, which does after all move large numbers of people much quicker, then I have major doubts about whether this will work for bikes.“ Nevertheless, it should be attempted, because the benefit to the environment, the thinning out of traffic volume, and not least the greater life expectancy are good reasons to start right away.