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Global Ideas

In praise of the humble bicycle

Cycling is cheap, keeps you fit, and doesn't harm the environment. So why aren't more people pushing the pedals? Maybe they would, if city planners helped oil the wheels of a whole new mobility culture.

A cyclist in a red raincoat in the rain in Shanghai

Not even pouring rain can deter keen cyclists

"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race," English author, historian and utopian H. G. Wells said about one hundred years ago.

So what is it about the humble bicycle that rings our bells, so to speak?

Is it the fact that you can get to and from work, school or the shops and stay fit at the same time? Or is it the convenience that comes with getting from point A to point B at your own pace without having to worry about getting stuck in traffic, the rising cost of petrol or getting a seat on public transport? Or maybe it is, more simply, a feeling of freedom.

Most probably it is a combination of all of these things. The eternal beauty of the bike is that you can use it as much as you like, but it still has almost no impact on the natural environment. Only walking is better than cycling.

Riding a winner

A red light for cyclists

Many cities are waiting for urban planners to give cycling a green light

The myriad health-related, economic and environmental benefits of riding bicycles are well known and well documented. Yet, despite upward trends in some cities across the globe in recent years, only 0.55 percent of commuters in the US, the world's biggest polluter, bike to work.

So, what will it take for more people to push those pedals?

The most important thing is real leadership in urban development and planning that makes bike-riding a safe and practical alternative to the motor car. In many large cities right now, for longer trips in particular, many potential cyclists would say that riding is ‘too dangerous’, ‘too time-consuming’ and ‘too sweaty.’

Strategies for change should enable safe riding across cyclists’ journeys, from their bike racks at home, to work, school and the shops, and back again. Good policies include coordinated local and national government investment in bicycle infrastructure such as bike lanes and paths and parking areas.

Businesses also have an important role to play in making showers and safe parking areas available for their employees — this can only be beneficial as physically healthier employees make happier and, of course, more productive workers.

Ahead of the pack

A crowded bike stand

Cyclists need to know their bikes are safely parked

Some cities have already introduced creative and successful initiatives. In the Norwegian capital Oslo for example, an affordable public bike system has received widespread acclaim and is being copied in cities around the world.

Meanwhile, in the Australian capital, Canberra, the Bike'n'Ride initiative has provided an incentive for potential cyclists to ditch their cars in favor of a convenient bicycle and bus combination. Bike riders who ride to a bus stop can attach their bikes on the front of the bus for free.

A similar scheme exists in Berlin, where public transport includes special carriages for bikes and their owners – albeit at an additional charge.

From hikes to bikes

Despite these innovations, the more likely catalyst for change in the long term lies in higher petrol prices.

In 2008, rising fuel prices presented an economic incentive for commuters to bike to work.

A survey by the US Bikes Belong Coalition found not only that bike sales had increased significantly, but also that customers in 95 percent of surveyed shops cited high petrol prices as a reason for their purchase.

If, as experts believe, oil prices continue to soar then communities and cities of all sizes should anticipate this trend and prepare for it.

Pushing for cultural change

A cyclist waits in a bike path for the lights to change

Bicycle paths give cyclists a sense of safety

But ultimately, a real bike-friendly city requires citizens that understand, and are open to the idea of bicycles being part of the urban fabric. This can only come as more and more people experience the benefits of riding and themselves feel a sense of pride in having a bike-friendly city.

An important cultural value will be inclusiveness. Bicycles are not, and should not be seen as the domain of a group of hard-core fitness orientated riders. Rather, there should be spaces that enable people of all ages, gender and social backgrounds to ride with each other and alongside pedestrians and road vehicles.

In Tokyo, those walking on crowded sidewalks are accustomed to sharing limited space with those cyclists who would prefer not to pedal on the street. Pedestrians are willing to step aside to allow cyclists to pass and cyclists are generally patient and careful at making their way through the throngs.

Changing attitudes towards bicycles will take some time. Societies overwhelmingly view the road as a space for cars and trucks. The hope is that the freedom to pedal is not abused by zealous riders, in the same way that the freedom to drive is seen, incorrectly, by many to be an entitlement.

It's up to each one of us to help contribute to creating a new culture of mobility in our cities. And the more adults we see on bikes daily, the less we'll have to share H.G. Wells' concerns for the future of mankind.

Mark Notaras/Sean Wood (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

This article is a result of our cooperation with OurWorld 2.0, a web magazine created by the United Nations University Media Studio in Tokyo, that focuses on climate change, biodiversity and sustainability. More information under http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/

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