With a spate of high profile bicycle initiatives announced worldwide over the last few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking cycling as a form of transport is finally rolling out of the shadows of marginalised culture, and emerging into mainstream acceptance.

Early this May, the UK published the findings of an all-party enquiry, Get Britain Cycling, detailing a series of recommendations that could, if acted upon, completely reset the very transportation psyche of a nation. Framed by the belief that “it is both possible and necessary to expand the role of cycling in the nation’s transport and social life,” its suggestions included teaching school children to bicycle as part of the national curriculum, just as they’re taught to swim. It advised taking into account the needs of cyclists in every future planning application – both commercial and private. It considered a 10 per cent cycling modal – which means that nationwide, one trip in 10 is made on a bicycle – to be feasible by 2025, doubling to an eyebrow-raising 20% ratio by 2050.

The UK’s Get Britain Cycling enquiry could turn the country into a nation of cyclists.

If you’ve read any of the cycling press, or checked in with your local bicycle pressure group, you’ll know that these split-mode percentages are the catchphrase of bicycle advocates around the world. The Netherlands commands by far the lion’s share, with an enviable 27% of the pie. Denmark follows next, with 18%, while Germany’s 12% is still significant, considering the European average is currently 7%. In fact, the EU is even looking for a mode share of the delivery business. Cycle Logistics is a scheme set up to encourage the use of cargo bikes amongst businesses and individuals alike. Running from May 2011 until April 2014 and spanning 12 countries, this EU-funded project aims to “reduce energy used in urban freight transport by replacing unnecessary motorised vehicles with cargo bikes for intra-urban delivery and goods transport in Europe.” Lagging some way behind, the mode share for commuters in the US is as little as 0.6%.

With a 27% cycling modal share, the Netherlands rules the roost when it comes to cycling infrastructure. 

 

Based in Cambridge, Outspoken Delivery is the largest courier company of its kind in the UK, and an advisor to the EU-funded Cycle Logistics. 

The end of the driving boom

But all that looks set to change, for a number of reasons. For one, car ownership in the US is on a downturn, and has been for some time – pre-economic recession, even. Carless households have doubled over the last decade, and now stand at the 9.3%. Although economic pressures have accelerated this trend, it ties in with new findings that conclude the driving boom is over. Or more expansively, “The Driving Boom – a six decade-long period of steady increases in per-capita driving in the United States – is over.” This fresh-off-the-press report, published by Transportation for America and the Osperg Foundation, states the time has come for America to “hit the reset button on transportation policy – replacing policy infrastructure of the Driving Boom year with a more efficient, flexible and nimble system that is better able to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.”

The tide is finally turning, albeit slowly, for the US’ car centric culture. 

Millenials, those born between 1983 and 2000, and increasingly choosing to wait longer before learning to drive, driving less, and relying increasingly on public transit. Crucially, they’re more likely to desire to live in walkable neighbourhoods, and are “more open to non-driving forms of transportation than older Americans.” And with perfect timing, baby boomers, the generation that defined the US’s car culture, are moving to retirement homes, where car keys are no longer required.

Back to those modal shares a moment. To those who cite the Netherlands as an anomaly – not least for reasons of topography – a glance through the pages of its transportation history reveals it wasn’t always that way. While a small and flat stature would surely have helped its two-wheeled cause, the Dutch were headed for as much of a car-centric culture as the rest of Europe, post WW2. However, only a public outcry at the ever-burgeoning dangers on the roads, timed fortuitously with the oil crisis of 1973, created the catalyst needed for a complete reform in transportation policies, steering the nation onto a new, bike-friendly course.

Ever burgeoning dangers on the road and the oil crisis of 1973 were the Netherlands’ catalyst for a radical changes in transportation policy.


If you build it, they will come

Similarly, car-centric US cities who claim their infrastructure is beyond the point of no return have only to look at Seville, Spain. In the space of just five years, cycling in the Andalucian capital transformed from almost non-existent, with a meagre 0.4% split share, to a heartening 7%, with aspirations to double this by 2015. A bike-sharing programme played a part, as did the rapid additions of 160km of new bicycle lanes – the space for which came primarily from the bold removal of car parking spots and traffic lanes. It was a clear demonstration that in order to create a complete change in habit, a safe, comprehensive and usable bike path network is required.

It’s changes like this that have inspired significant changes within the US, including Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan. Striving to transform any large metropolis into a world-class cycling city may seem a daunting task, yet there are very real hopes that this can be achieved in mid-west USA. Maturing out of its already ambitious Bike 2000 Plan – which established some 160km of on-street bike lanes and 80 kilometres of off street trails, as well as an injection of 10,000 bike racks installed around the city – Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan is tripling the amount of bike lanes to 800 kilometres.

A protected Green Lane, part of the Chicago Bike 2015 Plan.

A part of the Green Lane Project, this essential move to create safe urban riding protected from heavy traffic is being mirrored across the US, in the likes of Austin, San Francisco and Washington DC. “Once the city started to send the message that cycling is a real and valuable part of our transportation network by carving out road space for it, the people responded,” commented Tom Focoloro on Seattle’s Bike Blog, noting the 63% increase in commuting and 33% decrease in collisions, as bike lanes were installed between 2007 and 2012.

San Francisco has recently announced plans to make $200 million dollars worth in changes to its cycling network in the next 5 years.

 

The famous ‘Wiggle’ signposted bicycle routes allows commuters to avoid the worst of San Francisco’s notoriously steep streets.


Building a model future

In addition to its green lanes, over $27 million is being invested in what will become a 4000 bike, 400 station bike share program across the Windy City. When it comes to sustainable mobility, such schemes – in which a flotilla of bicycles are available across the city, almost like a public service – are increasingly seen as an integral part of modern urban planning. At the last tally, there were 493 schemes of various sizes dotted around the planet, from Dubai to Düsseldorf, and Italy to Iran. The benefits are threefold; bike sharing is a relatively affordable way of easing the strain on congested roads and other transit systems, it creates a more people-friendly environment, and results in cleaner localised air.

The influence of 2003’s Velo-City in Paris – the yearly global bicycle advocacy think tank – inspired the French capital to launch Vélib, which went on to become the world’s second largest public bicycle sharing program with over 20,000 bikes on hand. In turn, Vélib inspired London to adopt a similar scheme which, during last summer’s Olympics, clocked in a record 47,105 bicycle trips in a single day.

 

Paris’ Velib scheme is the largest in Europe, with more than 20,000 bikes on hand.

All the big cities are now following suit: New York rolled out its own very recently – the largest in the US, with 6000 Citi Bikes unleashed on Memorial Day, May 27th. Somewhat unexpectedly, it’s the Chinese who have taken the lead here despite their reputation for flouting environmental ethics. Vying for the claim of the largest bike share in the world is the heaving metropolis of Hangzhou, China. There, some 69,700 bicycles are parked across the city in 2965 stations, with plans to practically triple this number by 2020. Dwarfing any similar scheme outside of China, a quarter million people are said to use its bikes daily.

The characterfully disheveled mayor
The popularity of London’s Barclays Bikes, or Boris Bikes as they’re affectionately known, no doubt played an influential part in its recent, high profile announcement: that the capital will be injecting €1 billion into its cycling infrastructure. In fact, this will bring it almost in line per capita with Germany, and over half way there to that of the hallowed Dutch, who invest €28 per person per year. “Imagine if we could invent something that cuts road and rail crowding, cuts noise, cuts pollution and ill health – something that improved life for everyone, quite quickly, without the cost and disruption of new roads and railways. Well, we invented it 200 years ago: the bicycle,” were the words that kicked off the ambitious proposal from the Mayor of London, the characterfully dishevelled and often outspoken Boris Johnson.

The popularity of London’s Barclays Bikes has paved the way for London’s €1 billion investment into its cycling infrastucture

More affordable to organise, yet surprisingly effective in its message, is the rapidly growing phenomenon of Open Streets – days in which access of major city thoroughfares are closed to motorised traffic and reclaimed by pedestrians, cyclists and roller bladders. In 2005, there were 11 such schemes in North America. Now, the tally has reached more than 80. As Coordinator Mike Samuelson noted, “Once people experience getting around the city by bicycling or walking, they enjoy the experience and begin to advocate for it. We’ve seen Open Streets as a great way to begin dialogues with neighbourhoods that haven’t been with bike and walking in the past.” This wonderfully simple concept is inspired by Bogota’s pioneering Ciclovía, in which an incredible 2 million people, or 30% of its inhabitants, take to the streets to enjoy a car-free city centre each and every Sunday of the year. First run in 1976, it’s a format that’s been repeated to great success all across South America – not exactly a continent that one associates with traffic safety.

Bogota’s pioneering Ciclovía, dating back to the 1970s, now draws up to 2 million residents every week.


Bicycles as a human right

“We need to go beyond thinking that bicycles are a joke. Bicycles are a human right. Actually, it’s the only mode of individual mobility for all children and youth around the world… unless we think the only right people who have the right to individual mobility are the people that drive cars,” says Gil Penalosa, one of the driving forces behind Ciclovía, and now head of a non-profit think tank, 8-80 Cities, striving to create cityscapes that cater for everyone, from eight to 80 years old.

Of course, all this does beg the question: is this change here to stay, or will transportation trends regress to their previous state at the end of these financial doldrums? There’s a growing body of thought that suggests cycling can not only play a part in the economy, but it can also play a role in the less tangible but equally valid sense of general well being and happiness – making for a more content and focused workforce. It’s endorsed by such entrepreneurial luminaries as Richard Branson, who recently said to The Times in London: “As a keen cyclist myself, I think the recommendations in the Get Britain Cycling report make a lot of sense. Getting more people out of their cars and on their bikes could make a real contribution to the economy and individual businesses by getting people fit and boosting productivity.”

The whirr-click of the future?
This month, Vienna will be hosting the yearly Velo-City conference, June 11-14, a chance for cycling advocates from around the world to gather and share best practices. Of particular note is this year’s meeting title: The Sound of Cycling, Urban Cycling Cultures. “Along with the classic themes of music and theatre, for several years Vienna has been establishing its own bicycle cultures that are becoming more and more visible,” said Maria Vassilakou, its vice mayor. “Thus bicycles are not only used with growing frequency as a healthy and ecologically sound means of transport, but also transforming into an element of cultural life in the Austrian capital.”

This year’s Velo-City conference, a think tank for bicycle advocates from around the world, will be held this June in Vienna.

As well as a paradigm shift in how we see bicycles within our culture, the proposals we’re seeing, and such statements of clear intent, still require the political noose to make them happen. Without doubt there’s a global sense of momentum, unified by a need for change at economic, social and environmental levels. If we’re to believe the likes of London’s rhetoric, promising us that “Cycling will transform more of our city into a place dominated by people, not motor traffic,” then strong, united political leaderships are key to ensuring these reforms are pushed through. But for now at least, the future’s looking green.