What role can bicycles play in the cities of the future?

5 minutes of reading

The COVID-19 pandemic, through the urban planning initiative of “coronavirus bike lanes”, has highlighted the return of the bicycle to the city. In reality, this comeback has been under way for many years, though it did get a recent boost. What are the causes? What are the consequences on urban planning today? What will bicycles in cities look like ?

The rise and fall of cycling in the city

The bicycle was developed in the 19th century between Germany, France and England through a series of technical innovations: handlebar, pedals, chain drive, pneumatic tyres, triangular frame, derailleur, flywheel, etc. Among the means of land-based transportation, the bicycle is, mechanically speaking, the one that consumes the least energy per kilometre covered.[1] That efficiency, paired with its low cost, explains why the bicycle in the early 20th century became the standard in transport, especially among the working and lower classes. However, the success of the automobile and motorised two-wheel vehicles later supplanted the bicycle as a mode of travel. In the 1970s, bicycles in France had been relegated to the leisure category and disappeared from transport statistics.

In that period, the bicycle continued to gain ground in the Netherlands where it has been a major mode of travel since the 1930s; starting in the 1980s, it would become a lever to actively transform the city of Copenhagen, which had gone “all car”. The Dutch and Danish models have since provided guidance to many cities that adopted bicycles.

Factors determining the success of an active transport mode

Which factors explain the triumphant return of bicycles to cities?

First, bicycles have advantages which are inherent to their design. We mentioned the exceptional efficiency of cycling in terms of energy expended per kilometre travelled. That energy efficiency has practical benefits: in the city, bikes are often the fastest mode of travel, given that the average speed of an automobile in the city is 15.2km/h.[2] As an autonomous means of transport, it affords more flexibility than public transport: users can come and go when they like. That flexibility is also provided by personal cars and motorised two-wheel vehicles, but with different constraints when it comes to parking. Still, the bicycle stands out from those mode of travel because it entails just a small amount of equipment: bicycle, bike lock and helmet. As such, it is especially economical. Compared to motorised transport modes, bicycles are clearly far less polluting, emit fewer greenhouse gases and consumer fewer resources, by virtue of the lack of fuel, their lightness and their low consumption of raw materials. Bikes also forestall negative externalities such as engine noise. It is also worth noting that bicycles require far less surface area in traffic per person transported than a personal car, which helps reduce urban congestion.

When used on a daily basis for getting around, cycling is a great all-around form of exercise: it works the heart, other muscles and the respiratory function. The World Health Organisation recommends at least 30 minutes of physical exercise per day, which can correspond to most return trips on bicycle. Thus, cycling is good for one’s health: numerous studies confirm its many benefits, ranging from strengthening the respiratory muscles and reducing the risk of chronic disease to boosting self-esteem and lowering the risks of anxiety and depression. Riding a bicycle could enable health care savings of 5.6 billion euros in France.[3] A study based on the population of Portland, Oregon (United States), even shows that people who cycle daily are the happiest compared to users of other transport methods.[4] Cyclists, like pedestrians, are usually more satisfied with their available free time and less stress than the average. A Danish study adds that cycling improves children’s ability to concentrate.

In the 2000s, as sociologists observe that bicycles are growing in popularity again and starting “to rise in the value systems of individuals”[5], these advantages are coming back to the forefront. The perception that “cyclists project empathy and friendliness” denotes the return of a positive image of bicycles on a daily basis and helps explain their return to cities. Subsequently French cities helped drive this trend by massively implementing bike sharing systems, such as Vélov in Lyon in 2005, then Vélib in Paris in 2007, which simultaneously facilitate and support bicycle use while making cycling a socially enviable mode of transport. That offering was rounded out by operators of free-floating systems proposing self-serve bicycles and scooters directly in public spaces. These first cropped up in France in 2017, then disappeared and returned again under the mantle of new operators, of which there are fewer but whose models perhaps will be more long-lived.

Transforming cities to bring back cyclists

Given these benefits, the biggest perceived risk for bicycle users in urban areas is accidents. That is why improving cyclist safety in cities is a necessary condition for expanding the use of bicycles and that safety must come through high-quality cycling infrastructure. Encouraged by a growing number of cyclists in cities, this kind of infrastructure itself leads to increases in the number of cyclists.

Quality improvements intended to keep cyclists safe underpin Cophenhagen’s cycling strategy. Thus, bike paths set off by a simple white stripe or combined with bus lanes were abandoned in favour of bicycle lanes which are always physically separated from the roadway. These lanes are always one-way, to preclude the risk of head-on collision. The adaptations are also standardised and identical throughout the city, which prevents confusion among cyclists and other users by giving everyone an unchanging place. In the Netherlands as well, bicycle lanes are standardised and systematically designed to optimise safety. Beyond markings on lanes and intersections to improve visibility and the absence of dangerous traffic patterns, the process for acquiring a driver’s license in the Netherlands was conceived to instil in drivers the reflex to always look out for cyclists.

Bicycles have proven resilient in the current crisis

An aversion to all other forms of transport available may favour the bicycle. That was the case in Paris last year, following the public transport strikes in December 2019 and the public health crisis which dissuaded some users from taking public transit.[6] That was the context in which many temporary bike paths ‒ some of which will become permanent ‒ were developed in haste, thus giving further momentum to the emerging bicycle movement. The app Géovélo identified 343 kilometres of “coronavirus bike lanes” in June 2020, fewer than two months after the end of the first lockdown.

At the end of May 2020, bicycle use had risen 52% compared to May 2019.[7] A few months later, in September, the charging stations in Paris had recorded a 60% surge in the average number of cyclists per hour compared to the previous year.[8] That rise is accompanied by State aid which is not aimed solely at electric-assist bikes: the “helping hand” fund meant to subsidise the repair of personal bicycles was 60 million euros. As for new bicycles, there was much frustration surrounding the lack of inventory for all bicycle ranges in summer 2020.

The appeal of cycling is reinforced by other mechanisms: in Copenhagen, the new bike paths allow 3 cyclists to ride abreast, which encourages “social cycling”.[9] To be more attractive, the network also needs to be continuous. For residents of Greater Paris, it is not always easy to manoeuvre a bike in the many places for bike lanes are abruptly interrupted at the boundaries between townships. How to get past the governance obstacle

Bicycle highways: from Supercykelstier to RER Bicycle

In London, the Transport for London agency has been trying for some 10 years to promote “cycle super highways” which function as veritable speedways for bicycles with crossings and interchanges, but these are still struggling to catch on.[10] For the last decade, Copenhagen has been developing a “cycle super highway” linking the city centre to all its suburbs and, thereby, its 11 million residents. The objective is to enable cyclists to easily cover a daily commute of up to 20 kilometres. These networks are designed to enhance cyclist comfort, in particular with barriers alongside the lanes at stop-lights so that riders can stop without putting their foot on the ground. They stretch continuously from one end of the metropolitan area to the other, thanks to shared governance between the region and the 28 townships which comprise it.

Signage has been pinpointed as a major challenge in developing long-distance bike routes. Indeed, car drivers and public transport users have no shortage of visual cues and digital guidance (route calculation and direction apps) to find their way, while the equivalent for cyclists has yet to emerge. In this matter, the German bike highways set the gold standard with their precise directions, distances and times at each major intersection. As for the supercykelstier in Copenhagen, the network’s signage and orange graphic identity helped refresh the image of the bicycle network. In addition to signage along the route, a map of the entire network has been published, which further instils the image of an urban space that is easy to cross by bike.

In the Paris metropolitan area, the RER Bicycle project is of the same ilk. This idea was conceived and developed by the 38 associations in the Collectif Vélo Île-de-France bicycle alliance. The network is comprised of 9 continuous lines – and, in some cases branches – criss-cross the city from Melun to Mantes-la-Jolie. The project follows four design principles: continuity over bridges and through intersections, ability to pass safely, suitability for quick bicycle trips, and safety. To accentuate the idea of long-distance travel, the network plan adopted a graphic charter inspired by the map of the RER train system. The project’s boosters claim that by working with the existing infrastructure, the project would only cost €500 million, or less than 2% of the cost of the Grand Paris Express public transport project.[11] Pushed into the spotlight by the pandemic, in April 2020 the project won the approval of the Valérie Pécresse, President of the Regional Council, who offered 300 million euros to support the plan.

These new expressways also accommodate other modes of transport, which are often likened to the soft mobility: non-motorised wheeled vehicles, such as scooters, skateboards, longboards and roller skates, as well as their motorised and electric battery-assisted equivalents, including motorised bicycles and electric scooters. These means of transport, which are just as effective for getting around, and often faster, rely on electricity from the grid, so should they be equated with bicycles or addressed as a distinct category? By removing any physical effort, do motorised bicycles advance the story of bicycles? Today there is a growing divide between increasingly high-tech, connected bicycles, in the vein of Van Moof, Rayvolt XOne and Calamus One, and low-tech bicycles, such as fixed-gear “fixies” or the super-rustic mountain bikes which are meant to be easy to repair with limited equipment.

In the future, could mobility and exercise be one and the same?

Bicycle-based transport has an undeniably practical dimension when considered strictly from the point of view of commuting, plus it offers a way to exercise. This is what prompted the futurist François Bellanger (Transit City[12]) to develop the concept of trans-sport. For him, the bicycle is part of a broader movement espousing active mobility, which encompasses anything from handling one’s urban errands on foot to swimming to imagining sailing as a mode of transport. These practices, which enable engine-free trips, are based entirely on the force produced by humans and the use of renewable energy such as wind or current, which aligns them with the environmental considerations of sustainable development. For him, sport and the related, light and autonomous modes of travel will reveal their pertinence in light of the climate challenge in cities and in rural settings, from daily commutes to long-distance trips. In that case, when we contemplate sport equipment, from surf boards to running shoes, let us ask ourselves: can they be adapted to promote carbon-free mobility in the city? Is it possible, then, that a tremendous diversity of bicycles – from the most practical and functional cargo bikes to the fastest racing bikes – may soon cross paths on a daily basis, in an adapted metropolis, with runners, swimmers, walkers and their light and efficient commuting apparatus?

[1] Jean-Pierre Mariot, 1984.

[2] https://www.cyclable.com/blog/2020/01/02/12-bonnes-raisons-de-se-mettre-au-velo/

[3] François Papon, Le retour du vélo comme mode de déplacement, 2012, https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-00852427/document

[4] Oliver Smith, Commute well-being among bicycle, car, and transit commuters in Portland, Oregon, 2012.

[5] Rocci, 2007

[6] Dominique Riou, 2020, https://www.institutparisregion.fr/mobilite-et-transports/modes-actifs/le-velo-sera-au-coeur-de-la-mobilite-post-confinement.html

[7] https://www.leparisien.fr/info-paris-ile-de-france-oise/transports/le-nombre-de-velos-a-bondi-de-52-en-un-an-a-paris-28-05-2020-8325573.php

[8] https://www.lesechos.fr/industrie-services/tourisme-transport/coronavirus-a-paris-le-velo-poursuit-sa-conquete-1252910

[9] https://www.lemonde.fr/blog/transports/2014/05/09/comment-copenhague-est-devenue-la-capitale-europeenne-du-velo/

[10] https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2019/03/28/londres-mise-sur-le-velo-pour-changer-d-air_5442464_3234.html

[11] https://rerv.fr/

[12] https://transit-city.blogspot.com/