Cycling Infrastructure in the 21st Century

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the on-going collaboration between S&S and GreenBuzz to promote increased dialogue between sustainability practitioners, academic experts, and the general public. GreenBuzz chapters in different cities coordinate on-the-ground events for a word-of-mouth driven community of professionals engaged in sustainability, bringing sustainability leaders together to connect with each other and to discuss specific sustainability topics. S&S will publish excerpts, summaries, and discussions generated by these events in order to facilitate on-going debate and make the information presented at these events available to a world-wide audience.

Cycling has a long history. At the turn-of-the-century, pavement roads were built for cyclists; yet the best pavement roads nowadays are owned by cars. While some cities like Copenhagen and many others in the Netherlands believe that a good, secure and extensive cycling infrastructure is the key for a sustainable urban development, bike-friendly cities are still hard to find.

Major cities invest a lot into cycling infrastructure. For example, Oslo invests 70.3€/inhabitant, while London invests 12.53€/inhabitant and Paris 13.5€/inhabitant. But why do big cities invest in cycling? Among many reasons, it saves health costs due to less emissions from vehicles, cycling infrastructure is cheaper than car lanes and local shops and restaurants benefit since cyclists are more likely to stop in local places than car drivers. In addition, the population demands it. Ever more people choose the bike over a car due to its flexibility, low-cost and as a manifestation of a new sustainable lifestyle, e.g. in the UK, cycling increased by almost 2% in the last 10 years. Health and time (traffic jams can be bypassed and there is no need to find a parking spot) are usually the main considerations for taking the bike. Furthermore, a more developed cycling infrastructure may have a positive impact on the quality of a city if it leads to less car lanes and more recreational space (cycle paths are smaller than car lanes and bicycles need less parking space). Citizens can also save time since generally, cyclists can go faster from A to B than car drivers (due to less traffic jams) and cycling does not emit fine dust and thus, improves the air quality (which is a major problem in Germany due to dirty diesel).

The above-mentioned cities have already deeply integrated the promotion of cycling into their urban and transport strategy, yet many other cities still struggle. One of them is the capital of Germany, Berlin. 15 percent of all trips are taken by bike, but only 3 per cent of the streets are built for cyclists. Many Berlin cyclists do not want to live with their unfriendly cycling infrastructure anymore which was built in the 60s to create a car-friendly city. Thus, cyclist activists came together and initiated a referendum (Volksentscheid Fahrrad) on better cycling infrastructure and marketing in their city. Dirk von Schneidemesser from the initiative presented their draft law and concept on cycling in Berlin at the Sustainability Drinks event Sustainable Mobility: low impact ways to get from A to B from GreenBuzz Berlin on May 18th.

The law has 10 big goals, e.g. 350km of cycling streets, two meter wide biking lanes on every big route and 200,000 cycle racks are to be built. Dirk presented the benefits of the law for cyclist as well as non-cyclists. For example, the referendum demands more parking spaces on public transport stations, it is good for pedestrians since less cyclists would be using illegally the walking paths for cycling and it is also good for cars as an improved infrastructure mean more cyclists, less car drivers and therefore less traffic. Almost 90,000 votes have been cast for the referendum in just 3 weeks, which has exceeded the requirement of 20,000 votes.

Cycling is not only good for other traffic participants, but also enables and is beneficial for an integrated transport system, a system which includes different kinds of transport such as public transportation, walking, cycling and sharing systems. A person can cycle, for example, from their home to a subway station, take the bike onto the subway and after leaving the subway, ride to its final destination. Furthermore, people who cycle on a daily basis, are more likely not to owe a car and would be using car-sharing if they need to transport goods or when they have to go to a hidden spot in the countryside. In addition, car-sharing systems reduce traffic and resources in general. Above all, less public space is used in the city, because fewer private parking lots are necessary due to fewer cars. Space which can be used for cycle racks, bike lanes or recreational zones. Furthermore, Berlin is a city of tourism (30.3 million overnight stays in 2015). By bike, tourists can visit the city at first hand, but tourists only take a bike when the bike-sharing systems are largely available and they feel safe. The result is a better environmental balance for the tourism sector.

A better cycling infrastructure also presents new business opportunities. There are some start-ups in Berlin who focus on the cycling sector, e.g. Bike Citizens, Radbonus, FahrradJäger. In addition, an extensive infrastructure could enable a more sustainable economic transportation in the form of cargo bike systems. Cargo bikes are particularly useful if you only need to transport smaller goods within a city and if you need to deliver something fast. Amazon also relies on bikes to deliver goods on the same day in Berlin as cycling is the fastest way of transportation due to a flexible use of routes.

Cycling has the chance to revolutionize urban transport systems in a sustainable manner. Some cities in Western Europe and North America have already set a good example. Promoting cycling is a chance for many, if not all, metropolitan cities to improve the mobility of their citizens and air quality. Even Delhi in India, for example, which is among the top 10 cities in the world having the worst traffic jams, can benefit from cycling infrastructure. Cyclists would have their own lanes and not interfere anymore with the other traffic participants. This leads to more safety on a bike which generally leads to more cyclists on the road which then leads again to less cars and less traffic jams. Apropos of nothing, air and environmental problems are reduced.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on September 6, 2016.


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