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Bike culture boom: what dedicated lanes & cargo bikes can do

It’s real. Bike ridership in cities like Paris has exploded due to Covid-19, but not only because of the pandemic; the phenomenon precedes the lockouts of 2020, and Parisians have learned to appreciate their dedicated bicycle lanes, as well as the city’s bike-share program in a dense, flat, and relatively small city core.

Public transportation strikes and cyclical civil unrest episodes in a country shaped upon the relation between demonstrations at the capital and public opinion sentiment have convinced citizens of Grand Paris of the plans to add more lanes and ease the connections between activity areas.

The city keeps unveiling infrastructure for pedal-powered mobility, and the transformation is still in the making and wants to become a “15-minute city” where most commutes and errands are within a 15-minute bike ride or walk reach. And while some pop-up biking lines opened up during Covid-19 lockdowns will give way to traffic again, the change is for good in most areas. And, up until now, the public has responded.

In just a few years, city center intersections are not car and scooter territory, and pedestrians keep an eye on electric scooters and bicycles, reaching intensities that remind visitors of the bicycle-friendly cities of Northern Europe. To them, the change is stark compared to their previous visits to the city.

A bicycle boom out of the Roaring Twenties

Paris, with its dense and congested city center, shows how policies that guarantee a safer ride and incentivize physical activity can encourage bike culture in places where ridership was marginal and more dangerous just a few years ago. Activity is back, and streets, bistros, and park have regained their pulse, if not entirely due to the notable decrease in international visitors.

The moderate spike of traffic and pollution has not reached levels prior to the pandemic: the city has limited the speed to 30 km/h across the city, as well as everyday circulation of the most pollutant cars. Similar measures are also transforming other cities across Europe.

In Barcelona, commuters giving up car use in the city get subsidized public transportation. The Catalan city has also transformed its central district, Eixample, into a grid of low-traffic zones where pedestrians, bikers, and public transportation have priority over cars.

There’s an even more dramatic urban transformation across the board regarding pedal-powered vehicles: the unstoppable rise of heavy-duty cargo bikes, usually electric. Walking around Paris will expose any flanêur to bike carts, cargo bikes, and experimental pedal-powered hybrid designs.

Proven health benefits of bike commuting

Heavy-duty electric bikes show design differences already visible in heavy-duty trucks, such as open cargo space vs. an enclosed area that protects packages no matter the weather. Those who think cargo bikes are just a branding effort haven’t seen the speed and flexibility on narrow streets and congested areas. Both cargo bikes and fully electric vans replace old delivery vehicles clogging city centers such as historic Paris.

At the right level of urban density, cargo bikes are faster, cheaper to use, and quicker than motor vehicles. Studies suggest so, confirming that delivery bicycles “deliver faster and cleaner than vans.”

As usual, we got to the story early, way ahead of the curve. We visited a local delivery service done by cargo bikes in Eugene, Oregon, over 12 years ago (watch the video if you’re interested.) Back then, some people would find the service awkward, if not outright funny. Where are those people now?

Unlike electric personal vehicles, scooters, or motorcycles, bicycles (both conventional and electric) require the rider’s active participation. It’s not a minor difference, especially considering how sedentarism affects health.

A Swedish doctoral thesis by a researcher from Umeå University based on data from 1990 to 2014 shows how the health benefits derived from bike commuting are higher than the risks of bicycling in air polluted environments. Also, extra exercise is the most effective strategy to counter the effects of pollution.

The Chinese dockless bike-sharing cautionary tale

Vélib, Paris’ bike-sharing public service, has experienced financial and technical issues since it launched in 2007 but keeps a sizeable customer base despite some of the rigidities a system that relies on station hubs generates, such as competition over parking or supply of bikes in popular spots, faulty bicycles, etc.

When electric scooter platforms launched out of Silicon Valley, their Chinese counterparts blossomed on heavily congested and polluted city centers. Several American and Chinese companies expanded quickly with conventional or electric bicycles on the streets as an alternative to bike-sharing schemes relying on docking stations.

Such services, such as Uber’s Jump, have remained scarce, while heavy investment in bike-sharing schemes led to a massive bicycle oversupply in China as units destined both to Chinese cities and abroad ended up in massive bicycle cemeteries outside Shanghai.

Now, millions of colorful bicycles (each batch designed according to the rental schemes they were supposed to serve) sit in kilometric piles after the new companies and cities fought for liabilities derived from the unregulated use of public spaces by undocked bicycles blocking already clogged streets and roads. From a drone perspective, the symmetrical piles of abandoned bicycles resemble cornfields of different varieties.

From the ground, the dockless bike-share fiasco outside Shanghai reaches Dantesque proportions and brings Studio Ghibli reminiscences. Amid such a landscape of industrial and technical waste, it’s easy to imagine the advance of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, walking across the airplane graveyard in Hayao Miyazaki’s classic animation film The Wind Rises.

The uneven appeal of bicycles as the urban vehicle of our times

Other drone pictures taken around the graveyards, such as the ones from Xiamen, Fujian, display piles of colorful bikes to heights that concede the piles’ organic textures, tricking the eye into believing it’s instead a picture of rhizomes of some exotic moss.

The failure of companies such as Bluegogo, once China’s third larges bike-rental service, left tens of thousands of bicycles lying in warehouses with no envisioned utility despite their often-spotless condition. Didi, another bike-sharing service, bought Bluegogo’s assets; such operations don’t seem to trickle down into reality, seeking to acquire user data and proprietary technology rather than bikes with the wrong logo, color, or design.

China’s dockless bike-sharing fiasco goes beyond faulty predictions and a strategy of overproduction to meet a projected demand based in another era. Part of the phenomenon is related to China’s troubled perception of the bicycle, the main (and usually only) personal transportation system during decades, and therefore associated with the less affluent period of a planned economy with low productivity, a mainly rural population that contrasts with the modern, dynamic middle class of today’s mainly urban China.

These are not tulips or corn fields, but piles of bicycles lined up in a field near Shanghai, China

The country began the economic reforms in 1978; since then, economic growth has averaged almost 10 percent a year, even though urbanization, infrastructures transformation, and the rise of cargo bikes has been a decades-long process still in the making.

As recently as 1986, 63 percent of Beijing commutes were by bike. Three decades later, and despite serious efforts to combat congestion and urban pollution, the more than 250 million cars on China’s roads have transformed previous pedal-powered commutes in legendary car jams, now alleviated in urban areas by a strong network of medium-distance fast trains, intercity ones, and metro lines.

Waste propelled by algorithms and economies of scale

Since 2007, authorities have been trying to incentivize a return to bike commutes, with hundreds of state-funded bike stations launched since then. The bike-sharing fiasco is less related to the quality or reliability of such services as they launched everywhere but about the perceived incivility of a system that allows leaving bicycles in inconvenient places. In contrast, that vision of modernity looked too much like the past to some of the 800 million Chinese lifted out from poverty since 1978.

China has been a country of bikes for a long time. Even in 1986, 63 percent of travel in Beijing was done by bike. There were 72 bikes for every 100 people while driving cars had the same reputation as a truck driver. Still, China’s nothing if not efficient. Today, there are 250 million cars in the country – seven years ago, only half of that. The side-effects of this automobile explosion are known: a never-before-seen tidal wave of smog and chaos on the roads.

The government knew: this problem could be lessened by getting people back onto bikes. State-funded bike stations were already launched back in 2007. But those few thousand bikes would remain a drop in the ocean. Chinese cities required more bikes. A lot more. Bikes without docks seemed to be the logical solution, potentially making an entire city’s bicycle supply much more manageable.

However, this doesn’t explain why gigantic wave bikes flooded cities in a short time. Mountains of bikes were stacked up to the equivalent of multi-storey buildings.

But the Shanghai bicycle graveyards, a monument to oversupply and economies of scale gone awry, huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles that could replicate Picasso’s Bull Head (a found object made using a bicycle seat and handlebars) in the industrial series of pop art, doesn’t shadow the new status of both the bicycle and the electric bicycle as transportation icon post-pandemic.

Bike commuting in the Netherlands

What’s slowly becoming a reality in cities with no previous bicycle massive use has been normal to commuters from the urban continuum of the Low Countries. I remember visiting Utrecht for a few days and experiencing the daily commute of both workers and children of different ages pedaling their way to school on pedal-powered school “buses” in an almost surreal, cheering spirit.

Cities in the Netherlands keep investing in bicycle lanes’ maintenance —with innovations such as recycled composites for pavement— as well as bold moves to interconnect infrastructures through new highway or railway overpasses, tunnels, bypasses, or bridges over water or suburban areas, Etc.

“Bull’s Head” (Pablo Picasso, 1942), found object artwork created from the seat and the handlebars of an old bicycle

Within the European Union, bicycle ownership ranges from less than 100 bikes per 1,000 inhabitants to 1,000 bikes per the same number of inhabitants in the Netherlands, though the most significant difference, studies show, is frequency and type of use: the bicycle as a means of everyday commute and transportation in several countries, vs. its perception as a mere recreational transportation system with use limited to activities or age (more frequent, for instance, during childhood.)

According to surveys, 3-28% of all trips are made by cycling, though in the Netherlands it’s over a third of all trips.

Urban distances and between commutes can differ within cities. Still, there are events and policies that help increasing bike ridership and safety, such as developing dedicated lanes that shield bicyclists from the rest of traffic, as well as useful routes designed with actual demand in mind and ease interchangeability with public transportation.

Bogotá’s dedicated bike lanes

In the United States, dense urban areas in the North-East and around the Great Lakes haven’t encouraged bicycle ridership, which is only on par with high-ridership areas in Europe in college towns such as Davis, California, or Eugene, Oregon. A consequence of the neglect of meaningful bicycle infrastructure, the cities with the highest percentage of bicycle commuters cluster in the West Coast, though their numbers remain modest (4,4% of all commutes are by bike in San Francisco; 4.1% in Mountain View, Silicon Valley; or 3,7% in Seattle, Washington, and Oakland, also in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

In Latin America, Bogotá has transformed its mobility with a long-term bet on meaningful cycling infrastructure. The city will add 280 kilometers of lanes to an already existing 550-kilometer network. Though still high, speed limits are now lower across Colombia’s capital (50 km/h), and 20 percent of all parking has been dedicated to bicycles in the context of the pandemic. However, despite the advances in personal mobility, Bogotá continues as one of the world’s most congested cities.

Shared bikes piled up in Xiamen, Fujian province, China

Bogotá is a pioneer of dedicated cycleways, as well as bike ridership expansion across political, class, gender, or age barriers: the city launched Ciclovía 47 years ago, an event that closes 120 kilometers of the city’s infrastructure every Sunday from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. The streets are then overtaken by cyclists and pedestrians.

It was Jaime Ortiz Martiño, an architecture student concerned by the country’s unrest, who gathered the consensus necessary to launch de first-ever Ciclovía in 1974. Unlike its neighbors, Colombia grew a strong bicycle culture from the ’50s on, creating the Vuelta a Colombia as an alternative to the races in France, Italy, and Spain.

Ciclovía has become a referent to more than 200 cities in Latin America and the rest of the world, though similar events take place now in 496 cities from 27 countries (93 percent of such events take place across Latin America.)

Encouraging (and respecting) bicycle use

Conversely, none of these three countries developed urban mobility around bikes until recently, which shows the lack of correlation between strong recreational cycling cultures —like the ones experienced in regions such as Basque Country, or the recent mountain biking boom— and cycling to work, to school, to buy groceries, or to the cinema.

General bike ridership doesn’t correlate with production either (with 2.6 million bicycles in 2020, Portugal is the leading European producer, followed by Italy —2.1 million—, Germany —1.3 million—, Poland, and Bulgaria; then comes France.) As with other industries across the board, bicycle manufacturing divested from small to medium companies providing national markets with local production into a globalized supply chain centered around economies of scale around Asian factories in China, India, and Taiwan.

Overcapacity at launch of dockless bike-sharing apps caused the disposal of thousands of bicycles in Xiamen, Fujian, China

The United States, Japan, and the European Union maintain a sizable share of bicycle production. Still, demand increase in electric bicycles and mountain bikes has propelled manufacturing in China, India, or Indonesia.

Bogotá tries to ease traffic congestion with pragmatic, non-partisan policies whose impact clearly exceeds the investment required for their execution, such as the active promotion of bike commutes (along with growing and maintaining a vast network or a citywide registry for stolen bicycles and parts), and the Transmilenio network, a “rapid bus” fleet that serves as a low-cost over-ground metro system, inspired in the integrated public transportation system of Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná.

In contrast to the Americas, every day is Ciclovía day in several northern European cities, and it’s been so for decades in some cases, such as in Amsterdam (38% of all journeys done by bike) and Copenhagen (29%), where the bicycle beats any other transportation method in short commutes —including walking to school or to work when both are nearby.

An early-nineteenth-century volcano eruption

The Netherlands has as many bicycles registered as inhabitants: over 16 million, with 99% of their population considering themselves cyclists (habitual or occasional); Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and Norway, despite their respective weathers (rain, snow, ice), follow in the list. In contrast, only 32% of Americans are cyclists, shrinking to around 16% in the United Kingdom.

The pandemic shacked statistics momentarily as the lack of traffic congestion transforming bicycling into bliss in city centers, though the changes could have long-term effects on bike ridership.

Group picture of the East Side Club. Around 1897, there were around 30.000 bicycles in the Los Angeles area alone

The first bicycle expansion may have been related to a remote volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815, which subsequently blocked the sun and caused a drop in temperatures that covered in ice the watercourses and flatlands of Central and Northern Europe.

A massive crop failure across Europe led people to consider Karl von Drais’ bizarre personal-transport machine. With nothing left to feed horses, the Laufmaschine (“running machine”) was adopted and improved upon across a territory transitioning from feudalism to Enlightenment after the Napoleonic Wars.

Harvests recovered fast, and both the Industrial Revolution and political turmoils around the rise of the urban classes would transform the world in a few decades. Bicycles would become a rather odd urban reality across the globe, the perceived Segway of their time, defying gravity as they propelled their driver through muddy alleys, cobbled streets, and bumpy roads.

Origin of the Tour de France

Mass production of the new personal transportation machine —a symbol of the rise of technology and not the opposite, as the vantage point of our age may suggest— would begin half a century after the Laufmaschine, this time in France.

In 1868, artisan metalworker and inventor Pierre Michaux produced his own model, the vélocipède, aided by the Olivier brothers at the Compagnie parisienne des vélocipèdes. Despite their perceived awkwardness, the new vehicles gained popularity and inspired the first race from Paris to Rouen in 1869.

Not long after, in 1871, the Paris Commune would divert attention from the two-wheeled sensation, adopted by a few across Europe and North America. The bicycle’s appeal would improve as difficult-to-maneuver front pedals gave way to the chain-driven bike in 1879, becoming a short-lived sensation in North America, dwarfed in a few decades by the rise of the automobile.

Overpass of the California Cycleway connecting Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles

One hundred years after the members of the League of American Wheelmen had helped improving road conditions through initiatives such as the Good Roads Movement, Steve Jobs would state in an interview that personal computers ought to become “bicycles for the mind”, thus enhancing our cognitive capabilities.

Jobs had come to the metaphor by looking at a magazine comparison among speed in the animal world, and mankind fared better in one mode added to the graphic by the magazine editor: a human being on a bicycle.

Electric bicycles beating scooters

The early utilitarian appeal of the bicycle manifested human autonomy from draft animals. Before the car, individual freedom vindication started parting ways with the romantic image of the Frontier cowboy riding a horse. To Arthur Conan Doyle, all one needed was a bike ride:

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

If the symbol of the bicycle paved the road for motored vehicles, it lost its preeminent position in urban commuting at the beginning of the twentieth century as public transportation and the automobile offered connected the growing industrial cities with the immediate residential areas.

Freedom and endurance continued to inspire bicycle enthusiasts. Life was like riding a bicycle, stated Albert Einstein — because to keep your balance, you must keep moving. Yet utility kept bicycle ridership steady in short-range activities that required maneuverability, such as urban delivery services. In wartime or during fuel shortages, the bicycle would rise in some cities to the status of main personal transportation symbol, to lose it afterward.

Colored pictures of postal and grocery delivery workers skillfully riding their bikes while holding packages one century ago may rise our attention in a way the delivery app riders of today won’t, but some parallels with past events may help understand the outgoing bicycle world that experience cities across the globe, as well as the exponential rise of electric bicycles.

A bicycle expressway LA-Pasadena that went bust

An increase in bicycle production doesn’t correlate with bike usage and commuting, nor do bike sales necessarily. Bike usage is, however, visually up in big cities and experiences a real boom in some of them, such as the case already mentioned, Paris.

But cities have experienced similar waves of popularity in the past; knowing what happened to them and why cars took over urban centers at the expense of pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure could serve as a warning for what could happen in the coming years.

It’s difficult to associate the commercial and residential stretch between Pasadena and Los Angeles as an early adopter of bike-friendly infrastructure. Before Los Angeles became the American landmark for car-centered urbanism and culture, the area decided to meet the popularity of bicycle use at the turning of the twentieth century by building the first bicycle expressway between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles that included a spectacular overpass through the Arroyo Seco.

Horace M. Dobbins had wanted to build the “world’s first elevated bikeway”; he ended up connecting downtown Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, taking advantage of the Arroyo Seco riverbed

The infrastructure cost cyclists 15 cents each way, and the whole route was illuminated. Bike commuters weren’t impressed, and cars soon took over the 9-mile commute. By 1940, the California Cycleway had given way to the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

A more recent episode of bicycle frenzy happened at the beginning of the ’70s; a similar perfect storm hit North America and Western Europe with accumulated wealth from the prosperity of the post-war growth years, a numerous young cohort (the baby-boomers of today) concerned by the environment and fitness, and the oil crisis of 1973. Consequently, cities encouraged bike use, and sales skyrocketed.

Mobility expert Carlton Reid explains how bike sales rose so fast in 1979 that Time claimed it was:

“[The] bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history.”

Driving cars around cities

Some assumed during the Carter years that American cities could become as bicycle friendly as the Netherlands of today. The story doesn’t tell us that the Netherlands’ bike-friendliness of today didn’t exist in the early seventies —it was a result of high urban density, a favorable flat orography, and the same concerns young Americans had back then.

But, while the oil embargo propelled the construction of an extensive cycleway network, the phenomenon lasted in the US as long as oil prices remained relatively high. It was clear that, by the end of the decade, bicycle riding would remain a popular commute only in college towns and similarly constricted environments.

Car commutes became stronger than ever by the eighties, coinciding with the mountain bike boom: bicycles, it seemed, were for casual errands and the outdoors, but only cars were serious transportation in the highly-suburban modern America.

The Pasadena Cycleway advancing towards Los Angeles, 1900

As of today’s boom, the popularity rise of the seventies was rural and recreational, “but also practical,” explains Carlton Reid. Bicycles were back. Until they weren’t totally back.

When Amsterdam streets were car-centered

The boom was rural and recreational, but it was also urban and practical. Highly-placed politicians—a few of whom were cyclists—told planners to get on with building miles and miles of urban cycleways.

But back then, the Netherlands applied the measures that had lasting effects we see and admire today. Those gains don’t come from the usually self-fulfilled prophecy of the supposed cultural superiority of certain societies or places. But back in 1974, the US Department of Transportation knew how Dutch cities were making things change. Anna Fee visited Europe in May of that year, writing:

“Amsterdam is investigating ideas and techniques to encourage bicycling. It is interesting to note that in the ‘city of bicycles’, the method to be used to stimulate a rebirth of bicycling is to institute an extensive system of separated bike lanes. There is generally not enough room on the street to provide a bicycle lane. Thus, in many cases, entire streets will be closed to motor vehicle traffic and designated for use by bicyclists and mopeds only.”

Proactive policies such as dedicated lanes and incentives to use and maintain meaningful bicycle infrastructure (with dedicated tunnels and overpasses if needed, as well as safety and anti-theft measures) can make a difference in the long term.

Paris seems to be betting seriously in its bicycle program. Maybe twenty years from now, some other cities will finally arrive at the conclusion that the best moment to kickstart a meaningful bike-commute strategy is today if it hasn’t already begun. If the infrastructure connects the right places, daily commuters will come.