Pedal power

Bikes have come a long way since French carriage-maker Ernest Michaux hammered together the first modern bicycle in 1861. Whether it’s a sturdy mountain bike or a streamlined racer, bikes have got a lot going for them – they may be the most efficient form of transportation ever invented.
NI Special Feature - Pedal power

Every day, thousands of bike-taxis weave nimbly through traffic in the western Kenyan city of Kisumu. A trip on one of the city’s new bike-taxis, or boda-bodas as they’re called, will cost you a lot less than a trip on one of the old smoke-belching matatu minibuses. They’ve also allowed many of Kisumu’s poorest residents to own their own small business for the first time ever. Improvements to the city’s bike industry have lowered production costs and sales of the pedal-powered alternative are booming. They’re so popular the city’s police are calling for safety regulations and the city council has started building special lanes for the boda-bodas to get downtown.

According to the UN, more than 70 per cent of us will be city-dwellers by 2050. With this surge in urban growth, many municipalities are recognizing the potential of the bicycle as an inexpensive, fast and healthy alternative that produces zero carbon emissions and creates sustainable cities.

Fifty per cent of car trips in British cities are three kilometres or less, while studies in California have found that 90 per cent of emissions are generated within the first kilometre. Bikes are the perfect candidates for reducing carbon emissions during short trips on our city’s streets. In France, the Agency for Health and Environmental Safety reports that automobile emissions kill up to 10,000 people each year. Reason enough to implement strategies to reduce emissions and develop cities where the health and equity of residents is part-and-parcel of a healthy environment.

The disadvantages of car-centred transport are self evident – air pollution, suburban sprawl and traffic gridlock. Cities that have taken cycling seriously have been able to drastically reduce emissions in an effort to build liveable communities. In major cities in Germany and Denmark, cycling accounts for 20 to 30 per cent of trips. The number is even higher in China, the world’s bicycle superpower. However, North America’s dominant car-culture makes no space for bikes on its gargantuan expressways and bicycles are used for less than one per cent of trips. Indeed, the siren-like call of the automobile is so great that some cities in the south like Shanghai, Jakarta and Dhaka are restricting bicycle use in favour of cars and motorcycles. Jakarta even tossed 20,000 bicycle rickshaws into Jakarta Bay in the 1980s to rid the city of a ‘backward technology’.

In US cities the average city driver covers about 17,000 kilometres a year. Air pollution, most of it in the form of automobile exhaust, is a chronic health hazard and accounts for 26 per cent of the country’s CO2 emissions. These emissions contain a range of toxic substances. A 1999 Dutch study of 632 children found that respiratory disorders worsened as air pollution increased. In Canada, the Toronto Public Health Department warned that ‘the health effects of common smog pollutants range from premature death and hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, to less serious but more frequent effects such as chronic bronchitis and asthma.’

In many cities, auto-centred development reinforces suburban sprawl and saps community cohesion. The Washington-based research institute, Worldwatch, notes that suburban houses and roadways in the US destroy more than a million hectares of farmland each year. One car takes the road space of 4-8 bicycles and requires 20 times as much space to park. Even in China more than 200,000 hectares of prime farmland disappear under new roads each year.

Worldwatch research director Gary Gardner notes: ‘Just as bikes tend to pull communities together, cars tend to take them apart.’

There’s not much chance then that already bulging cities – especially those in the global south – will be able to sustain themselves and provide suitable transport for their residents with a car-dependent approach. Boosting cycling seems an obvious solution. But there are drastically different justifications for cycling in cities like Nairobi compared with New York. While urban planners in the North may be looking for ways to reduce emissions and ‘green’ their streets, it is a different story in poorer nations. Bicycle rickshaw drivers in Dhaka, Bangladesh earn about a dollar per day for pedalling an average of 60 kilometres in the city’s nightmarish traffic and pollution. They may be ‘green’ but basic survival is clearly their main concern.

In Europe and North America, worry about climate change has sparked a growing interest in sustainable cities. How cities affect public health and how city-dwellers influence biodiversity are central to this idea. In Britain, London has taken a step toward sustainability and plans to cut carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2025 – the city accounts for seven per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr David McKeown, reports there is a ‘significant burden of illness and health-related costs associated with current levels of smog-generating pollutants, greenhouse gases and air toxics emitted by vehicles’. McKeown says 440 premature deaths in Toronto are directly connected to car emissions each year. A 30 per cent reduction in motor vehicle emissions, he argues, would save nearly 200 lives a year.

For Worldwatch’s Gardner, the health benefits of cycling can’t be determined in isolation – the bicycle should be seen as an important element in an integrated transport and community network.

Some cities have understood this and have introduced bike-friendly measures that not only reduce reliance on cars but also encourage development of a healthy natural environment within the city. The city of Växjö in southern Sweden decided to become fossil fuel free in 1996 – their emissions have decreased by 30 per cent so far. The goal is a city where ‘it is easy and profitable to live a good life without fossil fuels’. Their emission-cutting strategies include more renewable energy sources, low emission heating fuel and an expanded network of bike paths that are cleared of snow before roads.

Sometimes the changes are simple ones. In Muenster, Germany, bus lanes can now be used by bikes but not by cars. Special lanes near intersections allow cyclists to stop ahead of cars and traffic lights are programmed to ensure that cyclists get through the intersection ahead of cars. Other European cities like Paris and Copenhagen have developed bike share programmes, where residents and visitors pay a low fee to use a bike from one of the many cycling stations around the city. Support for Copenhagen’s bike share was so strong that its fleet soon doubled in size. Paris’s ‘Freedom Bikes’ now fill the streets with a fleet of 15,000 bicycles supported by 1,200 cycling stations. Consequently, cycling in the city of lights has increased by nearly 50 per cent over the past five years, helping to reduce carbon emissions by nine per cent. But Paris’s Freedom Bikes are only one aspect of its new transport plan. Paris is renovating squares, widening sidewalks and building more bike lanes to improve transport, but also to revitalize community life in public spaces.

It’s not just the cycling utopias of Europe that are pioneering bike-friendly urban planning. The best cities in the world for two-wheeled trips may be in South America, where urban planners recognize that bicycles can build community, alleviate poverty and reduce crime.

In Lima, bikes used to cost nearly a month’s salary. But a micro-credit programme run by the city now makes loans of $100 available for 12 months, allowing its poorest citizens to own bikes for the first time. The city plans to expand its bike paths significantly and boost trips made by non-motorized transport from two to ten per cent. The loans have also helped reduce poverty among Peruvian workers, who no longer need to shell out $25 a month for public transport from their average $200 salaries.

But the city that has done the most to boost the bicycle to the level of ‘two-wheeled saviour’ is Bogotá. In recent years cycling has jumped 900 per cent in the Colombian capital (see ‘Chain Reaction in Bogotá’, page 23). Bogotá’s two-wheeled achievements have been studied with interest by other Latin American capitals. São Paulo, Quito and Guatemala City have also begun implementing pro-bike policies.

In many parts of Africa, bicycles play an essential role in providing healthcare and medicines to rural areas that sometimes cannot be reached by other vehicles. In Senegal, nurses on bikes deliver much needed immunization and TB treatments to thousands. Many of Africa’s cities are among the fastest growing in the world. The challenge to provide affordable transport while reducing poverty and protecting the environment is immense. The New York-based Institute for Transport and Development Policy has been promoting cycling in Africa for over a decade.

‘African cities are growing fast and the new urban middle class has increased car ownership. They often see bikes as old and irrelevant transport,’ says Aimee Gauthier, the Institute’s African Regional Director. ‘One problem is there are few bikes being manufactured locally and the ones they have are old.Bikes can be very valuable, especially in rural areas, where roads are bad and you don’t have access to fuel. Bike ambulances in Namibia have worked really well getting people to hospitals and clinics faster than motorized transport.’

Pay attention, urban planners: the bicycle is a solution that has cruised the asphalt of city streets for over a century. Pushed from roads and highways it needs to claim its rightful place as a healthy and sustainable alternative that creates liveable cities and does its part to fight climate change.

Chris Webb is a journalist and avid cyclist living in Winnipeg, Canada.


Cycling groups around the world

Pedals for Progress
Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)
International Bicycle Fund

The International Forum for Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD)
Transportation Alternatives


Chain reaction in Bogotá

Bogotá has become the cycling centre of Latin America thanks to its ciclo-rutas, the most extensive series of bike paths in the world. The changes have had a major impact on the city’s transport system, cutting car use while boosting two-wheel commuting. The comprehensive network of bike paths was designed with the city’s topology in mind and integrated into its new TransMilenio bus system.

Retailers sold a record number of bikes during Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s three-year term from 1997 to 2000. Peñalosa implemented pro-bike policies, like the 300 kilometre-long ciclo-rutas. Other policies, like banning cars from 120 kilometres of the city’s main roads on Sundays and holidays, opened the streets to over 2 million cyclists, walkers and roller-bladers. In 2000, the city held its first Car Free Day. No cars were allowed in the entire urban area for 13 hours – the event was wildly popular and has become an annual affair.

Bogotá’s bike paths were designed according to a ‘network hierarchy’ – which means that the central network connects the most heavily populated neighbourhoods with the main schools and job centres. A secondary network feeds bikers into the main network from other suburbs and city parks. Finally, a complementary network provides continuity by connecting residential areas to recreational public spaces.

There are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 trips made by bicycle each day in the city. The TransMilenio bus system and 300 kilometres of bike paths may be the most enduring of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s projects. A mere 19 per cent of trips in the city are now made by automobile and buses account for 70 per cent of daily trips in motorized vehicles. The changes have also made city streets safer. Deaths from road accidents decreased from 1,400 in 1995 to 585 in 2003.

For a great video clip of the vibrant cycling community in Bogotá, see