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Pedal Power: The Cycling Revolution Cleaning Our Air, Clearing Congestion, Tackling Climate Breakdown and Improving Health -

Pedal Power: The Cycling Revolution Cleaning Our Air, Clearing Congestion, Tackling Climate Breakdown and Improving Health

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Car use may have risen enormously in the last 30 years in most countries, but some places have managed to get people out of motorised transport and on their bikes in huge numbers, reducing carbon emissions and increasing health and wellbeing. Globally, the market for bicycles is predicted to grow by 45% in just an eight year period between 2018–2026, with traffic congestion, the climate emergency, green policies and personal health concerns all given as reasons. In recognition of its importance, the UN recently proclaimed June 3rd as World Bicycle Day. If other cities and countries followed current best practice, learning from successful policies and programmes already in existence, we could make rapid steps forward to de-carbonise much of our urban transport and tackle the crisis of lethally toxic air quality.

The cities of Freiburg in Germany, Portland in the US and Ghent in Belgium offer great examples of models for rapid transition. The innovations of these leaders in sustainable transport systems have come over decades, but transition for other cities today could be much faster, as so much development work has been done and the sense of urgency caused by climate change and pollution growth means that the political will is stronger. The change can be huge: as of 2017, 6.3% of Portland, Oregon’s commuters went by bike—approximately 22,647 people and a rise of 374% since 2000. Nationally, just 0.5% of US commuters cycle to work, although over one in ten ride regularly, and between 2006 and 2017 an estimated additional c.8 million Americans took up cycling.

In Ghent, Belgium, journeys by bike are now quicker than by car. In a decade the share of commutes by bike rose to one in five, more than double the national average, up from just 12 percent.

In Europe, the level of bicycle use has depended largely on its importance in the culture (cycling has long been a major sport in Italy and France); on the topography (flatter countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg favour cycling); and on government policy. Cycling as a percentage of all transport varies across Europe, from just 1% in Malta, and 2% in the UK to an impressive 26% in the Netherlands.

Infrastructure such as bike lanes, storage facilities, bike-to-work subsidies, transport policy and pro-bike safety measures have all played a part in embedding the bicycle into the transport system; for example, bike parks are placed next to train and tram stations for ease of use. Ghent in Belgium and Portland in the US are famous for their success in promoting cycling, as are Copenhagen and most Dutch cities. Even in places with narrow streets and ancient, winding roads, such as Freiburg in Germany, it has been possible to make cycling a key part of the local transport network through careful planning and integrating cycling alongside public transport and the car.

In fast developing countries such as China, the bicycle has ridden full circle within 70 years: first rising to become a main mode of transport; then falling dramatically as rising incomes brought the car; pushed as status symbol, within people’s reach; and finally resurging dramatically for environmental reasons. China’s high status Flying Pigeon bicycle is still the most popular vehicle model in human history, with more than half a billion units deployed. But according to a 2008 report by the Earth Policy Institute, in the decade between 1995 and 2005, China’s bike fleet declined by 35%, from 670 million to 435 million, while private car ownership more than doubled, from 4.2 million to 8.9 million. Blaming cyclists for increasing accidents and congestion, some city governments even closed bike lanes and banned bicycles from downtown areas. Then, in 2010, there was a dramatic incident that not only stopped the traffic, but also Chinese government officials in their tracks. In August, a traffic jam built up that was around 100 km long, and lasted for a whole nine days. Truck drivers were stuck for so long that they became dependent on enterprising locals to feed them, soon complaining of exploitative prices.

Shocked by the transport failure, and concerned by increasingly dangerous air quality, the Chinese government made a U-turn in transport policy from 2011, encouraging its citizens to get back in the saddle through bike share programs. Other countries could learn from this and follow suit.

Wider relevance

The return to cycling as part of a solution to the rapid transition to a zero carbon economy is interesting because—for many journeys—the bicycle is simply the best vehicle available. It is cheap to buy and maintain, small to store, uses no fuel once manufactured and can be recycled in a closed-loop system, and it brings health and social benefits to individuals and communities. We also know how to use it already—there is no learning curve needed. The skills are widespread and the manufacturing facilities are already in place. It really is a case of once you have learned to ride a bike, you will never forget. What’s needed now is some thoughtful planning for streets and buildings, integration of cycling into other transport systems, and a shift in culture to make bikes a normal mode of daily transport for the majority.

Europe could reduce its overall emissions by one quarter if its whole population cycled as regularly as the Danes

National cycling strategies in the last five years have brought together infrastructure, health and wellbeing, and environmental benefits to encourage people to cycle more. Modal rates of cycling across Europe range from 1% in England to 26% in the Netherlands, with a group of Northern European countries reaching 5-8%. Although this is still low, some 160 million low-carbon cycling trips per day were made in the EU in 2017. The economic benefits of cycling to the EU were already worth €513 billion in 2017 and aim to reach €760 billion by 2030.

In a carbon constrained world, this is one part of the economy that can be expanded quickly, with huge reductions in transport emissions from car use, and long-term benefits to people’s health. Europe could reduce its overall emissions by one quarter if its whole population cycled as regularly as the Danes, according to a study by the European Cyclists Federation (ECF) that compares the CO2 produced by cycling with other modes of transport. Half of all Copenhagen residents cycle to work and nearly half of Danish households currently do not own a car.

Context and background

The bicycle has played a huge role in modern life, and was only supplanted by the car in some countries in the late 20th Century. Since the invention of the first pedaled “velocipede” in 1868—also known as the “boneshaker” for its uncomfortable ride—people cycled both for fun and as a means of transport. It was socially revolutionary too, providing greater freedom and autonomy for low income households and especially women. The year 1884 saw the invention of the “safety bicycle”, 1889 brought relief from pneumatic tyres, and by 1895 Chicago mailmen were on bikes to carry out their working rounds. Although the arrival of the car in the US at the turn of the 20th Century saw bicycle use plummet (until its later rise in the 1970s for leisure), cycling became a vital part of the local transport system in many other countries across the world. In the UK, the bicycle is credited with a significant rise in co-mingling and genetic diversification within communities as more rural people met and had children with partners from beyond their own village or town for the first time.

The bicycle offers cheap, reliable, low tech transport that is easy to mend. By 1995 China had 670 million bikes in use, and India and China were manufacturing and shipping millions of bikes to Africa, South America and other Asian countries. Bicycles allowed people to work outside their own community, to communicate with other neighbourhoods and to transport goods and services to a wider market, revolutionising local economies. For example, the charity World Bicycle Relief has provided over 450,000 rugged bicycles since 2005 for use in countries with poor roads and little public transport to get people to medical centres, schools and work.

However, the bicycle is also limited in how much it can carry, by the fitness of its rider, and by the safety of the road system. Without infrastructure and policies to favour the bicycle, most countries and populations moved swiftly to motorised transport as soon as it became affordable—such as mopeds, motorbikes, scooters and finally cars. In places where public transport is good and cheap, this also became a preferred option. However, motorised transport brought its own problems as mentioned, with China now returning to the bicycle as one way to improve urban air quality.

Enabling factors

Rapid transition is best served when policies are in place to help it to happen. Ghent in Belgium is a good example: a flat city with narrow ancient streets, a population of 250,000, 100 km of roads and 380 km of cycle paths. The city has had a cycling plan since 1992 alongside its public transport system, which caters for 267,000 users daily. Since 1997, they tried to discourage cars from going through the city with a series of measures: not increasing the number of parking places; putting well signposted car parks underground; pedestrianising city centre squares; installing cycling infrastructure—bike routes, ringroad, storage—and improving public transit systems. Cycle hire is conveniently available at train stations and bike repair stations are plentiful. The cycling programme has a dedicated budget and staff team. City employees also get the option of a free bike to use for commuting and a “bike bonus” of 0.15 euro/km. Safe bike parking sheds, free safety lights and a bike registration scheme to deter thieves completes the package.

Portland in Oregon is unusual in the US as a city that has a strong history and culture of cycling. Cycling plans were adopted by the city council in 1973, 1996 and 2010, making the bicycle an integral part of daily life. Throughout the 1980s, the Portland Bicycle Program produced route maps, installed bike racks, wrote bike parking codes and began organising bicycle encouragement events and programmes. Then it developed bikeway corridors, installing the first street improvements. The Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030 provides a vision for Portland’s bikeway network and aims to reach a total of 25% of all daily trips being made by bicycle. Despite all this work, the estimated replacement value for Portland’s bicycling infrastructure in 2008 was just $60 million—the approximate cost for one mile of urban freeway.

Freiburg in Germany is a city that benefited from a large number of green advocates in high places in the 1960s, allowing it to steal a march on much of the world with some visionary planning. Freiburg began with above-average car use until things started to change around 1970. Bike networks, expanded light rail, pedestrianisation and locating new developments for both homes and businesses by public transport all played their part. In 1973, the entire city centre was converted to a pedestrian zone and by 1980 the car officially took second priority to pedal, foot and mass transit. Between 1982 and 1999, the contribution of cycling to the city’s volume of traffic increased from 15% to 28% and public transport from 11% to 18%, while miles travelled by car fell from 38% to 30% of the total. By 2008 the city had several cycle-only streets, and nine out of ten residents lived in areas where traffic could not go faster than 30 km p/h (19 mph). In many areas the speed limit drops to 7 km p/h (5 mph). Freiburg now has over 400 km of cycle paths and 9,000 bicycle parking spaces—including “bike and ride” lots at transit stations. The city has set a template now widely being copied. Urban planning makes Freiburg a city of “short distances”—a compact city with strong neighborhood centers where people’s needs are within walking distance.

Bouncing back from its fall from favour, by 2018, China had 400 million registered bike-sharing users and the daily number of riders peaked at 70 million. Despite some teething problems with oversupply before the correct infrastructure was in place, the industry has successfully relieved 400 million hours of time spent in traffic, equal to the work hours of 240,000 people a year. Hangzhou, a port city 100 miles from Shanghai, is now home to the world’s largest bike share programme—more than 60,000 to date, with a goal of 175,000 bikes by 2020. Such systems need to be well designed to ensure that they work well and do not end up with bikes being abandoned, as has happened in some cities.

Scope and evidence

  • Modal rates of cycling across Europe range from 1% in England to 26% in the Netherlands, with a bunch of Northern European countries weighing in around 5-8%.
  • The European Bicycle Industry employs 90,000 people in 800 SMEs, 25% more than 5 years ago.
  • The economic benefits of cycling to the EU are worth 513 billions euros in 2017 and aim to reach 760 billion euros by 2030.
  • 160 million cycling trips per day were made in the EU in 2017.
  • Half of all Copenhageners bike to work and nearly half of Danish households don’t own a car.
  • Ghent in Belgium has 100km of roads and 380km of cycle paths.
  • The Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030 provides a vision for Portland’s bikeway network. It aims to reach a level of 25% of all daily trips being made by bicycle.
  • $60 million is the estimated replacement value for Portland’s bicycling infrastructure in 2008. That’s the approximate cost for one mile of urban freeway.
  • As of 2017, 6.3% of Portland commuters go by bike. This is the highest percentage of bike commuters for a large American city and means that approximately 22,647 workers in Portland choose to bicycle. Nationally, 0.5% of commuters bicycle. In addition, 374% more people biked to work in 2017 than in 2000.
  • In 1969 Freiburg devised its first integrated traffic management plan and cycle path network. The plan, which aims to improve mobility while reducing traffic and benefiting the environment, is updated every 10 years.
  • In 1973 the entire Freiburg city center was converted to a pedestrian zone. Today the city has over 400 km of cycle paths.
  • Between 1982 and 1999, the contribution of cycling to the city’s volume of traffic increased from 15% to 28% and public transport from 11% to 18%, while miles travelled by car fell from 38% to 30% of the total.
  • More than two million people in the UK now cycle at least once a week, an all-time high according to British Cycling.
  • According to a survey by the European Commission, only 4% of UK respondents cycle daily. Along with Luxembourg and Spain, this is the lowest percentage of all EU 28 countries, except for Cyprus (2%) and Malta (1%). In contrast, the survey report says: “Approximately four in ten respondents in the Netherlands (43%) cycle daily. Roughly three in ten respondents in Denmark (30%) and Finland (28%) also cycle daily.”
  • The number of electric-powered bicycles in China just passed the 200 million mark (link in Chinese), manufactures are reporting 200% annual sales growth in Brazil, sales are strong in Europe and the Philippines is ordering 100,000 electricity-powered three wheelers, just one of several Asian nations investing in e-bikes.
  • Hangzhou, a port city 100 miles from Shanghai, is home to the world’s largest bike share program—more than 60,000 to date, with a goal of 175,000 bikes by 2020.
  • Germany saw a drop of 40% in car ownership in the age group 18-30 years
    within 10 years 2002-2012.
  • Numbers of electric powered assisted bicycles in the EU are expected to go from 6.5 million in 2015 to 62 million in 2030.

Lessons for a rapid transition

  1. Take cycling seriously – it relieves pressure on other transport systems when integrated with other public transport, produces much cleaner, healthier urban environments, reduces congestion and in terms of infrastructure costs brings much more value.
  2. Bicycles support livelihoods and save lives – in countries where roads are bad, public transport is rare and people have low incomes, bicycles can liberate, are an essential economic tool, and may be the only way to get to health and other services.
  3. Cycling is the ultimate win – win: reducing carbon emissions and through exercise provide an antidote to sedentary lifestyles, reconnecting people to the environment and improving health.


This article is re-published with the kind permission of Andrew Simms
and Rapid Transition Alliance

Because the climate is changing faster than we are, the Rapid Transition Alliance gathers, shares and demonstrates evidence of what is already possible to remove excuses for inaction and show ways ahead. These might be stories of community action, innovative policy or very personal, pivotal moments that allow us to see the world differently. Rapid Transition Alliance is being coordinated by a small group of people drawn from the New Weather Institute, the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, and the ESRC STEPS Centre at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and the Institute of Development Studies, and with help from our friends, colleagues and supporters.

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