Augustin Agabriel

Urbanism and Sustainability Analyst

How could we motivate people to cycle?

It would definitely not be a surprise to tell you that cycling is growing in popularity as a mean of transportation, especially in urban areas. They are seen as a clean, sportive and cheap way to move from one place from the other.

Indeed, bicycles do not pollute while being used, they are less expensive than cars or even public transports on the long term and studies have shown that the daily use of a bicycle is strongly correlated with a reduction of cardiac and arterial issues.

With the pandemic, while we were all locked in closed areas, our will to move outside has grown, illustrated by the sharp rise in the demand of bicycles, with estimates of a growth of over 30% of bicycle sales compared to 2019 (Fortune Business Insight, 2021).

Cycling seems a promising mean of transportation for the future, but it is already reality in some cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam where around 40% of daily trips are made by bike. But cycling is still, by far, less used in most urban spaces around the world than other means of transportation. Why so? One of the main reasons presented is safety. Biking appears very dangerous compared to other means of transportations, which repels many from starting to bike in their daily life. It is true that on paper, contrarily as in a car or in urban transportations, a bike does not ensure a protective cell around you. It is also easier to lose balance on a bike as you are cycling on two wheels.

However, if we look at the numbers, it can also seem that cycling is not as dangerous as it seems. The New Zealand ministry of transportation has reported that 1 cyclist in 1000 are involved in an injury crash every year while 3 car drivers in 1000 are. But as cycling can only be used for short distances, while cars can be used for long trips, these numbers must be taken with caution. The challenge still remains however: convincing that cycling is a safe mean of transportation.

One of the most obvious answers to that question would be to make helmets mandatory. But this opinion has been criticized on many points, mostly because it deters people to use the bike instead of other means of transportations. Indeed, by having a mandatory helmet, you must carry it always even when not on your bike, which makes it practically more difficult to choose biking as a mean of transportation. For example, Australia has made the wear of helmets mandatory on bikes in 1992. Overall, number of deaths on the bike have dropped by 46% between the pre-legislation trend and post-legislation period. But as a result, it discouraged younger generations to use bikes, with an estimate that bike usage of teenagers declined by more than 40% compared to the pre-legislation period.

If we want to promote the security of cycling while developing it, making the wear of a helmet mandatory does not appear to be the solution. And when we look at the well-known cities where cycling is one of the most important means of transportation, the wear of a helmet is not mandatory.

Therefore, this solution doesn’t appear sustainable for the development of biking. But then, what have made cycling-friendly cities for the development of biking? The answer is simple: separate lanes for the circulation of bicycles. Investment in cycling infrastructures to ensure the security of its users, especially through the development of bike lanes.

For example, city of Amsterdam decided to opt for this option in the 1970s and is now one of the cities where there is the highest share of bicycle use in the world compared to other means of transportation (Le Parisien).

But issues remain on the ways cycling lanes are built. In this post-pandemic times, we see bicycle lanes being built in many areas of the world by cities to promote safe cycling. But some of these designs are not the best for the safety of the users, especially at crossovers.

In London or Paris, two-ways biking lanes are often on the same side of the road, where cyclists meet those coming in the other way. By putting cyclists on the same side, it might feel safer because you are in a space with people using the same mean of transportation as you, but it actually adds danger. If bike lanes were on the two sides on the road, going in the same direction as the cars, this would avoid cyclists from a potential collision with a cyclist coming from the other way, while being still physically separated from cars. Another issue of two-ways cycling lanes is at crossovers. In Copenhagen for example, cyclists are moving at crossovers in the same time as pedestrians. If you want for example to turn left, you would usually turn as a car and go straight for a left turn when the light comes green. But in Copenhagen, cyclists first cross straight (with the pedestrians), then wait for the light to be green before crossing on the left. This is only possible with cycling lanes at each side of the road, going in the same way as cars. And the results are here: in countries that have invested the most in cycling infrastructures, the portion of the population using bike has improved, while enhancing security of the users.

If we take the following graph of Copenhagen published by the OECD in 2013 after the International Transport Forum, it is clear to see that while the average cycled distance per day improved, the number of casualties slightly rose as well, but average fatalities and injuries dropped. Most of casualties occurred on cycling tracks (areas shared with other means of transportation), while very few on lanes, showing the efficiency of the investment and smart urban planning in bicycle lanes.

However, the solution presented is an example of what cities in developed countries have made. In poorer countries, this might be more complicated, as investments in cycling lanes are quite expensive. The Netherlands spend on average 500 million euros for bike infrastructures every year, which in proportion of the population, would be equivalent of the US to spend 10 billion euros. Cities such as Bogota, Colombia show some promising improvements, with a rise of bike use of almost 40% between 2011 and 2015, and plan to build 280kms extra bike lanes in the coming 4 years (Bloomberg City Lab, 2020).

However, issues have been reported in the maintenance of these paths, which affect security of the users (World Bank, 2020). On top of that, Bogota is still wealthier than many cities in the world, that could not even afford cycling infrastructures. This solution therefore appears difficult to be efficiently applied in cities that cannot afford such an investment in the security of the users.

But cycling organizations can pressure officials by showing the positive aspects on health and environment of such investments and try to motivate them to unlock sufficient funds for investments. Such organizations do exist like the European Cycling Federation, whose aim is to defend cyclists’ place in the urban space (Les Echos).

So, overall, one of the main elements that deter people from starting to use a bicycle is their safety on the bike. Some have chosen to make helmet wear mandatory, but it has discouraged people to use bikes because of practicability. On the other hand, cities that today count the most cyclists in proportion to their population chose to separate cyclists and other means by creating bicycle lanes, but with a strict urban planification to enhance security, such as seen in Copenhagen. So, investments by cities in cycling infrastructures, especially bike lanes, are the pathway to enhance bike use, while improving security, which would motivate people to start biking.

Nonetheless, this solution appears to be not efficient for cities that cannot afford such improvements, but cyclists can still try to motivate officials to act through organizations by showing the positive effects of such an investment.

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