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Celebrating World Bicycle Day

How cycling can help address inequality and lead to better outcomes

June 3, 2019

A wireframe bicycle sits on a globe representing world bicycle day
June 3, 2018 was the first UN World Bicycle Day.

The event was designed to celebrate the health and mobility provided by the bicycle to people all over the world. In developing countries and areas without road infrastructure, the bicycle provides mobility to those who would otherwise be dependent on walking or animal transport. Bicycles are a tool of economic development. In the developing world and in rural areas, they can provide greater access to education and work. In developed countries and urban spaces, they have a marked local economic and social benefit. The bike provides freedom to the individual that supports the overall economy. It also supports public health. As a low-impact exercise that fits into a commuting schedule, it supports physical and mental health. It is a sustainable, eco-friendly, inexpensive tool for getting around. The UN’s world bicycle day recognizes these benefits and encourages all member states to improve road safety and promote the bicycle.

A history of innovation and freedom

The modern bicycle is the result of a slow evolution of design. The first appearance of a bicycle-like invention appeared in 1818, when Karl Von Drais created a two-wheeled, seated contraption which he called the laufmaschine, or “running machine.” In English, these would come to be known as hobby-horses. These inventions looked much like bicycles today, constructed entirely out of wood. The rider would sit on a plush seat between two wheels, steering using handlebars. However, it was propelled by the rider pushing against the street to achieve speed, more like a modern-day skateboard or kids balance bike.

The original laufmaschine looked more like a modern-day bicycle than the innovations that followed it. New models experimented with pedals and had disparate wheel sizes. The first of these bikes was called the “bone-shaker,” so called for the discomfort of the rider. Without rubber wheels, the cyclist was suspended over wagon-wheels of wood rimmed in iron. The penny-farthing followed the bone-shaker and introduced two notable innovations. Firstly, it was a more comfortable ride due to a solid rubber tire. Secondly, it had an enormous front wheel. This wheel translated a single rotation of the rider’s feet into a much larger circle around the rim of the wheel. This made the penny-farthing a faster, more efficient way of travelling.

A man rides a penny farthing through a park in the autumn
Penny-farthing bicycles need superior balance and strength to ride.

Although the penny-farthing was faster, it was also substantially more dangerous to the rider. The high seat ensured a long way to fall should the rider hit a rut—common in dirt roads used to seeing wagon wheels. A rider could also lose control if they did not balance the down stroke of one foot with a corresponding tension in the opposite arm. Every push against the farthing’s pedals caused the wheel to turn that direction, so the rider had to correct with their posture and arms, or they would fall. Of course, at the time, bicycle helmets had not been invented.

The “safety bicycle,” designed by John Starley in 1885, had equal-sized wheels and a chain drive. The safety bicycle did not require daring during mount and dismount, nor balanced movement of the arms to stay upright. It went from being a daring act of balance, to a form of transportation many people might be able to master. According to history.com, the New York Times said in 1896 that “the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give.”

Many bicycles sit together in a town square
Municipalities must deal with concerns about conflict between cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians.

Resistance to the bicycle

Before public transit or personal vehicles, the bicycle became the primary vehicle for worker mobility. It increased a rider’s geographical reach, for either work or school. Yet with any innovation comes suspicion: at first, people complained that “wheelers” were ending up with “bicycle face.” This was described as a condition featuring dark shadows under the eyes, drawn lips, and an “expression of weariness.” As it became more common for women to be on bicycles, the increased freedom they experienced led to complaints. Women riders were warned they were becoming “mannish,” or that cycling could lead to a whole list of possible female health problems. The prevailing conservative view as that women were vulnerable to the physical and metal excitement of the sport.

These days, conflict around bicycles is more often related to traffic concerns. Shared space does lead to conflict: both drivers and cyclists show preference for separated bike lanes. Although separated bike lanes make cycling more accessible to a greater number of people, drivers often express concern that the lost space will create additional traffic congestion. A number of cities, with careful planning and monitoring, have found that separated lanes create no change in traffic. Hesitant riders are emboldened to try cycling and leave their cars at home. Bicycles are a more efficient use of space.

Infrastructure support for cultural change

Resistance also comes from potential riders who fear the risks they might be taking. Cycling is riskier in places where there is no cycling infrastructure, cycling-supportive traffic law, or riding culture. In places where governments invest in infrastructure, studies have repeatedly shown excellent returns on investment; one study out of New Zealand showed over 20 times ROI. Some of this benefit comes from the feedback-loop created as people get on their bikes. As hesitant-but-interested people are convinced to try, they normalize cycling. Cultural normalization brings more people onto the roads. The benefits of low-cost and health-promoting transport are attractive to many people if routes are safe and available.

Tough flexible bollards delineate a separated bike lane
Infrastructure investment encourages cyclists from a wider range of ages and abilities.

Cycling for the future

The UN’s World Bicycle Day encourages member states to promote bicycles. Infrastructure investment and bicyclist-friendly legal frameworks usher in a cultural shift toward the bike. Bike lanes and parking solutions return many times their value to municipalities. (Durable flexible bollards lower the ongoing replacement cost of broken bollards while allowing emergency vehicles access to bike lanes.)

The bike is a global solution that affects the locality. It is a small, light, and cheap way to find nimble transport on an increasingly populated planet. From 1950 until today, the world population has gone from 2.5 billion to 7.7 billion people. By 2100, the UN estimates that the population will be about 11 billion people. Moving all those people in single-occupant cars at rush hour would be a disaster for urban environments.

Climate change also asks us to evaluate transportation options with respect to carbon output. Cycling is not carbon free. Infrastructure and production produce some carbon, as does the rider’s calorie expenditure—but both in tiny amounts compared to the car. Currently, cycling accounts for 6% of miles travelled: if this increased to 14% of travel, it would cause an 11% fall in carbon emissions. That’s a big impact made by a small change.

Globally, and for big cities, bikes add a lot of value. They also support the vitality of neighborhoods, putting people on the street. For many people, the bike also provides freedom and exercise with physical and emotional benefits. It’s clear that bicycles provide a surprising level of payback given they’re such low-profile, low-cost machines.

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