How Bikes Can Help Save the Cities of the Future


Glasgow Bike Tunnel (Pinterest)

“An engineer designing from scratch could hardly concoct a better device to unclog modern roads – cheap, nonpolluting, small and silent…”
Rick Smith, International Herald Tribune, May 2006


The laundry list of challenges facing the world throughout the remainder of the twenty-first century is long: the creep of global warming, overwhelming pollution, unchecked population explosions, and whomever Taylor Swift might be dating next. With all these issues, world leaders and policy makers have turned their focus to creating systems that are efficient and built to last. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has made it clear that, “Sustainable development is the central challenge of our times.” Faced with such a myriad of problems, it is clear that there will be no catch-all solution, but rather small alterations in everyday life all around the world that can add up to affect real change.

Cities are the hubs of the modern world, with vast and complex metropolises serving as seats of finance, technology, governance, and culture. According to the United Nations, more people live in urban areas than rural ones for the first time in human history (54% in 2014). With this trend projected to increase in the next few decades, sustainable development and urban planning will need to live together in symbiosis in order to ensure healthy and happy lives for a majority of people on Earth. In his book The Age of Sustainable Development, Jeffery D. Sachs, professor at Columbia University and director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, says that, “Sustainable cities are economically productive, socially (and politically) inclusive, and environmentally sustainable. In other words, they must promote efficient economic activities, ensure that all citizens can benefit from them, and must do so in a way to preserve the biodiversity, safe air and water, and physical health and safety of the citizens, especially in an age of climate change and increasing vulnerability to extreme climate catastrophes.”

When looking at realistic changes we can make to the world order, bikes immediately come to mind. They fit all three of Sachs’ criteria: they help drive economic productivity through reduced pollution and traffic congestion, aid social mobility by connecting cities more fully than more expensive cars can, and are a boon for environmental sustainability and protection. This, all without mentioning the individual physical and mental health benefits associated with daily riding!



Beachfront riding in Barcelona (WIRED)


To further explore how cycling integrates into urban development, we spoke with Boulder’s own Stefan Norgaard, the Tom Ford Philanthropy Fellow on the Equitable Development Team of the Ford Foundation. He has worked in Africa and the United States on sustainable city development:

Max Nathanson:  What are common problems faced with city planners in terms of
transportation? What are some of the root causes of these issues?

Stefan Norgaard:  All too often, public-serving and environmentally-friendly modes of transportation are under-funded and underutilized.  I would argue that this phenomenon stems from decades of public policies and incentives, as well as entire fields of urban planners and development practitioners, that prioritize cars over people, are accountable to specific development interests and not all citizens, and plan from the top-down and not the bottom-up.  The result?  Systems of transportation that are neither environmentally nor socially desirable.  Sprawl and unplanned growth may lead to short-term profits for some, but fail to cultivate the sustainable, walkable communities that people demand and desire.  Over the last decade or so, we have seen the vast benefits that come from planning for multi-modal, complete streets with higher density.  City planners need to plan for people and public-serving infrastructure, even when they might not have a powerful political constituency behind them.  Better yet, city planners ought to plan alongside city and neighborhood residents, and not from the top down.  Participatory planning isn’t just a nice thing to do, it produces better cities and neighborhoods for its residents.  Countless participatory planning projects from New York City demonstrate the model’s long-term effectiveness.

MN: Of these problems, how has and might cycling be used as a solution?
SN:  Cycling has the potential to weave together hyper-local neighborhoods and communities at a human scale.  In addition to the environmental benefits of cycling, cities designed with bicycles in mind are also more walkable and accommodate a variety of uses and users at once.  We know from urban theorist Jane Jacobs that city residents love diversity:  diversity of transport options, of architectural styles, of people.  Accommodating diverse uses, including a dedicated commitment to cycling, can allow a city street to function as a civic space, where residents can engage their community and meet people from different backgrounds.
Vancouver, the Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Bikeway (Vancouver Sun)

MN: What are the benefits and negatives of cycling as a form of commuting and transportation in modern cities around the world?
SN:  When done right, cycling as a form of communing and transportation has the potential to catalyze urban areas and bring communities together, but this is not a given.  For example, though modern cities’ bike share programs are exciting and popping up across the world, they are not always planned in concert with dedicated bike lanes or connections to public transit.  Moreover, even when bike shares are planned accordingly, they are too rarely planned with low-income neighborhoods and residents in mind.  Research from NATCO shows that people from all types of racial and economic backgrounds use bike share programs when they are convenient.  Unfortunately, however, cycling infrastructure is often only built in wealthier neighborhoods, or for certain types of residents.  When that happens, cycling infrastructure can actually compound inequality or perceptions of inequality.  For cycling to benefit city residents around the world, it must be priced affordably and designed with and alongside local residents (example of participatory bike share planning?  New York City’s bike share planning process).  Sometimes making cycling inclusive has to do with cost-prohibitive systems (for example, Philadelphia’s cash only system is laudable in pushing past a barrier many other city programs face); at other times, it has to do with a lack of outreach and knowledge about the program, causing feelings of community exclusion.
MN: With the next few decades expected to expand urban populations dramatically, especially in less developed countries, how might city planners and policymakers incorporate cycling into the cities of tomorrow?
SN:  Yes, by 2050 it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, and a good portion of that growth will occur in Global South cities.  City planners and policymakers know that urban growth is coming; they ought to consider how they plan for that growth.  The Ford Foundation is working with a consortium of other organizations to bring together mayors and city administrations from around the world to develop principles of equity and inclusion and share best practices around what works (see my Ford article on this topic here).  Sustainable, pro-poor transportation infrastructure, such as cycling systems and infrastructure, is a critical element of planning tomorrow’s cities sustainably and equitably.  City planners ought to plan alongside local residents and share best practices from other global cities when it comes to successful implementation.

Berlin (Pinterest)

The evidence in favor of expanded cycling access and networks is indisputable: bikes are an Earth-friendly, fair, and fun mode of transportation. For the average rider, supporting these efforts simply means using your daily choices, tax dollars, and social networks in order to make the world more velo-centric. Following the lead of leading policy makers at the United Nations, organizations such as the Ford Foundation, and urban planners in cities such as Bogotá, we can all do our part by traveling on two wheels.