Out on the roads cars are sitting bumper to bumper; traffic is moving slowly, to say the least. At times like these bicycles offer one thing above all else: freedom. Cyclists are able to skillfully weave their way through the gridlocked traffic and decide for themselves how quickly they want to progress.
Advancing urbanization has led to a boom in cycling in Europe, fueled by densely populated cities, clogged roads and a shortage of parking space. The top twenty bike-friendly cities worldwide compiled by Danish cycling consultants “Copenhagenize” contains 17 in Europe – including Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Utrecht, Strasbourg, Eindhoven, Malmo, Nantes, Bordeaux, Antwerp, Seville, Barcelona and Berlin. There is also a growing community of cyclists in the USA, especially in metropolitan areas such as Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City. But their numbers are tiny compared to those in Europe, something which can be attributed not just to the lack of infrastructure for riders and the long distances people travel, but also to cultural differences.
European cities boast a wider variety of bicycles than almost anywhere else in the world
Whereas Europeans view the bicycle from a practical standpoint and use it as a quick and cheap means of transport, cycling in the USA appeals to a specific, and therefore far smaller, target group of people who follow a health conscious and sustainability-led lifestyle. This is clearly apparent from the types of bikes used: European cities boast a wider variety of bicycles than almost anywhere else in the world – luxury bikes and smart racing or city bikes share the roadways and cycle paths with a mass of classic pushbikes with heavy, rusting frames that are purely utilitarian. In large American cities, by contrast, you’ll see more people riding top-class performance bikes, as they are seen as a status symbol that reflects the owner’s sporty lifestyle.
In cities more than anywhere, bicycles represent an ideal solution for establishing mobility in the future. For this to work, however, the support of politicians and urban planners is needed to improve infrastructure. Prime examples of the right approach can be found in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where you can find wide, evenly surfaced cycle paths, “green waves” of coordinated traffic lights for cyclists, cycle superhighways, bicycle-friendly tilted rubbish bins, bicycle parking spaces, multi-story bicycle parks and the option of taking bikes on suburban trains free of charge. Cars, on the other hand, are unwelcome guests in the city centre, where narrow roads and high parking charges are intended to encourage drivers to switch to pedal power. This begs the question of why the same thing doesn’t work in other European cities.
In cities more than anywhere, bicycles represent an ideal solution for establishing mobility in the future.
The answer is simple enough: there is no all-powerful car lobby in the Netherlands and Denmark, making it easier to push through legislation that favors bicycles over cars. There are, though, initial signs of a shift. According to a study by the European Commission, 73 percent of Europeans are in favor of giving bicycles preferential treatment over cars. The noise, smell and shortage of space associated with car use, along with the health benefits of cycling, are helping to stimulate investment in cycling. London and Cologne have built cycle superhighways, while further ideas for expanding the cycling infrastructure in major European cities are in the pipeline. Commuters, in particular, need to be targeted on a long-term basis as a direct path to relieving the strain on the traffic network.
The phenomenon of bikes usurping cars brings with it another trend, as the emotional attachment people once had with their car is transferred to their bicycle. Whether it’s an urban single-speeder, an eco-friendly bike with a bamboo frame, a vintage Dutch two-wheeler or a state-of-the-art e-bike, the bicycle is increasingly becoming an expression of our individuality, rather like our choice of clothes or home décor; it is, in other words, a personal styling element. And that turns it into something that is cherished rather than just being an object of utility.
In recent years, there hasn’t just been a dramatic increase in the selection of bicycle models on offer, the choice of top-class bicycle accessories has also flourished. E-bike assembly kits, DIY workshops such as Bikekitchen and ingeniously devised systems like COBI – which transform the humble bicycle into a smartbike – all offer cost-effective ways of upgrading your bike in next to no time. And the advent of smart, customized e-bikes means that the idea of creating an environment-friendly, space-saving network of cycle paths above the city rooftops (as ventured by architect Norman Foster) may not be so far-fetched after all. Indeed, tackling the long climbs to reach the elevated cycle highways could actually be a lot of fun with power assistance and the COBI intelligent assistance functions on board.