The vast majority of city street journeys take place in cars – despite all the many benefits of cycling. What would it take to really get urban citizens taking to two wheels? Katia Moskvitch investigates.

It all started with dead horses, during 1816 – the “year without a summer”. Temperatures had plummeted around the world, because of the eruption a year earlier of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. It was among the most violent eruptions on Earth in recorded history, and the fallout of dust and sulphur caused crop failures across Europe. As horses died of starvation, the German inventor Karl von Drais came up with an idea to replace horses: a contraption with two wheels but without pedals. It was the predecessor of today’s bicycle.

Back then, it had a different name: draisine – or velocipede in French. Pedals came in due course, and soon the two-wheeled mode of getting around became popular.

Today, it’s known as the most efficient method of self-powered transportation by far.

Despite being clean and green, however, cycling is really popular in only a few countries. Potential accidents, the lack of a cycle-friendly infrastructure, and worries about rain and cold keep many from hopping on a two-wheeled horse. In the UK, US and Australia, for example, only about 1% of all journeys are made on a bike. But there are exceptions, of course: in the Netherlands, the number is 27%; and in the Danish capital Copenhagen, more than half the population cycles regularly.

Fewer people on cycles, however, doesn’t mean fewer accidents – quite the opposite. The number of cyclist deaths per 100 million kilometres cycled is 5.8 in the United States and 3.6 in the UK. In contrast, a cycling-happy country like Germany has a rate of just 1.7 deaths; and in Denmark it’s 1.5 – four times safer than in the US and twice as safe as in the UK. And cycling is even safer in the Netherlands, with just 1.1 deaths per 100 million kilometres on the road. It appears that the more cycling is encouraged and taken up, the safer it becomes.

Traffic traumas

But can this Dutch or Danish bicycle utopia work everywhere? And how would our cities’ roads have to change to persuade people to give up gas guzzling cars and switch to two wheels instead – especially when it’s cold and wet?

And can technology help us to make cycling smarter?

“The main factor that keeps cycling rates low in many cities is that most people are not comfortable sharing space in streets with fast-moving cars and trucks,” says Mark Vallianatos, policy director at the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College, in Los Angeles, California.

Most modern cities are designed for the car, says Ralph Buehler, associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech university in Alexandria. Whether it’s the driveways of our homes, or parking spots lining the roads of city centres, everything is designed to make travelling by car as easy as possible, with little thought of cyclists. In most cities, for instance, roads have no separate cycle lanes, let alone a specially designed bike network of the kind you will see if you visit Groningen in the Netherlands, where hundreds of bike paths criss-cross the city

While cyclists have to swerve to avoid parked vehicles, cars zoom past them at high speeds. Where bike lanes exist, they are often narrow. “People in cars, in mass transit, or on sidewalks get to be side-by-side and talk. The narrow width of the cycle tracks in London would suggest that bicyclists don’t have any friends,” says Anne Lusk, an urban planning researcher at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts.

Green barriers

The starting point, though, would have to be travel distance. On average, around half of all car journeys in European cities are shorter than five kilometres. “An intelligent city planner building from scratch would rather be assuming that cycling, walking and public transport would be the main forms of transport while trying to figure out how to accommodate inefficient, polluting, dangerous modes like private car use,” says Ceri Woolsgrove, a road safety policy officer at the European Cycling Federation.

With this in mind, planners would create so-called separated cycle facilities, says Vallianatos, “a combination of cycle tracks at the sidewalk level and/or protected bike lanes in the roadways”. In 1998, the Colombian city of Bogota built more than 300 kilometres of such ‘greenways’ – protected bike routes separated from roads by trees. Enrique Penalosa was Bogota’s mayor at the time, and in a recent TEDx talk he stressed that these greenways were not “a cute architectural feature”, but showed “that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car”.

Infrastructure, however, is not just about bike lanes. Bike share schemes around the world have lured both residents and tourists onto two wheels. In Hangzhou, China, the world’s largest bike-lending programme gives residents free use of a bike for the first hour. To tackle air pollution, the city also bans cars with certain licence plate numbers on specific days. However, similar programmes – in places like Milan and currently in Mexico City – have struggled. Instead of switching to cycling or public transport many drivers swap cars or buy a second with a different number on the licence plate.

Another issue is secure parking for bikes, especially at rail and bus stations. Amsterdam, for example, has a multi-storey park house that can accommodate 6,000 bikes. Utrecht Central Station, also in the Netherlands, will soon have the world’s largest bike shed, with room for 12,500 bicycles.

Another solution would be designated ‘BikeBuses’ that help cyclists cover longer distances, says Lusk. In some places, for example the UK’s Lake District, some buses are already kitted out to carry bikes.

Help for hills

In traffic, meanwhile, intersections should be designed to give cyclists and pedestrians the green light first; cyclists should also get dedicated signals to cross in front of on-coming traffic, says Vallianatos. In Copenhagen, lights already change to green when many bicycles approach an intersection, which gives cyclists a “green wave”. And when they have to wait at a red signal, there are special footrests awaiting them.

In Trondheim, Norway, there’s also a solution for steep hills (in case you’re not keen on the exertion). At the starting point of the Trampe bicycle lift, riders press a start button and a footplate emerges to push them forward, while the other foot stays on one pedal. It’s then simply a question of keeping your balance.

To create more room for bicycles, cars would have to yield their parking spaces and move to designated parking garages in residential areas. And if you really opt for a “bicycle first” approach, you could make the remaining parking places expensive and available for a limited duration only, so “you can still own and operate a car… but it's not an easy, cheap or convenient option”, says Andy Clarke, the head of the League of American Bicyclists, a 135-year-old lobby group for cyclists.

Inflating helmets

While providing a safer infrastructure for bicycles seems a no-brainer, inventors also hope that modern technology can make cycling safer and more enjoyable. Already there is a plethora of smartphone apps ready to help cyclists; some show you the quickest and most bike-friendly route to your destination, others help you report potholes in the road, or try to prevent bike theft.

Bike technology, however, is moving beyond apps. The Swedish company Hovding has designed a bike helmet that inflates upon impact, like an airbag. More and more cars now have embedded sensors that sense both pedestrians and cycles, and automatically brake or steer the car away when they get too close.

Bicycles themselves are also getting more intelligent. The technology firm Baidu, best known for running China’s largest search engine, worked with researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing to develop a smart bicycle called Dubike. It’s loaded with sensors that collect data on pedalling frequency, speed, and heart rate. Just like a car’s dashboard, the bike sports a navigation panel integrated into the handlebar, showing best routes to the destination. As you pedal, your kinetic energy is turned into electricity to power the sensors. The data is synchronised with your smartphone, which can then share it on your social network.

Another connected bike, made by Canadian company Vanhawks, gives riders alerts and directions on the go. Connected to your smartphone’s GPS, it provides turn-by-turn directions with the help of LEDs built into the handlebars. Ultrasonic sensors spot objects in a rider's blind spot, and if there’s potential danger, the handlebar will start vibrating.

‘Talking’ bikes

There are also attempts to give bicycles more visibility. London start-up Cycl, for example, has developed snap-on indicators that fit into handlebars. “Our aim is to ‘car-ify’ the bicycles, making them as equal as possible to all the other vehicles,” says Cycl’s chief executive Agostino Stilli. The next step will be to connect the indicators to your mapping software, so that they will start blinking just as you get to your turn-off.

The biggest boost for secure cycling, however, could come from the emerging Internet of Things – where everyday objects have embedded sensors, smart components and connectivity. In the European Union, researchers are working on the Vruits project to see whether bicycles can communicate with traffic infrastructure and cars. An upcoming trial in Helmond, the Netherlands, will try to demonstrate that cars and bicycles can warn each other of possible collisions.

Will all this persuade you to give up the cosiness of your car and hop on a bike saddle when it’s drizzling outside? Woolsgrove is convinced that it’s all a question of habit. “Once cycling becomes your main mode of transport, your go-to mode, then it takes pretty bad weather to shift you from that formed habit,” he says. After all, the Danes carry on cycling even when conditions are much colder than those London experiences, while in sunny Australia cycling is the exception rather than the rule.

At the end of the day, says Benedicte Swennen, Urban Mobility Officer at the European Cyclists’ Federation, “only runners and cyclists notice and know that it doesn’t rain that often”.

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