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“I’ve seen some of the highest performance bicycles in the world, but I believe the most powerful bicycle is the one in the hands of a girl fighting for her education, or a mother striving to feed her family.”
- F.K. Day, Founder of World Bicycle Relief
The rainbow jersey, Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, or Vuelta a Espana—that’s what usually comes to mind when we think of cycling. However, elite cycling is only one small spoke of a much larger wheel.
By some estimates, there are already more than two billion bikes in use around the world. By 2050, that number could be as high as five billion. Over 50 percent of the human population knows how to ride a bike. In China, 37.2 percent of the population use bicycles. In Belgium and Switzerland, 48 percent of the population rides. In Japan, it is 57 percent, and in Finland it’s 60 percent. The Netherlands holds the record as the nation with the most bicycles per capita. Cyclists also abound in Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark. The Danish capital, Copenhagen, is considered the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. It’s known as the “City of Cyclists,” where 52 percent of the population uses a bike for the daily commute. Bicyclist commuters are generally healthier than those who drive motor vehicles to work. They also remain unaffected by OPEC decisions about crude oil production or the price per barrel.
Due to the size of China’s population, and the need for bicycle transportation, statistics on the country’s bikeshare program are staggering. In a database maintained by Russell Neddin and Paul DeMaio, more than 400,000 bikeshare bikes are used in dozens of cities on the Chinese mainland, and the vast majority of those bikes have been in operation since 2012. There are an estimated 822,000 bikeshare bikes in operation around the world. China, therefore, has more bikeshare bikes than all other countries combined. The country with the next-highest number of bikes is France, which has just 45,000.
For many years, the world has produced over 100 million bicycles per year. In comparison, car production oscillates at around 60 million units per year. Bikes are used every day and on every inhabited continent, in the most affluent nations as well as developing and the least developed countries. This makes sense; cycling is often the fastest, most flexible, and reliable way of getting around cities.
In Europe alone, 655,000 people are directly employed in cycling production, services, tourism, and other facets of the industry—more jobs than in mining and quarrying and almost twice as many that work in the steel industry. The European Cyclists' Federation has a very simple message for governments and local authorities: “You know that investing in cycling is justified from your transport, climate change, and health budgets. Now we can show clearly that every cycle lane you build and every new cyclist you create is contributing to job growth. Investing in cycling provides a better economic return than almost any other transport option. This should be your first choice every time.”
According to the European Trade Union Confederation, the cycling industry is another example of the way that, with the appropriate investment, a transformation to a green, low-carbon economy can create jobs. Growth in the cycling economy should, thus, have a higher job creation potential than, for example, in the automotive industry, which employs three times fewer people per million euros of turnover.
The bicycling industry not only providse economic benefits, but shifting trips from cars to bicycles helps reduce congestion, air pollution and CO2 emissions as well as improve riders' health. The value of the contribution of cycle use in Europe has been estimated at between €143-155 billion annually, with 80 percent of those benefits arising from reductions in mortality alone. Danish research found that the risk of death for daily cycle commuters is almost 40 percent lower than for non-cycle commuters, even after taking into account leisure transport and other physical activity (Andersen et al, 2000).
Should we who work in development pay attention to the immense popularity of cycling and the prevalence of bicycles? Does bicycle ownership offer the potential to enhance lives for people in need? Below is an example that the World Bank Group community might want to look at as we ask those questions.
World Bicycle Relief (WBR) is a nonprofit organization whose motto is, “Mobilizing People through the Power of Bicycles.” Since 2005, WBR has distributed more than 200,000 specially designed, locally assembled bicycles to students, healthcare workers, and entrepreneurs across Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. They also have trained more than 1,000 local candidates as field mechanics to ensure that bicycle owners have access to qualified maintenance.
According to the WBR, compared to walking, children and adults with bicycles are able to reduce their commute times by up to 75 percent. As a result, they have more time to study, are more productive, and experience less fatigue. With a bicycle, entrepreneurs can now travel four times further, carry more goods (load capacity is increased five-fold), and increase profits up to 50 percent. In schools where students were given bikes, attendance rates rose by an average of 27 percent and academic performance improved by up to 59 percent. Healthcare workers on bikes have also been able to visit more than twice the number of patients per day.
In South Africa, where there are 16 million schoolchildren, 12 million walk to school. Of these, 500,000 walk more than one hour each way, spending two or more hours getting to and from school each day. Undeniably, giving these children bicycles would have a positive impact.
And global leaders are taking note. Just last week at one of the world’s most exclusive gatherings, a challenge was issued: Bring the barrier of distance to the forefront of global development, presenting the bicycle as a solution. World Bicycle Relief, together with UBS, The UBS Optimus Foundation and the World Economic Forum, hosted The Davos Challenge: Walk for Education. Industry and political leaders were challenged to walk the same distance as a typical child walks to school each day in rural South Africa. For every six kilometers walked, UBS and UBS Optimus Foundation agreed to donate a bicycle through World Bicycle Relief to a young student in South Africa. Global leaders walked 15,000 kilometers and, as a result, WBR will distribute more than 2,500 bicycles. The impact for these students, their families and the surrounding community will be powerful and long lasting.
When the people of Copenhagen were asked why they choose to ride their bikes rather than ride in a car or on public transportation they answered simply “because it’s the fastest way of getting around in the city.” The bicycle offers an economic, comfortable, easy, and sustainable way of human mobility— for the rich, and the poor. It’s still a major mode of transport for many cities in emerging countries and could continue to be if encouraged as an alternative to the car. Walking and cycling represent up to 90 percent of trips in these cities, yet facilities for these modes constitute "less than one percent of the project expenditures" on transport at World Bank Group (Gakenheimer and Dimitriou, 2011, p 205).
Problems related to congestion in the cities of the emerging world continue to grow and will grow faster than any investment in new roads could match. India’s motor vehicle fleet is forecast to grow from 73 million in 2005 to 364 million by 2025 (Gakenheimer and Dimitriou, 2011, p 207. Investing in facilities for cycling as a clean, healthy alternative to motorbikes and cars will help reduce congestion and pollution. It will also provide access to cheap transportation in countries where up to a quarter of a person’s income is currently spent on mobility.
The Sustainable Development Goals include sustainable transport, but presently the main focus is on public transport. With careful investment—including making sure there is a provision for bikes in every major transport project—the high levels of cycling in the developing world can be fostered and maintained. This offers huge potential for cost savings and reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. The World Bank Group already recommends the development of better infrastructure for cyclists, but too many schemes still only deal with increased motor traffic or public transport that is beyond the financial means of the poorest.
Bicycles for all? Certainly it is an idea worth considering. According to Tim Blumenthal of People for Bikes: “When people cycle, great things happen.” Wouldn’t you agree?
Why don’t we at the World Bank Group start to consider finding a way to help people out of extreme poverty and into shared prosperity… by rolling on two wheels?
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Photographs courtesy of World Bicycle Relief