Published on Sustainable Cities

From one billion cars to one billion bicycles

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Bike path in New York City

In 1993, when I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to Beijing, where the large boulevards provided us with an image that seemed reversed: bicycles everywhere, punctuated by the occasional car. The young and old rode nearly identical two-wheeled machines to get where they needed to, and the internal combustion engines were sidelined, weaving their way through an army of peddlers. At that time, writes Kristof in 1988, 76% of road space in China’s capital was taken up by bicycles – and one in every two people owned a bicycle (that’s 5.6 million bikes for 10 million people).

Fast forward 20 years: Beijing’s traffic patterns are impressive for a very different reason. Cars now clog the streets, slowing down rush hour traffic to 9 miles per hour, and bicycles have all but disappeared. Chinese consumers have overwhelmingly embraced the car - from 1990 to 2000, their number increased from 1.1 to 6 million (a 445% leap). The hunger for cars is growing; China is now home to over 78 million cars, of which 6.5 million are in Beijing alone.

But the car explosion is not only China’s doing – the world’s citizens are driving 1 billion cars now. Car ownership is highest in the United States, where there are a mere 1.3 people per vehicle, compared to China’s 6.75. What is interesting about China is that its cities experienced a mode shift from bicycles to cars in twenty years. And now cities all over the world are aiming to do the opposite.

Why? Because mass motorization has implications for our health, environment, and cities. Car-centered cities have worse air pollution and higher asthma rates, and recent work shows that urban residents’ exposure to air pollutants in developing cities can be orders of magnitude higher than those for high-income countries. Cities built for cars in developed nations – especially those in the US – are facing obesity epidemics that are directly linked to sedentary lifestyles. Road transportation is a huge and growing source of greenhouse gases (transport emits 25% of CO2 from global energy use; 75% of these come from roads). Cars are dangerous: road traffic injuries are expected to be the 3rd leading cause of death worldwide by 2020.

But the risks incurred by cyclists and pedestrians depend on the city in which they commute. Car-centered cities create a vicious cycle: they are more dangerous for bikes, so people drive more. In American cities, residents use cars for 66% of trips under one mile and 89% of trips 1-2 miles long; these trips could be easily taken by bicycle.

A virtuous cycle can be created by cities that encourage cycling, and facilitate leaving one’s car behind. A few cities whose recent efforts to reimagine the role of the bicycle in transporting its citizens – through policy measures suggested here – highlight the wisdom of Beijing’s boulevards 20 years ago.

Better facilities for cycling (Copenhagen, Denmark): Here, every road for cars has a parallel road for bikes, with a traffic signal. 55% of city citizens commute by bicycle each day, ten times higher than in Portland, the most bicycle-friendly American city.

Traffic calming (Berkeley, USA): The city is traversed by bicycle boulevards with periodic speed bumps and road blockages, slowing and discouraging cars.

Restrictions on motor vehicle use (Bogotá, Colombia): Bogotá is the innovator of the car-free street – the Ciclovía. Every Sunday, 70 miles of major streets are closed to cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists.  The city is also home to the Transmilenio, and Pico y Placa, a program in which only cars with certain license plate numbers are permitted to transit in the city on a given day.

Urban design sensitive to needs of non-motorists (Los Angeles, New York City and Washington DC, USA): Neither LA nor NYC is particularly bike friendly – but they have begun to invest in bicycles. NYC’s current transportation commissioner has doubled the miles of bike lanes. LA has taken a cue from Bogotá, starting its own CicLAvias. Washington has greatly expanded the reach of its bike lanes, and hosts a successful bike share program; New York will unveil one soon.

Rigorous traffic education of motorists and non-motorists (Amsterdam, Netherlands): All children are taught safe walking and biking practices by the age of ten; all car drivers are taught how to safely drive alongside bicycles. Bicyclists caught running lights are fined.

The bicycle, though the most commonly used form of transportation in the world, is being rapidly replaced by the car. This shift is an active choice, by people and cities, and whether we choose to seek inspiration from Beijing in the 1980s or Beijing in the 2010s - whether we build cities for 1 billion cars, or for one billion bicycles – will profoundly shape the health of our citizens and life in our cities.

Photo: Sintana Vergara


Sintana Vergara

Environmental Engineer and Junior Professional Associate

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