Bike Local, Think Global and What to Do When the Car is Unavoidable

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ImageA few years ago I proudly put a sticker on my bicycle that claimed one should ‘bike local’ in order to ‘think global.’  These days, it seems that the car is unavoidable in the majority of growing cities and that instead of biking local one should avoid commuting at all.

Bike Local

If you take cities as the starting point for sustainably addressing the environmental and congestion challenges of transport, bicycles have been one of the modes of choice for centuries, until the development and spread of the automobile. Today, bicycles are back and growing in numbers in many European cities such as Paris, London, and Copenhagen where successful bicycle programs or bike-sharing schemes have been implemented. In Amsterdam, the bike capital of the world, over the period 2005-2007, bicycle use even exceeded car use as the most used means of transport.


Bicycles are also re-emerging in cities in developing countries where they had begun to disappear as wealthier populations tended to turn to cars as the preferred mode of transportation, and in light of growing unsafe traffic conditions. In Bogotá, Columbia, the bike path network is now the most extensive in the world, spanning over 300 km, and is also integrated with the TransMilenio bus system which has bicycle parking facilities. Since the construction of the network, bicycle use has quintupled in the city, and it is estimated that there are between 300,000 and 400,000 trips made daily in Bogotá by bicycle. A large portion of this use is in southern, poorer areas. In India, New Delhi’s Master Plan for 2021 calls for making bicycles an integral part of the inter-modal choices available, advocating for bicycle-friendly facilities and for providing fully separated bicycle tracks on arterial roads.

ImageThink Global

Juxtaposed to these good initiatives is the reality that bicycles may still not be, or grow to become the preferred mode of choice. There is a lack of evidence as to why people decide to favor bicycles over the car, making it difficult to advocate bicycle use as a long-term sustainable transport option. In fact, the limited evidence of developed countries points to the fact that individuals who choose to ride bicycles in the city do so after considering several factors including car costs, availability of parking spaces, as well as bicycle-friendly infrastructure.Other needed evidence that would help for planning purposes would be to determine the distance that individuals would be willing to ride their bicycles if the adequate infrastructure and transit facilities were in place. Recently, the 2009 National Household Travel Survey of the United States revealed that while half of all trips are 3 miles or less, fewer than 2% of those trips are made by bicycle, while 72% of them are driven. Private vehicles like cars, pick-up trucks, and SUVs, account for 60% of trips of a mile or less (as reported by the League of American Bicyclists). Finally, there is the simple, unscientifically proven, yet indisputable fact that cars are convenient—whether you are commuting during bad weather, traveling with impaired mobility, need to feel safe, transport heavy loads or travel with a group of children.

ImageWhen the car is unavoidable

Planning for the safe use of other modes of transport along with the continued expansion of private cars is one of the existing challenges in a number of cities. In Paris for example, although the city has planned well to transport people between the city’s inner suburbs to the center’s historic districts, there is now some controversy as to how to best accommodate almost three quarters of journeys in Paris that take place between suburbs. Results from another recent survey showed that individuals would like to spend less time in their cars, but 73% said they had no other choice, citing the lack of options to encourage walking and biking.  This is the challenge facing many cities of the developing world and at a much faster pace in the case of fast urbanizing areas. The ongoing urban transport developments taking place in cities of China and India are repeatedly cited as thousands of new drivers buy their new vehicles and take on newly built highways and expanded roads.

Clearly, if we are to plan and advise on future urban transportation solutions in developing countries, more research is needed across existing modes to better determine challenges, preferences and individual differences of mode use. Among the questions to be answered, there should be a focus on determining the optimal traveling conditions for bicycle use, starting with short trips.  Also, in developing countries where bicycles have often been associated with the most affordable forms of transport for the poor, it would be important to identify the types of initiatives that could be designed and planned to integrate a mode that is serving many of them. If we are not careful, we may threaten the use of a mode that is affordable and sustainable. Until then, the use of cars will certainly not diminish and it is unlikely that the slogan on my bike’s sticker will resonate past my city’s limits. Image

Photo credits:
1. Frozen bike in Hamburg: Malte Hansen through
2. Bike rack, Ghana: Anne Hoel, World Bank.
3. Boy and his bicycle, Nigeria: Curt Carnemark, World Bank.
4. Bike parking in Amsterdam, Netherlands: Peter Hellebrand through
5. Bike sign in the Netherlands, Karin Eggink through


Julie Babinard

Senior Transport Specialist

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