This Was the Decade of the Bicycle. What's Next?

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CC BY-NC 3.0. Margaret Badore

Probably, the decade of e-mobility.

TreeHugger Mike first wrote about self-driving cars in 2010, suggesting that "in the next 10-20 our cars could start to be able to drive themselves safely and efficiently." Over the next few years everyone thought Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) were just around the corner.


Institute Without Boundaries/via

In 2011 MOVE: The Transportation Expo was part of a study group at Toronto's Institute Without Boundaries and was convinced that we would soon be travelling in electric powered glass boxes with movies and martinis. I was certain that they would be smaller, slower, shared and soon. There was no question, this was going to be the decade of the Autonomous Vehicle.

Instead, it turned out to be the decade of the bike. Bonnie first covered Paris's Velib in 2007 Mike covered Washington's Smart Bike in 2008, and we covered the Bixi system in Montreal, and by 2013 there were bike sharing systems in more than 500 cities in 49 countries with a fleet of over 500,000 bicycles.

bikes 9th ave

NYC Dept of Transportation/Public Domain

But it was really the launch of Citibike, and the rolling out of bike lanes by Mike Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Kahn that changed the face of cycling. People weren't happy as the city was begrimed by blue bikes, complaining about "Sadik-Khan and her faceless road swipers." There was so much opposition, but they rammed it through.

New York bike lane moves more people than the car lane

New York bike lane moves more people than the car lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The ket to the success of the New York and Montreal systems was the realization that bikes alone are not enough; you need a safe place to ride them. Both cities rolled out protected (and unprotected) bike lanes that made people more comfortable. They are not perfect, particularly in New York where there is so many people and uses competing for space. But to build a successful and safe system you need more than just bikes. In New York City, cycle trips increased from 170,000 in 2005 to 450,000 in 2017, which far outpaced the growth in population and employment. According to The New York Times:

Maisoneuve bike lane

Lloyd Alter/ Maisoneuve bike lane/CC BY 2.0

New York is part of a booming bike movement across the country, as cities recognize the importance of biking to their transportation systems, invest in bike infrastructure and improve the safety of bike routes, said Matthew J. Roe, a program director for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. More than a hundred cities have created protected lanes that place buffers between bicycles and cars, like ones lined with self-watering planters in Seattle. In New York City, bike lanes have been created between curbs and parking spots — a model that has been widely copied elsewhere.

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter at a bike stand with space

Lloyd Alter at a bike stand with space/CC BY 2.0

Writing in Forbes, Enrique Dans notes that bike-sharing has revolutionized urban transport over the last decade, but that infrastructure is critical.

From this point on, all that remains is for city halls to understand that the bicycle is the future of urban transport and provide the appropriate investment to build cycle lanes. The key to this is embracing the practice of taking space from cars to use it for bicycle lanes and other micro-mobility vehicles and that bicycles in cities: forcing people to share the roads with aggressive cars is dangerous and enough to put anybody off but the bravest; bicycle lanes are a good thing when managed properly.

Dans makes the point (that I have tried to as well) that not everyone can ride a bike. Everyone doesn't have to; imagine if cities just got to the levels of European cities in Denmark or the Netherlands where about half of the population bikes regularly. That's getting a lot of people out of cars. That's ten times as many people on bikes as there are now, and that means giving them more room. It also means cleaning up the cars that are left so that the people who walk or bike can breathe cleaner air. Dans concludes:

The sooner we get rid of obsolete and harmful technologies, the better for everyone. If you think you’re a petrolhead, lock yourself in your garage with your car engine running for a few hours, that should cure you. A smart city is one that doesn’t poison its inhabitants. A different kind of city is possible.

The next ten years will see an explosion in e-mobility.

Gazelle under the bentway

Gazell Medeo on the Bentway Park/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0 In the last few years we have seen all kinds of e-devices, from scooters to skates to hoverboards, and there is a place for them all. After having my teeth shaken out riding scooters in Lisbon, I tend to agree with Doug Gordon:

When it all shakes out, I suspect that the bicycle, refined over 200 years, will be the dominant form. I wrote a few years ago:

Today the bicycle is the most energy efficient and pollution free means of transportation on the planet. It is seen by many as a major player in the solution to climate change given that they are emission free. They could be the answer to urban congestion as they take up so much less space than a car. We have quoted consultant Horace Dediu: “Bikes have a tremendous disruptive advantage over cars. Bikes will eat cars.”

Tern Bicycles GSD

© Warning! Illegal in New York! /Tern Bicycles

But since then, I have revised Dediu and say E-bikes will eat cars. They take a lot less metal and lithium to build than an electric car, cost a lot less, and take up a lot less space in our cities. Cargo e-bikes are becoming popular; as one owner of a Tern GSD noted,

I’ve taken the kids to school. I’ve carried a week’s worth of shopping, easily. I’ve carried a bunch of tools for DIY. I’ve carried six boxes of cider when I was briefly the local cider delivery boy. I’ve even carried another bike, with the wheels in one pannier and the frame in the other.

E-bikes are climate action

Poster showing climate impact of e-bikes and e-scooters


Perhaps the most important point to remember in the coming decade is that e-bikes and e-scooters are climate action. As the ITDP notes, getting people out of cars and on to any alternative reduces carbon emissions dramatically. It also brings us back to the question of autonomous vehicles, where we started:

I have often quoted analyst Horace Dediu, who predicted that "electric, connected bikes will arrive en masse before autonomous, electric cars. Riders will barely have to pedal as they whiz down streets once congested with cars." It appears that Dediu was dead on the money. The world is changing fast; nobody is talking much about fully autonomous cars these days, and a lot of people are falling in love with e-bikes, including me. Little batteries, little motors, and micromobility will move a lot more people.