Why cities around the globe are swapping out cars for bicycles

Our cars, though comfortable and convenient, may actually be doing us more harm than good. Data shows that commuters in the 15 most-congested US cities spend a yearly average of 83 hours stuck in traffic. For those of us who already spend 40+ hours a week working in the seated position, this is a major problem. There is a growing global movement towards active and sustainable transportation; from the expansion of public transport systems to the invasion of rented scooters that line the streets of Copenhagen, New York City and Santa Monica. Some of the most visited cities around the world have shifted their focus from accommodating cars to encouraging bike traffic. 

Before reaching for your car keys to get that carton of milk, consider hopping on a bicycle instead. The humble two-wheeler can take many forms; there are fixed gear bikes, commuter bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes or even petite pink cycles with frilly sparkly tassels. By choosing a helmet and two wheels instead of an engine and 4, we impact more than just that morning’s commute. 

Bike along Copenhagen canal

Mental health benefits of biking – Copenhagen

It comes as no surprise that Copenhagen received a 90.2% total score and landed at number one on the Copenhagenize Index (A holistic ranking of the most bike-friendly cities on the planet) in 2019. According to the pro-biking Index, in Denmark’s capital city, “62% of inhabitants’ trips to work or school [are done] by bike.” As the fifth happiest city in the world, Copenhageners can credit a lot of their contentment to switching from cars to bicycles. According to the Index, Copenhagen residents cycle an impressive collective average of 1.44 million kilometres every day. As we know, regular physical activity helps prevent or relieve stress, anxiety and depression and plays an important role in the overall health of our brains.  A healthy amount of daily cardio helps maintain adequate blood flow to the brain, improving our memory, mood and sleep. So It’s not just Helena Christensen; Hay design, and visits to Noma that are making Danes smile.

Cyclist in Amsterdam

Physical Health benefits of biking – Amsterdam

When we think of Amsterdam, we think of Pale Lagers, Canals, plumes of pot, bitterballen and of course, bicycles. It wouldn’t take much exploration at all to notice the bounty of cyclists cruising side by side down any given straat. In fact, one might ask, where are all the cars? According to Bloomberg City Lab, “Roughly two-thirds of urban journeys in the Dutch capital take place on two wheels, and only 19 percent of citizens use cars every day.” 

For Mokumers (what locals call themselves), this means safer cycling, less traffic, reduced pollution, and a physically healthier population. “Cycling prevents about 6500 deaths each year, and Dutch people have half-a-year-longer life expectancy because of cycling,” according to one study on the health and economic benefits of cycling in the Netherlands. This same study observed that the average Dutch person between the ages of 20 and 80 cycles about  74 minutes a week. With most healthcare systems recommending a minimum of 150 active minutes weekly, Amsterdam residents are halfway there by the time they get home from work.

 Holland’s Capital city is now setting its sights on achieving  “car-free” status within the next decade; they plan on doing so by heavily investing in cycling infrastructure. “By 2025, the City will be removing over 11,000 car parking spaces from the city centre (1,500 per year), to be replaced with bicycle parking, street trees and better walking environments.” Holland understands that Increasing physical activity levels through active transportation has many benefits, including but not limited to:

  • Improving overall Cardiovascular health  
  • Reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as high blood pressure
  • Reducing the risk of certain cancers – breast and colon
  • Reducing the risk  of type 2 diabetes
Bike parking in Oslo

Economic benefits of biking – Oslo

Often overlooked, the economic benefits of becoming a bicycle city are plentiful. On an individual level, people who commute by bike spend less money on car fuel, maintenance and insurance. Nowadays riders can even spare the expense and space that owning a bike usually requires; there are hundreds of shared bike programs all over the world like Oslo’s Oslo City Bike. These programs have been a major innovation for active transportation as they eliminate any barriers to entry; anyone with a cell phone and a credit card can access a bicycle within 30 seconds. It’s been proven that cycling to work can also help employees and employers save money; choosing an active form of transportation supports increased productivity and lowers absenteeism due to traffic congestion. 

Oslo has made an impressive political commitment to building all-weather biking infrastructure, setting “an example for all cities that have ever said they are too hilly or snowy to take bicycles seriously for transport,” says the index.  And it’s no wonder; governments globally are starting to recognize the substantial economic benefits of two-wheeled riders.

Firstly, Less motorized traffic can lead to decreased infrastructure and maintenance costs for roads, bridges, and parking facilities. Who could say no to one less pothole? Secondly and most importantly, a healthier population means less strain and cost on the healthcare system. If the last two years have taught us anything, we have to have a contingency plan in case of a pandemic. Next time you visit Tromsø skip the uber and go for a two-wheeler instead.

New Taipei Metropolitan Park (Erchong Floodway Riverside Park)

Environmental benefits of biking – Taipei

Our staggering collective carbon footprint has greatly harmed our planet and placed a timer on our sustainable solutions to restore it to health. For many of us, 2020 served as an environmental smoking gun, no pun intended; fewer cars and planes = a happier planet.

Due to the stay-home orders dictated by the spread of Covid-19, millions of people have been forced to stay inside, keeping personal vehicles off roads. The consequences of this lack of human activity, along with fewer running factories, have been eye-opening. Around the world, countries have seen unprecedented drops in C02 emissions, clearing up once smoggy skies. If we as human beings have ever felt like there was nothing we could do to effect change, we have now been proven wrong.

“Car pollution is one of the major causes of global warming. Cars and trucks emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases…”*  Busy cities like Los Angeles, with wall-to-wall traffic, have experienced the worst vehicle pollution; idling cars being terrible offenders.

Like many congested cities in Asia, the Taiwanese city of Taipei is facing a concerning air pollution issue. As one of only two Asian cities on the index, Taipei aims to use cycling infrastructure to make a dent in it’s pollution problem. Asia’s second-richest city looks to fellow indexed urban centers like Amsterdam and Copenhagen as examples of how prioritizing bike traffic has positively impacted CO2  emissions. Taipei has implemented multiple bike-friendly initiatives, including tripling it’s bike lanes and establishing the YouBike bike share scheme.

Any cyclist will tell you that their bike is more than just a way to get from point A to point B; it is a community-building vehicle. Getting on our bikes and into the outdoors connects us with our surroundings in a way that a car does not allow. There is something to be said about the feeling of freedom that can only be achieved by an open-air ride. Even cyclists on solo rides get to experience a shared terrain with other cyclists. A simple acknowledgement, a head nod, reinforces a sense of belonging. In bike-friendly cities, the communities built on two wheels are obvious on everyday journeys, from couples riding side by side, sharing a conversation to small children snuggled in the wagon of their parent’s cargo bike. Organizations like Cycling Without Age even use cycling as a way of “reconnecting older people with their environment”.
Though hard to believe sometimes, the bicycle has and will continue to play a more significant role in our future.  Whether you call it a Velo, a bicicleta, fiets, or just Daisy, it may be time to invest in a bicycle; our planet will thank you.