The 5 Transformative Urban Impacts of Cycling for Transportation

by Jul 15, 2019Mobility

Adam Stones

Adam Stones is a Director at BYCS, an Amsterdam-based social enterprise working internationally to accelerate the adoption of cycling in cities. Having worked as a national journalist in the UK, he then became a communications consultant focused on social and environmental change issues. This led to a great deal of work writing about, creating campaigns for and volunteering for cycling causes. At BYCS he works to connect with more audiences around the world and convince more people and organizations to choose the bike to accelerate human progress.

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Many cities around the world are working to increase the number of cyclists. Ask them why and you will get a mixed bag of responses – we are overcrowded with cars, our air quality is bad, we saw someone else do it, etc. The message is unclear, the plan uncertain, the future vision for the city undefined, and thus, progress gets stuck. But  there is an incredible opportunity to transform our cities, if we can get the message right.

At BYCS, we believe that if we put cycling at the heart of our future city plans, we can unlock vast social, economic, and environmental benefits for everyone on the planet.

BYCS is an Amsterdam-based social enterprise driven by the belief that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world. We work internationally with governments, businesses, and nonprofits to initiate and scale breakthrough ideas that accelerate cycling in cities. We then invest our profits into game-changing programs that can be adopted around the world.

Cycling is Transformation

In Amsterdam, bikes outnumber people. But when you come here, you might not see a single ‘cyclist,’ just thousands of people getting about on bikes: going to school, to work, to the shops, to meet friends. No lycra or high-visibility spandex, as if dressed for a battle. You’ll find big open spaces; once streets and car parks, now public parks and playgrounds as the space has been reclaimed for the community. It is enviable for many places and in our work, we are helping more global cities to adopt the ‘Dutch model.’ Here as many as 75% of secondary school children cycle every day. It is no coincidence that UNICEF says that Dutch teens are amongst the healthiest and happiest in the world with amongst the lowest rates of depression and obesity.

But there’s so much more to it than that. Looking beyond our own streets, we wanted to understand how far these benefits went, so we started to distill the best of what we are seeing around the world to map the five transformative impacts of cycling.

1. Health

Cycling is often referenced for its health benefits, but in friendly and fluffy terms that don’t give the issue the weight it deserves. Lack of physical activity causes one in six deaths in the UK, for example. If you cycle regularly, you can reduce your chance of heart disease by as much as 52% and some cancers by as much as 40%. It also reduces the risk of type two diabetes and stroke. And it has remarkable benefits for mental health, helping to manage stress and anxiety, and helping to prevent depression. This is hugely significant given that one in six of us are experiencing mental health challenges right now.

2. Mobility

A lot of conversations on cycling get stuck here. Bikes get us from point A to point B efficiently and in good health. Done. But crucially, they also get us from point A to E, where ‘E’ stands for education, employment, and essential services. This is taken for granted by many of us but is out of reach for many millions of people around the world. Thanks to the simplicity and affordability of the bike, most people of most ages, incomes and abilities can get access to a better life through cycling.

3. Community

By giving everyone this access, we can build stronger communities. Everyone is equal on a bike and by opening up you connect more with the people around you. It helps us to create inclusive and safe places with more engaged, integrated citizens at their heart. That’s why we need to ensure everyone can cycle safely and confidently, whether they are 8 or 80 years of age.

4. Environment

Cycling connects us to the world around us and makes us sensitive to the changes we can affect. We know that climate change – or rather climate breakdown – will reach all of us and addressing it can feel overwhelming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has some simple advice: we all need to cycle more. And then there’s air pollution, responsible for nine million deaths a year. Our clean, green bicycles help tackle this.

5. Economy

Businesses that encourage their employees to cycle to work tend to perform better – they attract the best talent, and those people become more present, creative, and productive; they drive greater success. Scale that up and towns and cities that embrace cycling are also stronger economically. One study in the UK showed that non-motorists spend 40% more money each month in neighborhood shops, compared to motorists. Even more excitingly, is the way that a city’s philosophy – it’s DNA – shifts when it prioritises cycling. It inspires and informs a more sustainable and circular economy to be established.

Putting all of this together, we see that cycling helps every city to address a broad range of its most pressing challenges. And yet no place on earth has so far realised the full potential of what the bicycle can do because they are failing to connect all these points. Cities serious about the future will stop talking about cycling as a mobility issue alone. They will stop trying to determine if autonomous car taxis are the future. They will call cycling transformation, not transportation. Ideas for cycling progress will then come from all corners of the community, investment in cycling will flow more freely but all budget holders and the people blocking its progress will become its champions.

You can hear more about these impacts and the ways to bring them to life in my TED talk.

A Bold Mission

At BYCS we have set as our mission something we call ‘50by30’ – half of all urban trips by bike by 2030. Ambitious? Well, a little… But we believe only by making such audacious goals can we frame our thinking appropriately, reflect the significance of the opportunity, and force ourselves to develop the real ideas and approaches that we need.

Infrastructure is important to make progress of course – we need cycle lanes, we need to show that bicycles are taken seriously, and get past the perception that it’s not safe for some people.  And this does require investment, but this is the smartest investment any place can make. One pound, euro, or dollar in gets many back. If we got the daily cycling figure in the UK up from 3% to 25%, for example, it would yield annual benefits worth £42bn.

Cities only thinking about infrastructure will never achieve their goals. They must act in other ways to stimulate change, including:

  • Inspiration – showing a positive picture of the future, and empowering every one of us to reimagine the places around us.
  • Innovation – never settling for ‘good enough’ but always thinking ‘what next?’ Looking for new ideas and solutions for each local context, to keep up momentum.
  • Activation – enabling and encouraging everyone to ride more by improving access to bikes, targeted communications and increased opportunity.
  • Leadership – listening to all parts of the community, then making bold decisions and getting everyone on board with your plan.

For Every City, a Bicycle Mayor

The last point I just mentioned – leadership – is so important and the lack of it so profound in many places, that we have established a global non-profit network of independent leaders for towns and cities that we call Bicycle Mayors. They identify local solutions and then unite the whole community to make it happen. The best ideas are then shared through the network, around the world instantly. From Beirut to Bangalore, on every continent Bicycle Mayors are showing how we can accelerate change.

In Cape Town, Lebogang Mokwena has been teaching girls to ride in townships, and these girls have been able to get from point A to ‘E’ for the first time. In Sao Paulo, JP Amaral leads an army of 6,000 volunteers helping to improve confidence in people riding to school or work. And in India – where we have 12 Bicycle Mayors – they are collaborating across the country on challenges around air pollution, highway safety, and community empowerment.

In Amsterdam, we also need to keep making progress and here the Bicycle Mayor Katelijne Boerma has been working with local schools to find ‘Bicycle Heroes’ to role model and discuss cycling improvements. We worked with her to elect the world’s first Junior Bicycle Mayor, and now nine-year-old Lotta Crok is showing us how we must act on the voice of the next generation if we are to be fit for the future.

As a social enterprise, we invest our profits into helping to grow this Bicycle Mayor network, and we also need others to join us in this effort. That way, any organisation working with us is not only advancing their own ambitions, but also joining a collective movement on the journey to 50by30, as well as benefiting from the application of the global insights we gather from the work of the Bicycle Mayors in diverse locations around the world. We believe every city can benefit from having a Bicycle Mayor. You can get a flavor of the energy behind our network in this short film.

This other work to accelerate cycling progress includes the below (and there’s more info on all our work here):

BYCS Labs – community-owned creative laboratories for new solutions for cities, operated anywhere between 24 hours and permanently.

BYCS to work – getting commuters on to bikes (and improving business effectiveness) using gamification and behavioural science.

Bicycle Architecture Biennale – a showcase of cutting edge building designs that are facilitating bicycle travel and showing how it is transforming communities around the world.

To implement these programs (and to develop new concepts), we rely on forming powerful collaborations, and working together on shared ambitions is essential to implement the changes our cities require. We hope many more will join the journey to 50by30.

So stop asking how many people can we move down the street and start to picture your future city, and ask ‘Where can the bicycle take us?’


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