Are Bikes the Elegant Solution Smart Cities Need?

Driverless cars pollute less than standard models, but they still tax our infrastructure and our health. Bikes can offer a better solution.

By Xische Editorial, February 11, 2018

Source: Faber14/ Shutterstock

Source: Faber14/Shutterstock

City dwellers are getting more demanding and that’s a good thing. With urban populations growing the world over, more people than ever are educating themselves about how cities function and thinking about ways to improve city life. As a result, the study of the development and planning of cities, known as urbanism, is hotly debated in the mainstream media and discussed by urban dwellers from Africa to Asia.

How does this new focus on urbanism manifest in concrete changes in our cities? For one, there is a drive for human-centric urban planning and design. Throughout human history, cities were organized around defense and commerce. During the Third Industrial Revolution, health concerns also weighed heavily in urban planning decisions but only as a corollary to the continued economic expansion of cities.

Around the mid-20th century, urban goals shifted to focus on the automobile. This was especially evident in American cities and the creation of highway infrastructure that enabled the development of suburbs. In the last 25 years, there has been a major shift towards pedestrians and vibrant urban communities. Recognizing the social isolation that automobile-focused cities can have on communities, planners have embraced pedestrian-friendly design.

This shift is especially critical as we prepare for driverless cars, automation, and other technological developments connected to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While driverless cars have lower emissions than standard cars and are thus better for the environment, they do require more infrastructure and don’t address the social isolation that car-focused societies struggle with. There is another option: bikes.

For everyone 1 km biked in Copenhagen, the city benefits by 26 cents. The same distance by car harms the city by 89 cents ( Source )

For everyone 1 km biked in Copenhagen, the city benefits by 26 cents. The same distance by car harms the city by 89 cents (Source)

Perhaps ironically, the simple bicycle is making a comeback as we face a technologically driven future. For decades, European cities have focused on bicycles as the primary form of urban transportation. While Amsterdam might be the most famous bike city, other major urban areas such as Copenhagen, Berlin, and Stockholm are equally bicycle obsessed.

Bicycles are the perfect anecdote to the ravages of modern living. Not only are they environmentally friendly, but riding a bicycle encourages people to interact with their environment in a unique way. You encounter the elements, use your body, and move through the city at an ideal speed. Bicycles can break down the social isolation that is increasingly common in the modern city. None of this is, of course, new to anyone. People have been using bicycles for centuries as a cheap and healthy way to get around.

What is different now is that American cities are joining the bicycle gangs. As the birthplace of the car-fcoused city, the shift taking place in the US is profound. It is primarily driven by the explosion of e-bikes in major urban centers like Los Angeles and Washington, DC. These e-bikes remove virtually all the physical challenges of bicycling – much to the chagrin of some health enthusiasts – while providing residents with a quick and easy way to navigate their cities.

E-bikes and electric scooters have been referred to as micromobility services, and they haven’t been without controversy. Since they share the road with automobiles but are not subject to the same licensing standards and traffic laws, some communities are struggling to find the right balance of regulation. This tension doesn’t change the fact that many Americans are simply over cars in their life and find driving less enjoyable than ever.

Under pressure for being slow to react to the rise of ride-hailing applications (and the failure to provide adequate and timely regulation for the services), city governments have rushed to regulate micromobility services. The results, however, have been encouraging. City governments have set speed limits and other restrictions on e-bikes. They have created special parking areas and established laws for age restrictions. The greatest effect has been the pressure to create more bike lanes and improve the overall infrastructure needed to accommodate more bikes on the street.

According to the urbanist and writer Paris Marx, these developments are critical for the creation of a human-centric city because they conform to a core urbanist principle. Writing on Medium, Marx notes:

“In urban planning, there’s a concept called ‘induced demand’. The concept maintains that as the supply of a good increases, so does its demand. This typically applies to roads and explains why even when highways are widened, congestion rarely improves – the additional lanes simply attract more drivers.

We’re seeing the same phenomenon with micromobility. As cities add dockless bikes and scooters, they create demand that didn’t previously exist. New cyclists and scooter users create pressure for better parking and bike lanes, which results in a positive feedback loop by attracting more users, who create more pressure for infrastructure, and on and on. In the past, this feedback loop has benefited drivers, but momentum may finally be shifting to more active forms of mobility.”

The rise of micromobility services such as bicycles and e-bikes demonstrate that technology is not always the solution to urban challenges. City planners, residents, and urbanists need to be pragmatic in their approach to the urban landscape and understand basic human psychology. Sometimes the easiest solution – which, in this case, is having more bicycles – is the best.