Bicycle cities: from critical mass to lifestyle

Today, June 3, is World Bicycle Day, a simple and elegant invention from a couple of centuries ago that was perfected for several decades until the modern bicycle of 1885. The recovery of this contraption in cities transcends its dimension as a way of transport and is configured as a lifestyle of cities that want to return to being the social substrate of their citizens.

Mechanical and mental evolution

The first bicycle, whose invention is attributed to the German Karl Freiherr von Drais in 1817, did not have pedals; you had to push yourself with your feet on the ground. The modern bicycle with pedals, brakes, chain drive, and inner tube tires was invented by Englishman John Kemp Starley in 1885.

Old bicycles. Above: Draisian (left) and MacMillan’s bicycle (right). Bottom: James Starley’s bike (left) and John Kemp Starley’s bike.
Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

The mechanical evolution as a vehicle in seven decades in the 19th century has only been surpassed by the mental evolution of the users and the cities that adopt it. There is no more energy efficient mode of transport (in units of energy consumed per person and to overcome a kilometer of distance): its energy consumption is a third of what we would consume walking. In some cities, it is also the fastest way to travel short distances.

In addition to the savings in short trips in cities, physical exercise has important positive effects on health. Walking and cycling, included under the label of active mobility, are the great allies of doctors and of a healthy society.

The irruption of high-speed mechanized modes in cities – especially the car, with its poor maneuverability and great consumption of public space, but also the motorcycle with its high accident rate – marginalized the most vulnerable modes for decades.

However, large cities are already redirecting the imbalance based on tactical urban planning (enhanced by the covid-19 pandemic) that widens sidewalks, reduces space for traffic and offers a continuous and cohesive network of bike lanes as an essential part of the street section.

Some conditioning factors that have not yet been fully resolved hinder the even more massive implementation of bicycles in cities:

  • the possibilities of theft (of the bicycle or parts of it such as the saddle);

  • the lack of safe parking (on the street, at home and at destinations);

  • the limited integration (until a few decades ago) in urban mobility plans;

  • the limited intermodality –parking at train stations or bus stops, or the possibility of transporting the bicycle on trains and buses as the pioneering example of the Funi&bici de Ferrocarriles de la Generalitat de Catalunya–;

  • overexertion in the face of difficult orography –in addition to physical exertion, sweat and possible staining of clothing has cultural connotations in southern Europe, effects magnified by the heat–;

  • road education for a coexistence in the use of the street.

Shared public bikes

The European cities with the highest modal share of cycling were and continue to be the Dutch and Danish (shares from 23% to 35%). I rescue bicycle quotas of less than 1% (with data from 1998) both for a medium-sized city like Vitoria (250,000 inhabitants), today transformed into an example of sustainable mobility with several awards and declared European Green Capital 2012, as well as for a large city like Barcelona which, due to its mountain-sea gradient, had always been considered not made for bicycles. A quarter of a century has produced remarkable changes.

In cities without a cycling tradition in southern Europe –perhaps we should talk about expulsion of the urban sphere, since this cycling tradition and passion exists at a professional level as we see in the Tour de France, in the Giro d’Italia and in the Vuelta Ciclista a España– it is important that the city promote a system of shared public bicycles.

Shared bicycle systems are initiatives planned, led and financed by cities that allow bicycles to be reintroduced into urban space under conditions that guarantee their success. From fixed bicycle stations with anchoring systems, it will design the necessary infrastructure on the streets, segregated from road traffic and pedestrian sidewalks for safety.

These systems cost money, but that financing (reducible with commercial advertising) is part of the mea culpa of a city that cornered (when it did not abandon) a clean, healthy and efficient mode of transport, in favor of motorized traffic that, as we know, causes negative externalities: accidents, air and noise pollution, barrier effect, etc.

For example, the shared bike system in Barcelona called Bicing, implemented in March 2007, has been a social, political and media success. All this despite the fact that the haste in its planning contained several technical errors, already corrected.

Bicing has been essential and the trigger for the return and flourishing of the bicycle in Barcelona. The new concession of Pedalem (Ferrovial, 2019-2029) includes 7,000 bicycles –3,000 electric and 4,000 mechanical initially, with a tendency to invert that proportion–, 517 stations and 131,500 users.

file 20220602 17 sqnq8v.jpeg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Barcelona City Council, CC BY-NC-ND

What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

The answer to this question is always difficult, but it sure is never the chicken. At a functional level, everything depends on flows, interaction, speeds.

The space in a street section is limited and is not usually able to fit all the functional needs: effective sidewalk of 2 m on each side for pedestrians, sidewalk for terraces, trees and urban furniture, bus lane, bike lane and VMP (vehicle personal mobility such as electric scooters, segways, hoverboardunicycles, etc.), loading and unloading area for the urban distribution of goods, parking for people with reduced mobility, possible bus stop, and some traffic circulation lane.

When, as we have said, the bicycle share was less than 1%, it was hard to justify reserving 2m or 10% of a wide street for a very low-use cycle lane. There was no critical mass. There already is. In fact, with critical mass either Critical Bike Monthly protest outings are designated in many cities around the world by bicycle users with the aim of raising awareness and introducing sustainable mobility and improving the safety of cyclists in their cities.

Although the first Critical Masses took place in Stockholm in 1970, its internationalization began in San Francisco in 1992.

file 20220602 25 q96jjm.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Critical Mass in Madrid, April 2010.
Alberto Mélida / Flickr, CC BY

These systems all have an inflection point from which the balance pivots from one side to the other. It is important that the city or the Administration lead, protect and finance a minimum supply model so that it stretches the potential demand that, without a minimum of functionality and safety conditions, will remain lethargic.

Bicycles and personal mobility vehicles (PMV) have similar behaviors of individual mobility. However, they can have two different speed ranges (in road safety, each increase of 10 km/h represents a step up in the threshold of insecurity): the walking speed of 10-15 km/h and the travel speed of 25 km/h. h (with electric motors).

Width of VMP-bike lanes (2 m minimum) is needed to accommodate these two speed ranges and even more width if it is intended to circulate in both directions. In Barcelona, ​​bidirectional lanes are being eliminated for safety reasons; in Paris, some of the VMP-bike lanes are 4 m long.

Bicycle cities as a lifestyle

The cities of people who want to promote a lifestyle of proximity and conviviality among citizens are promoting the use of bicycles. Paris with the city of the quarter of an hour, Barcelona with the superblocks, whose concept has been generalized to encompass green corridors in pacified streets – the intersection of two green corridors, magnified by the chamfers designed by the engineer Ildefonso Cerdá, constitute a new pedestrian square of 40 mx 40 m, a meeting place for neighbors.

There is no other solution in Europe other than joining bicycles with personal mobility vehicles in the same segregated lanes, so they must be wide. However, I am not sure that electric bikes and VMP converge conceptually (despite their similar features as vehicles) due to different chromosomes of their users. In the same way that despite the fact that trams (LRT) and electric articulated buses (BRT) may have similar benefits, I do not believe that they will converge this time by different chromosomes of the sectors (rail and bus/automotive).

The promotion of the bicycle is a fundamental instrument to achieve pacified, more humane cities. The urban network of bike lanes can be extended to metropolitan areas (guaranteeing the safety of users with segregated infrastructure, especially at intersections and roundabouts): prohibitive distances (due to time) for low speeds are shortened with electric bicycles, which can circulate up to 25km/h For example, in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area, 83% of daily mobility trips and 93% of internal mobility are less than 10 km.

Electric bicycles allow the universalization of their use and jump the physical limits of conventional bicycles for non-flat terrain (ramps) or long distances (sweat, fatigue). Its extension to the logistics of the last mile in the form of cargo tricycles (they can carry up to 200 kg) allows not only greater sustainability but also greater operational efficiency with savings of 10-15% in the old quarters of the cities where the circulation of motorized vehicles is usually very restricted in Europe.

In addition to infrastructures for bicycles as a necessary condition, the use of bicycles continues to face parking safety and driver education as challenges.


This article has been written in collaboration with the environmentalologist Silvia Casorrán, attached to the management of the chief architect of the Department of Urban Ecology of the Barcelona City Council.


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