Last week, over 4,000 people gathered for the fourth World Bicycle Forum. This citizen-driven event was created by bike activists in Porto Alegre, Brazil after a car plowed through a group of bikers at a critical mass event in March 2011. Fortunately, no one died, but the resulting media attention sparked solidarity and the urge to take action among bike activists worldwide. After two years in Porto Alegre, the Forum moved to Curitiba, Brazil in 2014, and this year to Medellín, Colombia.
Urban cycling culture is a powerful instrument for building sustainable, healthy, and equitable cities. Bikes’ utility for cities and citizens goes well beyond transport, recreation, and sport. As Pedro Bravo—author of Biciosos—says, “Bikes are a weapon of mass construction.” The fourth World Bicycle Forum showed us multiple examples of how cycling can catalyze widespread change in cities. These include the impressive transformations of cities like Bogotá and New York City— led by former mayors Enrique Peñalosa and Michael Bloomberg—to advances in Almaty, Kazakhstan; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Mexico City, Mexico; Santiago, Chile; and Curitiba and São Paulo, Brazil.
But the challenge is still huge. Despite a century of auto-centric urban development, we have not been able to build happy cities around cars. Instead, most car-dependent cities are segregated, gridlocked, dangerous, and polluted. Cars and car users themselves are not the enemy, but the social, environmental, and economic drawbacks of over-reliance on private cars have become overwhelmingly clear. To paraphrase São Paulo’s Ciro Biderman, “We are not against cars, we are against injustice.”
This is why the bicycle, a vehicle invented more than 100 years ago, is the true vehicle of the future. Its benefits include flexible mobility, increased physical activity, and integration with public transport and bike sharing systems. With a little innovation or an electric booster, bikes can even provide mobility in hilly terrain and for people of different ages and physical conditions.
With these benefits in mind, these six approaches from the fourth World Bicycle Forum can help build cycling culture and increase the prevalence of cycling in cities worldwide.
Invite others to try
You can’t say you don’t like it if you don’t try it! The first step in building cycling culture is to change the way non-cyclists perceive cycling. Sometimes this means thinking out of the box, like these cyclists dancing the “Cumbia Cachaca” during Bogotá’s annual car-free day:
Implement and extend ciclovías and car-free days
While mostly intended for recreation and health, regular car-free days—known in many cities as ciclovías or Sunday Streets—are an exceptional vehicle for building urban cycling culture. Pioneered in Latin America, these events have spread around the world and are now held in over 400 cities. Local governments can support car-free days by implementing new programs or extending those already in existence, either by increasing their frequency or increasing the amount of urban space free of cars.
Increase budget for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure
Budget is the most powerful public policy instrument, and where political rhetoric and campaign promises become real. Increasing the budget for active transport infrastructure means city leaders are ‘walking and biking the talk.’ For instance, bike activists in Mexico are asking politicians to set aside 5 percent of national and local mobility budgets for active transport.
Develop national bicycle policies
Explicit policies for enhancing capacity, regulation, infrastructure, and finance for cycling help advance the agenda at all levels. A great example is the German National Cycling Plan, which has four pillars: a joint working group of federal government and provinces/states; an online portal for sharing cycling expertise; a cycling academy that helps spread best practices; and a federal aid program for promoting cycling.
Explicitly include bicycles in the UN Sustainable Development Goals
The current draft of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—expected to be finalized in September 2015—includes a goal on sustainable cities and urban transport, but does not explicitly mention pedestrians or cyclists. Including active transport in the SDGs can make cycling safer and cities more sustainable, something activists should stress to their governments in order to influence UN negotiations.
Continue building facilities for biking
Many cities are advancing plans to expand cycling infrastructure, and there are quality guidelines they can use to design safe, accessible bike networks. Nevertheless, the pace of change is too slow. Santiago, for instance, is planning for 900km of added bike lanes over 15 years, but a full expressway can be completed in just two.
It’s time to take the bicycle seriously
Judging by the enthusiasm displayed at the World Bicycle Forum, cycling advocates are not going to let ideas to scale up urban cycling fade to the background. Born out of a public massacre, this event demonstrated its power to create change when 2,000 people joined in a safe, peaceful critical mass ride last Friday night.
Building on the ideas and momentum from this event, citizens and city leaders can unlock the potential of urban cycling to build healthy, sustainable cities for people.