Urban affairs: Cycling in the city

Life changing is the highly dramatic yet apt way to describe my new love affair with cycling in Zurich. Two years of grappling with an incongruously-awful public transport connection led to the discovery of an electric bike-sharing initiative and culminated in the purchasing of our very own family cargo bike.

Our daily commute has been given a makeover: shorter traveling times, no waiting for connections and no more wrangling kids and their associated paraphernalia on and off buses and trams. A recent yet avid convert, I’m clearly not the only parent who appreciates the ease and practicality of carting children by bike. According to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark (CED) 26 per cent of families with two children in Copenhagen own a cargo bike. Yes, that’s right, you read cycling embassy. Formed in 2009, the CED is the world’s first cycling embassy and its mission – to promote cycling all over the world – epitomises why the Danes are up there with the cycling royalty.

Riding with the best of them: commitment is key
So, how to join the ranks of Copenhagen and Amsterdam? Both have long been regarded as the crème de la crème of cities to cycle in and both hold an even split of first-place rankings in the bi-annual Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index. What are both cities getting right? According to the Copenhagenize Design Company the cities topping their index are those which realise the potential of cycling as transport, invest in the required infrastructure and have a desire to improve.

The inhabitants of Copenhagen and Amsterdam produce some pretty impressive statistics when it comes to cycling. Let’s start with Copenhageners: they own five times more bikes than cars, cycle the equivalent of 35 times around the world each day, and 62 per cent rely on bikes for daily transport. Residents of Amsterdam generate similar numbers: bikes outnumber cars four to one, cyclists cover around 2 million kilometres per day and 58 per cent of Amsterdammers over 12-years of age cycle daily. 

Importantly, neither city appears to be resting on the laurels of their cycling prowess. In 2017 the Dutch coalition government agreed to invest an additional EUR 100 million into cycle projects over a four-year period. And Copenhagen – growing by approximately 1,000 citizens per month and aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2025 – has spent EUR 270 million on cycling infrastructure in the last 20 years. The city boasts dedicated bicycle bridges, bicycle superhighways and innovative technology such as smart traffic signals that aim to reduce the trip times of cyclists by 10 per cent.

Switching lanes: getting cities to saddle up
Cycling utopias are not born overnight but of conscious and continuous effort. The relatively flat landscape and high population density of Amsterdam and Copenhagen undoubtedly contribute to the dominance of cycling among their inhabitants. However, it is telling to note that both cities have taken active steps to reverse the impact a post-Second World War car boom had on their streets and cycling habits. The 1970’s saw extensive protesting in Amsterdam against unacceptably high levels of road deaths, which exceeded 3,000 in 1971 alone and included 450 child fatalities. This decade also saw protests about cycling safety take place in Copenhagen and the city implement car-free Sundays in response to the energy crisis of the time, which hit Denmark hard. Since then both cities have become poster children for urban transformation.

Financial investment undoubtedly plays a key role in making cities bike-friendly, however the commitment of urban areas must delve deeper than funds. While Copenhagen can claim the world’s first cycling embassy, Amsterdam started the Bicycle Mayor Program in 2016 – a global initiative to accelerate the progress of cycling in cities. BYCS is the social enterprise behind the Bicycle Mayor concept and its vision is for 50 per cent of all city trips globally to be done by bicycle by 2030. Bicycles seem to run in the DNA of Amsterdammers and, fittingly, the city appointed the world’s first Junior Bicycle Mayor in June, eight-year-old Lotta Crok who wants to extend public transport bikes to include child and tandem bicycles.

Daily life on two wheels
Australian architect and academic Dr. Steven Fleming is considered a leading figure in bicycle urbanism and the consultancy firm he directs, Cycle-Space International, focuses on bicycle-centric development. His most recent book, ‘Velotopia: The Production of CycleSpace in Our Minds and Cities’, was published last year and considers the possibility of cycling being the key organising principle for urban growth and the design of new buildings. His collaboration with BYCS on the world’s first international Bicycle Architecture Biennale in 2017 showcased outstanding built environment solutions around cycling. Selected designs included the West Village-Basis Yard in Chengdu by Jiakun Architects. A huge urban development project, the multifunctional complex is built around the edges of an entire city block and cyclists can ride along an elevated runway between the rooftop and the ground level courtyard and sports areas.

As China’s West Village-Basis Yard shows, urban areas are finding increasingly creative ways to include cycling in day-to-day life. City cycling is no longer dominated or defined by the lycra-clad groups that swarmed through my childhood streets on training days. In today’s Instagrammable age cycling has definitely moved into the visual vernacular of urban cool and many cities are peppered with a huge range of bicycles and cycling accessories. The inclusion of bike-sharing schemes and cargo bikes in the criteria of the Copenhagenize Index are testament to the changing face of urban cycling.

While Switzerland is known for its scenic road cycling routes, no Swiss city has yet held a top-twenty spot in the Copenhagenize Bicycle Friendly Cities Index. In 2012 the Zurich City Council launched a scheme to double bicycle use by 2025, improve safety and ensure that cycling usage increases across all sections of society. Having just ordered our very own electric family cargo bike, I’m hopefully doing my bit and contributing to a boost of Zurich’s cycling statistics. And, while ease and practicality sealed the deal for me on this considerable investment, there’s the enjoyable added bonus of discovering previously unknown laneways, parks and playgrounds in a city I thought I knew inside out.

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