What You Need To Know About Bike-friendly Cities

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)

Is it really good to have bike-friendly cities and how do we get them? Let’s find out in this article.

A woman riding her bike in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.
Freiburg im Breisgau is said to be a bike-friendly city in Germany. Bike-friendly cities are taking a step towards becoming bike-only cities.
Image Source: Kanan Khasmammadov

Cycling boom

Said to be “one of the fastest, most flexible and reliable methods of transport”, cycling has boomed further thanks to Covid-19. The lockdowns motivated many people to roll out their bicycles or buy some to join the bandwagon and pedal their way to fun and health. Here are some figures to describe the surge in bike demand:

Although the avoidance of public transport and bike-sharing boom partially contributed to the cycling boom, it seems that the government incentives or temporary “Copenhagenize” adjustments like pop-up cycling lanes and cycling superhighways played a bigger role in the boom.

However, suppliers struggled to keep up with the surge in bicycle demand, especially with the restrictions disrupting global supply chains. One big retailer in the UK described the demand as if customers were snatching available stock “like piranhas”. Seeing that cycling is on the rise despite talks of whether the cycling boom will stick, it might be worth learning more about bike-friendly cities, pandemic or not.

Bike-friendly cities

“Copenhagenize” is used to describe cities that are working to become more bike-friendly. Of course, the terms Copenhagenize and, hence, the Copenhagenize Index (more on this later) were modelled after the city of Copenhagen, well-known for its utmost bike-friendliness like its popular Dutch counterpart.

In fact, both Amsterdam and Copenhagen have long been bike-friendly cities, earned after much struggle in the 1970s. Since Copenhagen is home to 675,000 bicycles which is 5 times more than cars, 29% of all journeys and 41% of commutes to work or study across Copenhagen are by bike.

Cycling in Copenhagen
Bike-friendly Copenhagen.
Image Source: Febiyan

Thanks to the availability of safe cycling paths and the ongoing investment in improving and adding cycling infrastructure, the city not only reaps the obvious health and environmental benefits, but also economic benefits of 4.80 krone per km of cycling and 10.09 krone per km of replacing a motor drive with cycling.

These economic benefits arise from shorter commute times (from less traffic jams), less sick leave and more retail spending (since more people cycle to shops). Imagine multiplying those gains by millions of kilometres.

Similarly, Freiburg is bike-friendly and has a well-planned transport system, among other things that has earned the so-called ecological capital of Germany international recognition for being livable, sustainable, child-friendly and historically preserved. Since Freiburg prioritises pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, the city is bursting with the following privileges:

  • The city centre is closed for private motor vehicles.
  • Time restrictions are also placed on motor vehicles.
  • Right of way is given to bicycles.
  • There is a 400km network of cycling routes.
  • There is an ever-expanding city tram network.
  • The streets were designed with the harmony of cycling lanes, pedestrian zones, and tram lines in mind.

Maybe because of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Freiburg, it’s no surprise that other countries have tried to follow suit with their attempts to create bike-friendly cities in their own backyard. Efforts in some of the cities have been successful, while efforts in others yielded questionable results.

Mackinac Island seaside
A view of the bike-only Mackinac Island’s seaside.
Image Source: Selena Parker

One example of a success story is Mackinac, a bike-only island in Michigan, USA. The Michigan state’s website mentioned that the island boasts over 70 miles of cycling trails, 170 bikes per annual resident, a population of under 500 islanders and yet 85,000 annual bike licenses.

Why the gigantic number of licenses for such a tiny population? Because most of the licenses go to the ferried visitors the island attracts, and since motor vehicles are banned here, visitors either bring their own bikes or rent one.

Shifting a little more southwest to Colorado, there is a proposal to build a Dutch-style green bike paradise called Cyclocroft.

According to insights from InsideHook, cute Mr Money Mustache blogger Pete Adeney and Dutch design company B4place joined forces to design Cyclocroft, which is roughly the size of 484 football fields to fit 50,000 people. While the concept seems praiseworthy, it has attracted criticism for being isolated rather than integrated into mainstream society, which is what governments should be striving for.

Even if a government did aim to have something like this, things don’t necessarily turn out the way they want, as is the case for Pune’s multiple failures to revive its ‘City of Cycles’ status in India most probably due to a lack of alignment and clear priorities as well as behavioural challenges. But Pune should still not be deterred by its failures as the benefits of complete bike networks may outweigh the risks.

Data collection and analysis to determine and improve bike-friendliness

2019 Copenhagenize Index
A screenshot of the 2019 Copenhagenize Index showing the higher ranked cities for bike-friendliness.

Besides facilitating cycling navigation, data can be collected and analysed to identify issues with cycling infrastructure and improve its design. As the Copenhagenize Index is “the most comprehensive and holistic ranking of bicycle-friendly cities on planet earth”, how is this ever-evolving index measured? According to its website:

  1. Data of 600 cities worldwide are first gathered and stored in its database.
  2. The cities with a bicycle usage percentage of above 2% go to the next round of analysis.
  3. The cities are then assigned between 0 and 4 points across the streetscape, culture and ambition parameters, and bonus points for exceptional performance. Below are the parameters crucial for indicating bike-friendly success:
  • The streetscape parameters: bicycle infrastructure, bicycle facilities, and traffic calming.
  • The culture parameters: gender split, modal share for bicycles, modal share increase over the last 10 years, indicators of safety, image of the bicycle, and cargo bikes.
  • The ambition paramaters: advocacy, politics, bike share and urban planning.

Once the level of bike-friendliness is determined, the aspects of infrastructure that need improvement can then be identified. The European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) explained that the location-based satellite data collected from mobile cycling apps can be used to implement cycling policies and infrastructure based on paramaters like preferred routes, number of cyclists, speed, delays at intersections, places of high demand, bike path issues and feedback.

Cycling GPS
Bicycle IoT sensors can also help with cycling data collection.
Image Source: Himiway Bikes

Sadly, I’ve not spotted any mention of how the parameters are processed by Copenhagenize Index and ECF. But perhaps, the 2019 paper by Hong, McArthur and Livingston could have the answer to Evaluating Large Cycling Infrastructure Investments In Glasgow Using Crowdsourced Cycle Data.

The researchers collected 2013-2016 cycling data from Strava, Glasgow cycling infrastructure data and manual cordon counts of cyclists in Glasgow in 2014. They ran the data through a fixed effects Poisson panel data regression model to evaluate whether the cycling infrastructure (built partly for the 2014 Commonwealth Games) encouraged more people to cycle on these routes. This model was chosen for its ability to consider “unobserved heterogeneity”.

Imagining velotopias or something along those lanes lines

There’s so much to learn from bike-friendly cities. Successful bike-friendly cities set good examples for others to follow while unsuccessful cities’ mistakes can serve as lessons for what can be done better. However, as the Copenhagenize Index website mentioned, “bicycle friendliness can come in many shapes and forms, with each new step offering critical utility to the urban citizens that need it.”

This means that anyone attempting to make a city more bike-friendly need to consider what is possible for the city’s needs and not just copy and paste what other cities do, whether it’s coming up with outstanding ideas for a bike-oriented city (a.k.a. velotopia) in Sydney or placing a line of potted plants as a safety-guaranteed barrier instead of just painting roads.

But let’s keep in mind that one thing holds true universally and that is what car drivers can do to drive in harmony with cyclists on the road. Here are some tips from crowdsourced navigation app Waze:

  1. Check for anyone outside before you open your door to avoid hitting someone, particularly a cyclist.
  2. Keep a distance from cyclists.
  3. Double-check your blind spot before turning to avoid hitting anyone.
  4. Strictly leave the cycling lane for cyclists.
  5. Be patient.

“Everyone has peace on the road when everyone has a piece of the road.”

Sara Studdard, director of local innovation at People For Bikes (quoted by Waze).