The Coming Bike Revolution

By Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

One day not long ago (by history’s standards), streets were populated by a friendlier form of transportation: the bicycle. Accompanied by horses, trolleys, and masses of pedestrians as well, the bicycle was the first form of personal transportation before automobiles were even prototypes. Bicycles helped women to become emancipated by providing them with independent mobility. Many don’t realize that in fact it was bicyclists who first demanded that roads should be smoothly asphalted in order to ease transportation as early as the late 1800’s. A few decades later, however, streets quickly became the realm of the car.

Fast forward to the early 21st century and what we’re seeing now is a revolution in livability. The damage done by suburban sprawl fueled by this “inexpensive” form of transportation is finally being challenged; We now know about the health risks of inactive lifestyles so typical of an autocentric way of life. The best cities in the world are those that are walkable - but also those which have high rates of cycling as a daily form of transportation. Here in the U.S. there is finally a push towards promoting this way of life. In Portland, this has long been “alternative”, but bicycle ridership is going up nationally as vehicle miles travelled in cars is stagnating.

One of the most hopeful signs of change in the United States is the sudden appearance of bicycle share systems in cities across the country. Even New York City - one of the last cities that would probably come to mind - has a thriving bicycle share system that is running ahead of expectations. Small cities, too, are beating the odds and getting their own shared bicycles as well as infrastructure tailored to commuters and oftentimes separated entirely from cars. Of course, Denmark is still ahead of everyone with the launch of their new bicycle model for their bike share system featuring a tablet on each bike for navigation and authorization.

Another type of bicycle that may help spur this revolution is the electric bicycle, one that has the ability to replace cars through electric assistance when travelling up hills or carrying heavy loads. Electric bicycles come in all shapes and sizes now as batteries become more efficient and the popularity grows. The most important factor, though, is that e-bikes have the ability to turn people into regular riders if they were otherwise inhibited, or only riding standard bikes every so often. A recent study done by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) at Portland State university showed promising results from their study and could speak to the future of this branch of two-wheeled transportation.

While we are making progress in the US, many countries abroad have been on this journey for decades, building separated infrastructure and retaining the walkable downtowns that make driving difficult. A recent NPR article highlights the drastic difference in trends across the Atlantic. More than just the usual countries we envision when discussing world class bicycle cultures, bicycles are outselling cars in nearly every European country. The difference is the most drastic in countries like Greece, Romania, Slovenia, and Hungary, but bicycle sales are also beating cars in Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. The infrastructure is following suit, with cities like London announcing massive overhauls to their bicycle networks.

But in the Western world at least, the trend is clear - alternative forms of transportation are growing as we aim towards healthier lifestyles and return to livable cities. And as the future continues to draw us forward, it may be that the past is closer than it appears. Will we return to a day when streets were filled with a vast array of active transportation options? Perhaps. I think that with the growing attention bicycling is getting not only culturally but officially as well, we are beginning to see a true bicycle revolution. And while the progress isn't perfect, I think it's clear that now that people have a taste of this memory, it will be hard to turn back now.

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, MUS, is Social Media Consultant for IMCL. She is a public space afficionado and has conducted several spatial ethnographies of public space. She also writes about urban anthropology at her blog THINK.urban.