Jul 15, 2013

Are bicycles a serious mode of transport in cities?

Futurist and designer Syd Mead managed to piss-off many of the world’s cyclists last week with his claim that “the bicycle is not, strictly defined, a transport device”. Is he right?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Cycling mode share for journey to work in cities with >1 million population (%)

Syd Mead reckons it’s “specious folly” to propose bicycles as a serious component of urban transportation (Bicycles are not the future of transportation). There’s “an almost messianic insistence that bicycles should be part of the urban travel mix”, he says, but the notion cities can be “liberated from the car…has zero basis in practical terms”.

Prior to now entering the ranks of the infamous, Syd Mead was famous as a futurist and conceptual artist. He’s credited with designing city backgrounds and vehicles for Blade Runner and other sci fi films.

According to Mr Mead, bicycles aren’t a serious mode of transport because they’re limited by weather, terrain and the health of riders. Further, they’re not much good for the long trips involved in city living and they’re dangerous when used on roads. Cyclists flout road rules (he calls it “eco elitism”) and slow the progress of drivers. Moreover bike lanes reduce road capacity for cars.

Imposing bicycle accommodations onto an existing vehicular culture and street alignment is prohibitively complex and preposterously expensive on a per-mile basis. Given the relatively small number of commuters who would use such lanes in comparison to car drivers, any cost/efficiency formulae that purport to justify such infrastructure enter the realm of pure fantasy.

Mr Mead should’ve visited China in the 1980s before the arrival of cars and witnessed for himself how effective the bicycle can be as a mass transportation system. He should travel to The Netherlands and Denmark to see that it’s possible for bicycles to achieve a remarkably high mode share in a developed country.

Of course none of that would carry much weight with him because he’s implicitly comparing cycling with driving. He’s also judging the utility and potential of bicycles in the context of US cities where, with a few exceptions, urban form and structure have been shaped by cars.

Most importantly, he’s framed his argument as either bicycles or cars. His contention that “urbanistas” propose bicycles as the “transportation of tomorrow or the saviour of cities” is a straw man of his making.

The proposition put by planners isn’t that bicycles can out-compete cars for all trips at all times in all cities within “new world” countries like the US and Australia. Rather, it’s that bicycles can be an important part of transport policy, especially in relatively dense urban areas where car use is limited by traffic congestion and the cost of parking.

In these sorts of locations they’re competitive with cars in terms of travel time and sometimes they’re decidedly quicker. Most urban car trips carry one person (the driver) and are well within the range of an average cyclist – in any event, the new generation of electric power-assisted bicycles make distance a non-issue.

In fact bicycles offer many of the advantages of cars. They’re private so, like cars, they’re available on-demand and go direct to the traveller’s destination. Cyclists don’t share their machine with strangers either, as public transport travellers do.

It’s not the only one, but the main “driver” of a significant increase in cycling will be greater competitiveness relative to other modes. That “push” factor is already growing in the denser inner parts of US and Australian cities.

But it’s being held back by an unsympathetic infrastructure and regulatory environment. In particular, the limited provision of dedicated bicycle paths separating cyclists from motorists is a major deterrent to the “next cohort” of cyclists taking to the streets (who’re likely to be different to current riders).

Dedicated on-road paths are cheap to construct and have the capacity in congested conditions to move more travellers than an equivalent car lane. Providing a comprehensive network of safe cycling routes is the key to attracting the next cohort of riders.

Cycling doesn’t have to “see off” the car to have a major role in transport within urban areas. Even public transport only accounts for a modest proportion of trips in most US and Australian cities. For example, even with a well developed rail and tram system, public transport accounts for around 10% of  all trips in Melbourne.

Cycling’s mode share for journeys to work is 32% in Beijing and 17% in Munich, but in most large cities it’s below double figures e.g. 8% in Hamburg, 3% in Paris, 2% in Barcelona. Closer to his home, Mr Mead should visit Portland, Oregon, where cycling accounts for 6% of journeys to work.

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22 thoughts on “Are bicycles a serious mode of transport in cities?

  1. Last name First name

    Parker Alan • OAM

    Bicyclists and pedestrians are safer on urban roads in five EU countries per100,000 poulation. Non motorised road users are much less safe in most US. and Australia urban areas but there are exceptions. The best thing that US bicyclists and pedestrians have going for them of all ages have going for them 47 states is a 25 Mile/Hr limit (33 km/hr) on residential streets that are not main roads. There also many bike lanes on US urban main roads but the speed limits are 60 km/per hour or more as they are in Australia. There are also 16 US cities with much lower death rates for cyclists, pedestrians and other road users per 100,000 population (Garrick & Marshal 2011) . In Australia much progress has been made in Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and some provincial cities.

    In the area of Speed limits and their enforcement Australalia and US urban areas their a serious public health problem because road safety is percieved as a motorised transport problem for 40 years. However, in Europe for at least 20 years road safety was percieved as a public health
    problem. This why the road deaths have come crashing in all countries fatality risk has been reduced by more than 40%. In 2010, the lowest fatality rates found in the United Kingdom 3.0, the Netherlands 3.7 and Sweden 3.0 deaths per 100.000 persons (IRTAD 2011). In 2009 the US the death rate is far higher at 10.5 per 100.000 persons and Austraia at 6.23. For Australia that could be as much as 800 deaths a year.

    In the Netherlands cyclists’ are much safer, Since 1970 the reduction in road fatalities has benefited all age groups but the most impressive reduction has concerned young bicyclists (the age group 0 to 14) for which fatalities decreased by 95%, from 459 in 1970 to 23 in 2008 (IRTAD 2011). 70% of Dutch local urban roads have a 30 Km/hr speed limit and the police take a tougher approach to unsafe drivers. . Since 1970, the reduction in child deaths (0 to 14) from 459 to 23 in 2008 was impressive, decreasing by 95%. For the elderly of 65+ years deaths reduced from 648 in 1970 to 187 in 2009 (IRTAD 2011).A similar development took place on some rural roads used by touring and recreational cyclists. Also on main roads with bicycle lanes the speed limit is 50 km/hr.

    AustraliaGarrick & Marshal (2011) Beyond Safety in Numbers: Why Bike Friendly Cities are Safer, Archive search: use “Search” window
    IRTAD (2011) Annual report 2010,International Road Traffic and Accident Database by International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group http://www.Iirtad .net.

  2. suburbanite

    Whoever “lycraboy” is (I don’t wear lycra) you are right they aren’t saving the world, but selfish tools in their cars are definitely destroying it. Using a ton of metal to move one inattentive person at an average speed of 20km/h around the city is ridiculous. It’s not the future it’s the past.

  3. Jean

    You’re not saving the world, lycraboy … you’re just riding a pushbike.

  4. suburbanite

    Cars are great for the country side, but anyone with a brain can see they don’t work in large cities if everyone drives one – they just take up too much valuable space. That’s pretty much the lesson I got from watching Blade Runner, where only flying cars and bicycles can get you anywhere because the city streets are clogged with stationary cars and trucks. Not sure why Syd Mead should be taken seriously on the future of transport.

  5. Karl

    It’s sad to see the haters always coming out of the woodwork. Doug, I’m sure you’re a nice and reasonable person but you obviously have some very strong anti-bike bias that is obscuring your objectivity and rationality. I have a few friends who also thought the same as you until I sat down with them and explained a few essentials.

    I feel like a broken record sometimes, because the same, boring old arguments are constantly trotted out. The horse is well and truly beaten.

    1. Flat and short commutes: Yes generally true, however there’s many other towns and cities in other countries that are hilly and/or longer distances which still manage to have a healthy proportion of trips by bicycle. Why do you think that is?

    2. Lance Armstrong wannabes and disregard for road rules: Again, have you looked further than your own prejudice and considered why some (but definitely not the majority) of cyclists fit within this stereotype? Could it possibly be due to the car-centric urban planning and road design which favours cars and high speed traffic, and creates a dangerous and hostile environment for other road users (including pedestrians and cyclists)? Do you think that maybe some cyclists will jump or rolling stop certain stop signs or red lights for a reason, maybe they have made a calculated assessment that it is actually safer to roll through that red light in order to get ahead of the heavy and fast traffic behind them?

    For every complaint some people have about cyclists there is a good reason to explain it. Most of these issues would be directly and indirectly resolved through good design and high provision of cycling infrastructure just like what they have in countries with high populations of cyclists. I think you would agree that if we had safe, connected, convenient and comfortable cycle paths and infrastructure connecting our towns and cities there would be many more people out there cycling which would in turn create a more mainstream cycle culture in turn, no?

    I recommend that you grab your bicycle and try going for a ride yourself to see what I’m talking about. If you’re in Perth I’d be happy to take you for a tour around and show you the current situation and explain how it could be improved. Open offer to you or any other skeptics that the bicycle isn’t a true form of transport for Australian cities for short-medium distance trips.

  6. Crew.Doug

    I wonder why bicycles are so popular in the Netherlands and Denmark. Probably nothing to do with those countries being flat or their short commute distance.

    I wonder why their cyclists are so accepted. Probably nothing to do with them not being Lance Armstrong wannabes, obeying traffic lights, stop signs and respecting pedestrians on footpaths and crossings.

  7. Doug W

    In response to Dazza (#14) I would argue that Australian roads (in cities at least) are not suitable for Australia over the coming century. Making them more suitable for public transport and bikes would be a big improvement.

  8. Alan Davies

    Scott Grant #13:

    To reinforce your point – Some things you might see while in Amsterdam. A washing machine! Of course if you’ve ever been to Vietnam you’d know that’s nothing….

  9. dazza

    Mead is an intelligent man who looks to the future and he is absolutely right about bikes. They are not suitable for Australian roads in a same way as tractors or horses aren’t.

  10. Scott Grant

    Interesting that his first example that a bicycle is not transportation is that he is unable to carry a watermelon! Well, actually, on my bike, I can, and I am sure I am not alone. I have a basket clipped onto a rear rack. With that, and a back pack, I can carry a substantial amount of shopping.

    But I take my helmet off to the bloke I once met, whose electrically powered cycle had panniers capacious enough to take a whole, large, shopping trolley load of goods. It even had a child seat for delivering said child to school!

    I have not owned a car for 12 years. Foot, rail and bicycle are my main means of transport, supplemented by buses, taxis and hire cars and, sometimes, even an aeroplane.

  11. Tim Macknay

    Interesting that Mead is so hostile to cycling. I seem to remember a few bicycles trolling around in the background in several of the scenes in Blade Runner

  12. Tom the first and best


    If that figure is correct (where is it from), then that would be on road vehicles, inside the congestion charge area. This counts the considerable bus patronage as relatively small number of vehicles and ignores the considerable rail patronage and walking. Not to mention that bikes are, I presume, exempt from the congestion charge and cars not.

  13. beardfear

    Although it’s a small point, the table the graph is drawn from has Osaka drastically wrong at 0% (it appears that the original source didn’t list a separate count for bicycles).

    I’m struggling to find an exact percentage from an English-language source, but various websites quote Osaka’s bicycle modal share as 25%.

  14. Alan Davies

    bref #6:

    Have to compare apples with apples. If you click through to the data source, you’ll see that I’ve graphed cities with a population > 1 million. That’s relevant to Australia’s State capitals.

    The same source has Amsterdam, Utrecht and Eindhoven (and Canberra) listed as cities with > 250,000 population, suggesting that the mode splits given for them are central counties, not metro areas. The popln of metro Amsterdam is circa 2.3 million. If you were to just take the central three LGAs in Melbourne (say) it would give you a much higher mode share than the figure for metro Melbourne as Persia #4 points out.

  15. Saugoof

    The US, like Australia really, simply doesn’t get cycling. Both tend to overwhelmingly see the bike as a sporting utility that you use for fitness, which means that riders generally have bikes that cost more than my car, wear bike specific clothing, ride very fast, etc. The sorts of trips where the bike ride itself is the goal. Nothing wrong with that. But in most other countries, this sort of bike trip is the minority.

    In both, the US and Australia the majority of people doesn’t get that the bike can be a mode of transport for everyday trips where the goal is simply to get from A to B and the bike is just a tool to get you there.

    I own a car, but I do roughly four times as many kms on the bike than I do with the car. Partially because I love riding the bike, but also for my circumstances it’s just far easier and more convenient. I don’t have a parking spot at home so the car stays parked at work all week and I just take it home whenever I need it for something. It’s a luxury really and I don’t particularly like driving it. In the car you’re very dependent on how much traffic there is, so how long it takes you to get somewhere is quite unpredictable, and once you get to where you’re going you have to try and find a parking spot, etc. I just find it much easier riding the bike instead.

    Long story short, I prefer the bike for any trip, but I like having the option of using the car too. They’re not mutually exclusive devices.

  16. steven killick

    1/4 of rush hour traffic in London is a bicycle. That’s a 25% market share. That sounds serious to me….

  17. bref

    A quick look at the graph made me suspicious, where for example is Amsterdam. A click takes one to his other graphs and we can see the flaw in the methodology. If we include ‘Greater Amsterdam’ we’d get well over a million people in not that great an area with a cycling mode of 38%. Just looked at 2 more cities, Eindhoven and Utrecht, and the same story. Include entire cities and the graph above would look quite different. Australia is a terrible example anyway as our councils just don’t get it yet, and our politicians still can’t get passed the ‘helmets’ thing… (Do they even realise that the rest of the world doesn’t have to wear helmets?)

  18. Karl

    Syd Mead is an example of typical car-centric ignorance. I cycle to work every single day of the week, all year round. If the weather is cold or wet then I put on a jacket. I also commonly use my bike to perform short trips to see friends or get some groceries as it is generally faster, easier and hassle-free. Bicycle aren’t the final solution to our transport woes, but to suggest that they aren’t a serious and important component of addressing transportation in our towns and cities is entirely preposterous. As you pointed out Alan, there are many cities around the world that show how cycling is an integral and effective form of daily transportation.

  19. Persia

    I feel that it’s fairly useless to look at cycling’s modal share across the whole of a large city like Melbourne. This inevitably leads to statements like “It’s only 2%..” and then cycling is dismissed. The very (and understandably) low rates of cycling in the outer suburbs drag down the numbers, which are impressively high in the inner suburbs – ie, off the top of my head, Moreland, Darebin, Yarra and Melbourne are in the 8-12% range, which is significant, given the still fairly rudimentary network in those areas and the ongoing aggressive attitude of many drivers.

  20. Persia

    Maybe we should come up with a scoring method for anti-cyclist rants, where a certain number of points are allocated (or deducted?) per cliche, baseless opinion, unlikely anecdote, etc. There could be bonus points for the old chestnuts “I’m a cyclist, but…”, “they paint all these bike lanes, but no-one ever uses them”, “I nearly got killed by a cyclist” and other old favourites. Syd would surely get a high (or low?) score for his effort.

    Alan, how about a competition?

  21. Dylan Nicholson

    Sounds like he’s completely trapped in the mindset that if a mode of transport can’t be used for every type of trip, it’s not worth considering. My single biggest issue with cars is that so many people think that once they have one, it’s the only form of transport they need, and use for a large portion of their journeys which would be much more sensibly done on a bike/scooter or P.T.
    I don’t see why the mode share for bikes for most typical modern cities shouldn’t be over 10% for all trips (not including purely recreational rides).

  22. hk

    Bicycle riding for transport purposes is a very serious health benefiting mode of travel. For Syd Mead not to discuss the negative aspect on health of the sedentary behaviour generated by motorized travel indicates he is not to be taken too seriously in his opinions.

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