The Rise of the Bicycle as Urban Transportation

October 7, 2009 at 10:35 am Leave a comment

By Liam Moriarty

In most cities, the automobile has ruled unchallenged for decades.  Now – in the age of global warming – the humble bicycle is increasingly seen as a cheap, healthy and green alternative for getting around.  In Part One of our series “Europe and Us: Growing a Green Future,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty looks at how bikes are challenging the fossil-fueled Goliath.

guy on Velib
A Paris commuter on a Velib bike.

In most cities, the automobile has ruled unchallenged for decades. Now – in the age of global warming – the humble bicycle is increasingly seen as a cheap, healthy and green alternative for getting around. I wanted to see how bikes are challenging the fossil-fueled Goliath. My first stop was Paris.

Mid-morning, I stand at a five-way intersection near the Gare du Nord, Paris’ northern rail station. Cars, trucks, taxis and motor scooters jockey for position. Commuters on bicycles cruise along green-painted bike paths. A lot of them are riding bikes from Paris’s public bike-sharing system, called Velib. I ask a few how they like Velib.

legs on Velib_jpg

Paris’ Velib public bike sharing
program is very popular.

One guy in his twenties is a big fan.
“Yes, a lot, because when the weather’s nice it’s much better than the subway and you can get a little workout, as well.”

A woman dressed for office work says, “I like to bike, a little bit for health, and also for the pleasure of cycling in Paris and above all to avoid the subway.”

Another fellow picks up on my English-accented French switches to English.
“Yeah, it works very well, yes, to go across the city very easily. I go to work with it, actually.”

There are 20-thousand Velib bikes in Paris. For a small subscription fee you can check out and drop off bikes at over a thousand computerized stations scattered through the city,


Fabian Kuster, with a folding bike outside the offices of the European Cycling Federation in Brussels.

There are problems. Some of the bikes need repair, and vandalism has been a big headache. Still, the program is immensely popular, and it’s been imitated in Brussels, Barcelona and other European cities.

Matthieu Fierling helps oversee the Velib program.

“Velib is one little, little, little part of a very big policy made by the City of Paris that consists in the reduction of the number of individual cars in Paris.”

The city is also building more bike lanes and adding subways, buses and trams.

Cycling is still a small part of the transportation picture in Paris. But Fierling says having all those cyclists on the streets is putting bikes into the public consciousness.

bike light_jpg

European bikeways even have their own traffic lights, like this one in Brussels

“Before Velib, the bike was used by ecologic people,” he says. “But now, the image of the bike changed radically.

Certainly, the many Parisians I saw tooling around on Velib bikes weren’t limited to the Birkenstock crowd. And delegations from dozens of cities around the world have come to Paris to see if something like Velib might work for them.

But European cycling advocates say if you’re serious about bikes as transportation, you have to do a lot more.

Fabian Kuster, with the European Cycling Federation in Brussels, says, “You need dedicated space for cyclists, so it’s safe and fun to cycle, not only for the fit 20s or 30s, but also for kids and also for elder people.”

bike and bar_jpg

A Velib rider in north Paris.

He points to Amsterdam, where 25 percent of all trips are taken by bike, and Copenhagen, where it’s over half. In those and other European cities, cyclists have extensive systems of bikeways protected from car traffic. They have bike-only streets and downtown districts where cars are banned. Kuster says that – if you want bikes to be a major way of getting around – you have to not only encourage cycling: you also have to discourage driving.

“You need to redistribute space,” he says. “You need to take away space for car use and give it to public transport, cycling, and walking.”

lone velib

There’s only one bike left in this Velib station.

In the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Portland consistently rank among the most bike-friendly American cities. Portland has the edge. They got serious about bicycle transportation 10 years before Seattle did. And Portland’s six percent cycling share – twice Seattle’s three percent — would seem to support the notion that if you build it, they will come.

Roger Geller, the bicycle coordinator for the City of Portland, says, “What you’ve got to build is a dense network of bike infrastructure that is supremely comfortable for the average person.”

trashed velib

Broken and vandalized Velib bikes are a problem.

With that in mind, Portland is testing the so-called “green boxes” you see in Europe. They allow cyclists to go to the front of the line at a red light, avoiding the collisions that happen when drivers turn right while cyclists in bike lanes go straight. These and other changes make it more comfortable to ride, so more folks do. And that leads to changes in public priorities.

“Business owners are asking us to remove on-street parking in front of their businesses in order to put in on-street bike parking,” Geller says. “To do that five or ten years ago would have been unheard of.”

dusseldorf rail_jpg

A crowded bike rack outside the rail station in Dusseldorf

In Seattle, too, bike use is growing. The city is increasing the number of bike lanes, and posting more signs and road markings to make drivers and cyclists aware of each other. That’s a far cry from the hard infrastructure in Europe’s most bike-friendly cities. But taking space away from cars and giving it to bikes is contentious — — and expensive — and public attitudes change slowly.

Meanwhile, if Paris’ Velib system sounds good to you, you might get a chance to check out bike sharing here at home. Recently, several bike-share  companies came to Seattle and Portland to show off their stuff. Pearson Cummings  — with King County’s parks department — says the county is just starting to look at whether public bike-sharing might work in here.

German woman on bike_jpg

Bikes are an everyday means of transportation in many European cities

“It’s gonna have to take into account hills,” he says. “It’s going to have to take into account weather. And so any system we bring into Seattle is really gonna have to be unique to this region.”

Of course, hills and weather are challenges to most any bike-sharing system, but in other cities they seem to find ways to make it work. In Paris, people will ride Velib bikes down the hill from the Montmarte district, but not back up. So every night, workers have to truck hundreds of bikes up the hill to be ready for the next morning’s commute. And in Montreal, when the icy winter arrives, the whole system gets picked up and packed away till spring.

pedicab in Cologne

Sung Jin Kim is a pedicab driver in Cologne, Germany.

I stumbled across this video and got a big kick out of it. This town in
Norway has come up with an innovative way to help cyclists handle a huge
hill. Maybe we could get something like this on Queen Anne Avenue here in
Seattle! 🙂

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