Skip to main content
sibilski pic
Future Development

How the bicycle can drive green development on planet Earth

Leszek Sibilski

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has said: “I want cycling to be normal, a part of everyday life. I want it to be something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes, something you hardly think about.” Indeed, Mayor Johnson has released a comprehensive plan for integrating bicycles into the future development of London.

Many of us underestimate the uniqueness, longevity, and versatility of the bicycle. This simple two-wheeled device has been reliably serving humanity for decades if not centuries, and is a clean green player in transportation, environmental stewardship, and health. There is also something very special about bikes. The synergy between the bike and the user fosters creativity, social engagement, and gives the rider an immediate awareness of the local environment. As a tool for development, a simple bicycle can mean not just transportation but employment—even access to education and healthcare.

Although Leonardo da Vinci drew some rough sketches of a contraption that looked like a bicycle, it was a Frenchman, De Sivrac, who built the first bicycle-type vehicle in 1690. Pedals were added in 1840 by Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who is said to have invented the first real bicycle.

Cycling as a sport was born in the 19th Century. The first recorded short race took place in 1868 over a 1,200-meter course in Parc Saint-Cloud, Paris. The following year saw the organization of the first endurance event— a 123 kilometer race from Paris to Rouen. The amazing popularity of cycling as a “new” competitive sport was evident as the 400 cyclists who were there at the start were encouraged by thousands of spectators. The rest of cycling’s history is better known. In 1896, cycling became part of the modern Olympics in Athens. One hundred years later, at Atlanta in 1996, mountain bikes joined track and road cycling on the Olympic program. The youngest cycling discipline, BMX, made its Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008. With four disciplines on the Olympic program, two on the Paralympic program, and with the success of professional cycling today, we can say that cycling is a truly global sport. Teams and riders from all around the world compete in events spread over six continents.

According to the Guinness Book of the World Records the most electricity generated by pedaling on bicycles for 24 hours was achieved by a group from Hong Kong, led by Brian Cha on June 7-8, 2014. His group totaled 26,963 watts of electricity. This fact alone could serve as an inspiration to young entrepreneurs who might find a way to harness the opportunity available through pedaling and make the switch from green culture to the real green.

In recent decades our appetite for the high-tech world that includes computers, mobile phones, and the Internet has overshadowed the bicycle. All of these tech products are great, but they also lead to a sedentary lifestyle. It is interesting to note that the total number of computers sold for all time is approximately 4,187 billion, the number of active mobile phones is estimated at over 7.3 billion, and there are more than 3 billion Internet users in the world. However, with over 2 billion bicycles and counting we should realize that the bicycle remains an important staple in the global marketplace. Bicycles are inherently versatile, but if we invest in the proper infrastructure, bicycles can be even more accessible and provide an exciting option for personal and planetary health.

Every year, air, water, and land pollution cause roughly 8.9 million premature deaths worldwide. This represents 13 percent of all premature deaths. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries. Recent data show worsening trends in morbidity and mortality attributed to pollution in most regions of the world, where rapid urbanization and motorization are taking a toll on air quality. China is a prime example where motorcars are rapidly replacing bicycles and rickshaws as the traditional mode of transportation. In 2004 there were just 10 million private cars in circulation in China; by 2020—just 5 years from now—there are forecast to be 150 million. While those in Europe and the U.S. are beginning to return to the bicycle, millions of others are forsaking their bikes for cars. Reversing this trend could be of huge benefit to our future climate and the health of our cities, but only if we act now.

Pollution is also toxic to our economies and exerts a higher burden on the cost of health care. It results in lost productivity and leads to a diminished quality of life. Investing in bicycles and the infrastructure needed to make them convenient and affordable would help in many ways to reclaim a cleaner environment and make a contribution to the mental and physical health of the population.

Some see the bike as just a form of recreation or kids play. However, bicycles are a major and practical form of transportation for hundreds of millions, and it could be for billions. One-third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are from motorized transport, yet half of all car trips are just 5 km or less. Such a distance takes only 15 minutes on a bike. Of course, cycling may not be the best option for every trip or by everyone. But if we improve the availability of bicycles and the facilities to support safe cycling, then they could offer a zero-carbon alternative to the car. It would also save us from billions of tons of CO2 emissions in the coming decades.

There is great opportunity coming later this year. In September 2015, Richmond, Virginia will become the first American city since 1986 to host the World Road Championships. With 450,000 on-site spectators and 300 million TV viewers expected over the nine days of racing, Richmond 2015 would be a fantastic global platform to promote everyday cycling as a healthy choice for individuals and communities that seek to reduce pollution and live in cleaner and greener surroundings. Along with hosting the World Championships, the city of Richmond is preparing to overhaul its streets to make them more suitable for a wider range of people who want to use bikes for everyday travel. Their aim is to promote one in ten trips to be by bike by the year 2025; up from the current ratio of one in fifty trips.

Cycling is more than just a sporting event. It is an accessible form of transportation and leisure that is versatile across many terrains and most importantly safe and clean for the planet. Some 2 billion people already use bikes throughout the world. Regardless of socioeconomic or cultural background, as well as gender, age, or physical ability, the bicycle is a true champion for all.

Author

L

Leszek Sibilski

Consultant, World Bank’s External and Corporate Relations, Global Engagement Department (ECRGE)

This blog was first launched in September 2013 by the World Bank in an effort to hold governments more accountable to poor people and offer solutions to the most prominent development challenges. Continuing this goal, Future Development was re-launched in January 2015 at brookings.edu.

For archived content, visit worldbank.org »

Get daily updates from Brookings