How walking & cycling is transforming cities

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

A new documentary released in UK cinemas this month celebrates the “MAMIL” – the middle aged man in Lycra. In cities across the world, from London to Los Angeles, Sydney to Sao Paulo, commuters on serious racing bikes and Lycra outfits previously only seen during the Tour de France have become a common sight. I confess to being one of them and recognise that we may not be universally loved! But along with the growing wave of hipsters on fixed gear machines, and millennials making quick trips on dock-less hire bikes, these highly visible modern cyclists are a symbol an important global trend that is putting the bicycle back at the centre of urban transport.

Cities, (re)developed and (re)designed for more than a century to meet the needs of cars, are waking up to the health, economic, social and environmental benefits of walking and cycling. That is why so many cities are taking action to incentivise citizens towards more journeys on foot or bike.

Transportation accounts for one third of CO2 emissions in C40 cities, and in some cities it represents as much as 45%. Transportation is also the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases globally. The evidence of the damage caused to human health and economic prosperity from fossil fuel powered vehicles is now damning. Air pollution causes 4.5 million premature deaths globally each year; traffic noise is now ranked as the second biggest environmental threat to public health after air pollution; and congestion can cost as much as 8% of a city’s total GDP.

In stark contrast, journeys taken on foot or bike produce zero emissions. Active commuting boosts mental and physical health and is the safest and most affordable means of moving around cities, which means it is also the most equitable. Having more people walk or bike through communities creates more vibrant high streets, boosts economic activity and contributes to that elusive but much sought-after quality of liveability that every city aspires to cultivate. There is even emerging evidence that walking and cycling improves mental health.

C40 has supported cities’ efforts to measure, quantify, and monetise the impacts of walking and cycling, and the results are striking. An assessment by C40 found that the monetary benefits of Mexico City’s bike lanes could total more than $65 million since 2007. Since Mexico City pedestrianized the central shopping avenue of Madero Street, commercial activity has increased by 30% and reported crimes have decreased by 96%. This strengthens the case for walking and cycling, and builds upon research conducted in Finland which found that people who cycle to work were 40% less likely to develop diabetes. C40’s research, supported by Novo Nordisk, also found that improving public health by encouraging people to cycle also helps to reduce spending on healthcare. C40’s research in Houston found that nearly 117,000 car trips were avoided in 2016 as a result of the city’s expanded cycle lane network, cutting significant amounts of air pollution and ‘saving’ 350 tonnes of CO2.

This research backs up what cyclists have known intuitively for years. As Peter Sagan, three-time World Champion cyclist and C40 Global Ambassador for Cycling Cities, puts it, “When people feel safe and confident riding their bikes rather than taking their car, they are healthier, happier, save money and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.” It’s a pretty compelling combination.

This is an area where almost every city in the world has huge opportunities to make progress.  The average journey across the metropolitan area of London, where I live, is less than 6km, a distance that a majority of people could easily cycle. Yet just 2.5% of all journeys in London are taken by bike (although numbers are much higher in inner London, and are rising rapidly). In contrast, 16% of all journeys - and 26% of all trips of less than 5km - taken in Copenhagen are on a bike. Research by Arup found that just 4% of journeys are taken by walking in Los Angeles, while in Paris that figure is close to 50%.

Many of C40’s pioneering mayors are already committing to a future with city centres that are not dominated by the motor vehicle. More than a dozen cities have signed the C40 Fossil Fuel Free Streets Declaration, which pledges to ultimately make large areas of their city centres closed to petrol and diesel vehicles. From my conversations with these mayors, I am clear that their ambition is not to replace them with electric vehicles, but to transform their city centres into communities that are best enjoyed by pedestrians and cyclists.

In addition, 37 C40 cities have joined the recently launched Walking and Cycling Network, which aims to support efforts to increase the number of trips made on foot or bike. Together they will share and discuss the best ideas for creating bike and pedestrian infrastructure and tackle the stubborn challenges associated with incentivising citizens out of their cars. The network, which meets for the first time this week in Bogotá, will also address cycle hire schemes, how to finance walking and cycling infrastructure and how to design initiatives and infrastructure that reduces injuries and crime against bikers and pedestrians.

Elite cyclists have paved the way for the current trend of enthusiastic amateur cyclists, and I’m confident that today’s MAMIL’s, now commonplace on our streets, are in fact just the vanguard of a much broader trend. In fact, we are embarking on a new golden generation for everyone to enjoy walking and cycling in the world’s great cities. The next wave of passionate cyclists and walkers on our roads are just as likely to be wearing jeans or dresses as Lycra, but that is what makes them all the more remarkable.