The Real Reason Why Bicycles are the Key to Better Cities

By Kasey Klimes – founder of the sustainable urbanism blog Secret Republic and Creative Consultant at MindMixer, a civic engagement platform for cities.

We all know the talking points. The benefits of bicycles have been tirelessly elaborated upon; bicycles improve health, ease congestion, save money, use less space, and provide efficient transportation with zero fuel consumption and zero carbon emissions. All of this is great, and the culmination of a population on two wheels can have a drastic impact on the overall wellbeing of a city.

However, none of these come close to the most meaningful aspect of cycling, a factor that cannot be quantified but has endless value to those fighting to improve their communities.

The most vital element for the future of our cities is that the bicycle is an instrument of experiential understanding.

On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities.

In their cars, the world is reduced to mere equation. “What is the fastest route from A to B?” one will ask as they start their engine. This invariably results in a cascade of freeway concrete flying by at incomprehensible speeds. Their environment, the neighborhoods that compose their communities, the beauty of architecture, the immense societal problems in distressed areas, the faces of neighbors… all of this becomes a conceptually abstract blur from the driver’s seat.

Yes, the bicycle is a marvelously efficient machine of transportation, but in the city it is so much more. The bicycle is new vision for the blind man. It is a thrilling tool of communication, an experiential device for the beauty and the ills of the urban context. One cannot turn a blind eye on a bicycle – they must acknowledge their community, all of it.

Here lies the secret weapon of the urban renaissance.

You see, those of us fighting for our cities, we struggle because too few see the problems, and fewer understand the solutions. They are quite literally racing past the issue, too busy to see, too fast to comprehend.

I cannot approach the average citizen and explain the innate intricacies of land use and transportation relationships, how density is vital to urban sustainability, how our sprawled real estate developments are built on economic quicksand, how our freeways shredded the urban fabric like a rusty dagger, how deeply our lives would be enriched by a collective commitment to urbanism.

Not only will their eyes glaze over, but they may very well become outraged. No one wants to be told that they must radically alter their lifestyle, no matter how well you sell it.

The bicycle doesn’t need to be sold. It’s economical, it’s fun, it’s sexy, and just about everyone already has one hiding somewhere in their garage.

Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle.

“These cars are going way too fast,” they may mutter beneath their breath.

“How are we supposed to get across the highway?”

“Wow, look at that cathedral! I didn’t know that was there.”

“I didn’t realize there were so many vacant lots in this part of town.”

“Hey, let’s stop at this cafe for a drink.”

Suddenly livability isn’t an abstract concept, it’s an experience. Human scale, connectivity, land use efficiency, urban fabric, complete streets… all the codewords, catchphrases, and academic jargon can be tossed out the window because now they are one synthesized moment of appreciation. Bicycles matter because they are a catalyst of understanding – become hooked on the thrill of cycling, and everything else follows. Now that new freeway isn’t a convenience but an impediment. Mixed-use development isn’t a threat to privacy but an opportunity for community. And maybe, just maybe, car-free living will eventually be seen not as restrictive, but as a door to newfound freedom.

The real reason why bicycles are the key to better cities?

Some might call it enlightenment.

This article was originally published on Secret Republic. Image courtesy of McBeth on flickr

  • Panda

    Thought provoking article, but did you really mean to use the word “decimate” which means “to reduce by 10%”?

  • Panda

    Thought provoking article, but did you really mean to use the word “decimate” which means “to reduce by 10%”?

  • BRD
  • BRD
  • http://twitter.com/timrgill Tim Gill

    Lovely piece. Don’t forget the view from slightly lower handlebars. “Cycling has four main attractions for children. It is great fun, it has the potential to expand the territory over which children can get around on their own, it is usually a social activity and it allows for close engagement and interaction with the people, places and objects encountered en route.” [From a report on children & cycling I wrote in 2005 – find it on my website http://www.rethinkingchildhood.com.

  • Greg

    City life equals using zipcar, selling your gas guzzling ride and ride a bike

    • Motino

      Zipcar is a ripoff. You can rent a car at the airport for a whole day with unlimited mileage for what zipcar charges for a couple hours.

    • Motino

      Zipcar is a ripoff. You can rent a car at the airport for a whole day with unlimited mileage for what zipcar charges for a couple hours.

  • Greg

    City life equals using zipcar, selling your gas guzzling ride and ride a bike

  • Motino

    Overly romantic. As a lifelong bicyclist, I must say the idea of bicycles sharing the road with cars is hopelessly quixotic. We must complete a nationwide rails to trails network so that bicycles can be free of car traffic.

    Further, we must not be afraid to recognize superior technologies. The motor scooter with an engine between 50cc and 125cc is a vastly more practical and superior technology to bicycles, especially in North America. All the experiences described in this piece are equally applicable to motor scooters, which are essentially bicycles with motors.

  • Motino

    Overly romantic. As a lifelong bicyclist, I must say the idea of bicycles sharing the road with cars is hopelessly quixotic. We must complete a nationwide rails to trails network so that bicycles can be free of car traffic.

    Further, we must not be afraid to recognize superior technologies. The motor scooter with an engine between 50cc and 125cc is a vastly more practical and superior technology to bicycles, especially in North America. All the experiences described in this piece are equally applicable to motor scooters, which are essentially bicycles with motors.

  • migmog

    I got pretty intimate with the thugs who knocked me off my bike the second last time it was stolen- isn’t it wonderful to experience the city. At the time I couldn’t afford a car, now I drive. The city I live in is a miserable place to commute on a bike. I still experience the city but I’d rather not do so choking on exhaust fumes dodging taxis and exposing myself as an easy target for robbery. I’d love for it to be different but there is such a long way to go. 

    • Kasey Klimes

      migmog-
      I truly am sorry to hear of your experiences, please understand I do not mean to pretend that things like that do not happen in our cities. 
      The above article was never meant to extoll “how great cycling is for you” but rather what a cycling culture can mean for a city on a collective scale. Your experiences have been terrible – but is it not fair to say you understand your city better because cycling? You know how bad the crime is, you know how wretched the streets can be – you know ‘intimately’.
      Most people don’t understand the way you do, despite living in the same city. Even if they know the problems exist, they don’t have first-hand experience.
      Imagine if everyone in your city had the same experience of cycling. You can bet the public conversation on the state of your streets and the issue of crime would have much more vitality and urgency.
      The “enlightenment” of cycling is not about understanding how fantastic the city is, but rather the subtlest nuances of problems.
      Have you spoken or wrote to your local elected officials about your experience? I’d very much recommend it – we can’t be heard if we don’t speak.