Cycling as the catalyst for more human and sustainable transport

The interest for a human and sustainable transport is growing in the public and private sector, at local, national and global level.  Our cities and our planet cannot rely on cars for our transport needs, even if they become more energy-efficient or even carbon neutral. We have to create accessibility for people. With current planning and design, roads are isolating people from important destinations.  The public domain should be designed with priority for people over motorised traffic.  Apart from emission reduction, mobility with zero emission should get value. It is the combination of a human-rights-based orientation with eco-efficiency, that will direct us to a real sustainable transport system.


A people oriented transport system requires out-of-the-box thinking, away from paving more asphalt and building fly over’s to cater for more and more cars. The fact that cycling as a mode of transport has gained interest at all levels in the last years, is an expression of the will to make a fundamental change. It seems that cycling represents in the best way a vision for change. The promotion of cycling was mentioned by the mayors from New York, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, London, Copenhagen, Mexico at the mayoral conference during the climate summit COP15.

Cycling  was the positive reverse of the negative connotation of our current system dominated by cars.  Looking at these mayors, it was as if a choir was assembled, that shared:

  1. There is an urgent need to do something completely different
  2. We have a vision and we can make it concrete
  3. We are acting now.

The recognition that cycling has a key role to play in the transformation of our transport system, is very new. E.g. in India until only 5 years ago, the governments did not want to take cycling on board of transport policies. Now the policy is to demand that transport interventions include cycling facilities. So cycling policies emerge in the context of new approaches for a human and sustainable transport system. As a consequence there is a huge demand for innovation, to showcase practices, to transfer expertise, for capacity building, for international exchange. At COP15, the mayor of Amsterdam announced to set up a global network of mayors for cycling and the climate. Amsterdam is still the cycling capital city of the world with more cyclists than cars, with people from 6 to 90 years riding in traffic.

It is obvious that cycling on itself cannot deliver the accessibility people need, although all over the world between 40 and 60% of all trips people make are within a cycling distance. The combination of public transport with walking and cycling is the only strong alternative for car transport. This combination serves short and long trips in an easy way, from door to door. Both cycling as a stand-alone policy and public transport as a stand-alone policy cannot become an attractive alternative for cars. If cities accommodate a smooth and safe flow of walking, cycling and public transport and pay special attention to an efficient combined use of these moods, they will become most accessible,

It is a long way to mainstream new planning and design

There is still a huge challenge to develop and implement cycling inclusive policies.

The first need is to analyse the interest for cycling promotion. There are different agenda’s to influence transport policies. Interesting to note that cycling contributes to all agenda’s in a positive way.

The second thing to do is to analyse the bearer of current policies and planning & design practices. We have to find the right match between commitment and instruments for policy implementation. It turns out that brave policies receive a lot of attention and rewards: the network of BRT, cycling and walking facilities in Bogotá, the Velib in Paris, the terraces on Broadway Manhattan, the congestion pricing in London, the removal of a fly over in Seoul. These enlightening examples have to be transferred into a new structure of urban planning and design and this is the long-term approach that needs as much courage as the new examples. We cannot realise sustainable transport without sustainable policies, new guidelines and regulations, cycling inclusive investments, cycling inclusive planning and design.

This transformation process can be supported by impact assessments: what does planning and designing for public transport, cycling and walking do for accessibility, participation in society, road safety, social inclusion, the local economy, air quality, health and well being? The current indicators for impact of transport interventions have to be reviewed since they are biased in favour of car transport.


The interest for cycling comes from different directions, such as :

–          Disfunctioning of the current transport system, resulting in e.g. congestion

–          The concern about road safety, which will become globally the third cause of death if the current trend continues

–          The concern about health, which goes far beyond the road safety problems and includes  air pollution and lack of physical exercise.

–          Climate policies, which cannot do without a paradigm shift of transport policies that should incorporate avoidance of the need to travel and a shift to sustainable modes

–          The enormous costs for transport interventions if the bias for cars continues

Interesting to note that all these directions are motivations arising from problems.  When an interest is growing as much as is the case with cycling, there must be other, positively stated reasons too and this is the case:

–          People want to ride a bicycle and enjoy independence, fresh air, the ease way to go and the more direct social contact (read just as a case the book by musician David Byrne (2010) about his trips in e.g. New York, London, Istanbul, with references to the vision by Penalosa and others)

–          People experience e.g. through public bikes and the showcase of city bicycles and of carry bicycles, that there is much more than cycling for leisure and recreation; that cycling is a great way to get around quickly and to use the bicycle for different motives, such as  social visits and commuting

–          The interest to make cities attractive, liveable,  in which people instead of traffic have priority and the public space is designed for social activities: mayors are proud to present their cycling policies, taking Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Bogota as good practices, highlighting the change in appearance it makes to their city and the different social, economic and ecological co benefits

–          The huge cost benefit ratio for investments in cycling facilities (ranging from 1:3 till 1:12, ref. Promising, EU project coordinated by the Dutch Road Safety Research Institute SWOV )

Moreover, the bicycle increases opportunities for people to participate, to  find or create jobs, to make use of services and follow education, to recreate etc. If we take “Accessibility for all” serious, we need a substantial share of cycling.

What we need to do is combining the different agenda’s and make the strongest case for cycling inclusive sustainable transport policies.

Planning principles

Most cities that start with planning for cycling tend to create only some km’s of marginal tracks on roads where there is no obvious need to claim more space for cars. There is still no coherence in facilities from origin to destination and the citizens react according to the state of mind of the institutions: “We have no idea if this will ever work, we do not want to do any harm to the needs of cars, we hope you want to give it a try”. Car drivers and cyclists tend to do what they did and the new facilities are to a large extent ignored. This is not very rewarding for the professionals that introduce cycling facilities.

We have to notice that this approach is not yet professional. How different has been the approach on the pilot corridor for Bus Rapid Transit in New Delhi, supervised by TRIPP/IIT Delhi. The planning and design started in a time when it was not allowed to explicitly facilitate cycling. Prof. Geetam Tiwari decided to pursue for an all-inclusive planning and design for BRT, cars, cyclists, pedestrians and even street vendors, convinced that this would support the traffic flow in the best way. The corridor was a busy and very dangerous one, with on average 8 traffic fatalities per year over about 10 km’s !! Directly after the implementation an evaluation has been executed by EMBARQ which pointed at some weak design details which were adapted.

One year after, the number of cyclists on this corridor has been doubled and there was no single fatal accident with a cyclist. The figure above shows the satisfaction by different road users of the new road design. It is clear that bus passengers, cyclists and pedestrians are most satisfied since they get more priority and their requirements are better catered for. But about half of the car drivers and motorised two wheelers are also satisfied,

In fact there are two approaches that work to promote cycling and the best is to combine them:

  • Create a network of main cycling routes with safe crossings and build additional facilities such as for parking
  • Make every (re)construction of roads cycling inclusive.

The first approach asks for substantial investments but with a high cost benefit ratio. A long-term plan for a metro pole city could demand 50-100 million dollar per year. Most cities depend heavily on funds from national governments to invest in transport facilities. And many developing countries ask for loans by banks to invest in transport. The donors start to get an interest in projects when a substantial amount of money is involved. A strategic long-term program to make a city cycling friendly cannot do without that. So cycling becomes a feasible subject for donor money if this is needed. If cycling is valued as a zero emission mode of transport these investments allow also for an appeal on carbon funding. UNEP has set up a campaign in Africa to allocate 10% of road investments for safe mobility by cycling and walking.

The second approach demands that investments for transport accommodate safe cycling. The rule should be that all transport investments should take into account the requirements for cycling and walking. A right approach for integration is very cost beneficial:  the performance of mobility will improve with the same volume of investments.

For metro pole cities, the combination of public transport and cycling is a strong asset for donor and carbon funding for sustainable transport policies. Safe feeder routes and easy and safe bicycle parking facilities at bus and rail stations, make bus and rail systems much stronger. Bicycle rent facilities are as important to facilitate an efficient door-to-door transport. The Velib in Paris became famous worldwide. The Dutch public bike system is oriented on chain mobility and organised by the Dutch railways. 40% of all train passengers arrive at railway stations on their bike and they together make 1 million rides per year on a public bike from their next train station to arrive at their final destination.


Cities in Western Europe that are cycling friendly show that congestion and safety problems vanish.  TRIPP/IIT Delhi  found confirmation in India through simulation studies. If car use is restricted in favour of other modes, the whole traffic system is better off. The Netherlands faces a lot of congestion on their roads but this is only the case outside urban areas. When the Netherlands started to invest in cycling facilities, the downward trend in cycling changed into an upward trend. The absolute number of cycling fatalities reduced notwithstanding the growth of traffic. But on the whole, road safety standards improved. A study in Denmark comparing cities showed a perfect correlation between the share of cycling and road safety of cycling. Better planning, higher use and more safety interact.

The social benefits of cycling have not been studied very well. There is a paradox inherent in cycling promotion regarding the social benefits. Cycling supports very significantly the livelihood of poor people. Just an example: home care workers in Cape Town and housekeeping woman in Delhi doubled their income when they could go by bike to deliver their services. But to make cycling a full-fledged mode of transport, the bicycle should not be linked only to the poor. On the contrary, it should get rid of the status as a vehicle only for the poor as is the case in developing countries. When middle and higher income people ride a bicycle too they create another status of cycling. Still, the social and economic benefits can be highlighted much more than nowadays. People are stuck, imprisoned, to their neighbourhoods said minister of transport in the Western Cape Tasneem Essop in 2003. Children are deprived from many development and growth opportunities when they are not allowed to go somewhere independently and to play in the public domain.  Social participation is so much easier with a bicycle. And a critical mass of cycling make areas much more safe. Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogotá said: “We have to make the public space dangerous for criminals to operate”.

Traffic related air pollution causes an equal volume of premature deaths as road safety does and the lack of physical exercise due to the use of motorized vehicles instead of walking and cycling has an impact on health which is even greater than the impact of road safety or pollution.

The global financial crises, energy crises and the protection of the climate, all direct to an important role of cycling in our transport system. Investing in sustainable modes of transport saves lots of investments and enables spatial planning that avoids a substantial amount of mobility needs. The climate agenda cannot do without a fundamental transformation in transport policy and the partnership for Sustainable Low Carbon Transport claims that AVOIDance of km’s travel and a SHIFT to sustainable transport are as important as technical IMPROVEments.

Indicator development for impact assessments

Traditionally the benefits of improving transport infrastructure has been measured by performance criteria for vehicles, like improved connection, travel time, speeds and fuel savings. The cost specifications are limited to construction, ongoing operations and maintenance. This provides only a limited picture on real impacts. The performance criteria are to a great extent based on and applied to motorized traffic.

I-CE uses the travel, transport and traffic market model, to better understand travel behaviour and analyze policy options to optimize the benefits for people and society.

The challenge for transport and spatial planners is to affect travel behaviour to optimize social and economic well being and control negative aspects like accidents, livability, air quality and emissions that induce climate change.

I-CE developed in two projects, for UNEP and the Global Road Safety Facility at the World Bank, directions to find alternative indicators for accessibility, safety and sustainability. For accessibility, the common indicators are defined in terms of speed of motorised vehicles and vehicles flow per hour resp. delays. We propose number of destinations within reach for persons given the access to transport modes based on travel times. For road safety, most common indicators regard fatalities and injuries per km. We propose per 100.000 people. For the environment, common indicators are pollutants per vehicle or passenger km whereas we propose pollutants by 100.000 people or percentage of trips for which people have the option to choose for a sustainable mode of transport.

Interfacing cycling expertise

Road users, decision makers and professionals do have a different perspective on traffic and mobility and a different framework to assess the quality of provisions. Looking for the pioneers in cycling policies we find advocates, politicians and experts as well. To know what quality is needed for cycling, how to integrate this in planning and design and how to ensure consistency in the implementation of planning and design principles, we have to involve advocates, professionals, donors, politicians, experts and bring their strengths together.

The I in I-CE stands for Interface and I-CE interfaces between cycling expertise and policies and between cycling and development.   I-CE involves the public and private sector with civil society,  to develop local cycling policies and to bring the expertise and experiences gained with these local actors to a global audience.

There is a huge eagerness to learn how to transport current planning and design standards.  In our view, to fully exploit the potential of cycling and cycling promotion, we need to strengthen the local, national and international networks to learn from each other and cooperate with each other. An important framework at global level is the partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport which demands a global coalition on cycling to deliver inputs for programming. We need to build up expertise centres on cycling policies and cycling inclusive planning and design.

The Dutch model for cycling and for road safety

We know that thinking in terms of the requirements by pedestrians and cyclists, is the best way to learn about transformation of transport policies and bring about a paradigm shift towards safe, clean and affordable transport. This happened in the Netherlands with the design of a new road safety policy, based on the prevention of the chance that serious accidents can occur. The majority of urban roads have a speed limit of 30 km per hour, cycling and walking with public transport have received lots of priority over cars, and against 3200 traffic deaths in 1972, we suffered 720 traffic deaths in 2009. The aim is to bring this down to less than 500 in the coming years, which is again a challenge. The figure shows the trend in road safety for cyclists till 2001. After 2001 the number of fatal cycling accidents further declined and was less than 200 in 2009.

The Netherlands keeps on investing and learning, on road safety and on cycling in particular as well. On cycling it is still investing 200 – 300 million euro per year in facilities on or alongside the road, apart from the integrated measures which in fact have more impact.

Expertise still has to grow

Expertise on cycling inclusive planning and design has been built up substantially in only a few countries. The Netherlands has not only the highest share of cycling in transport (and at the same time the highest density of cars per km2) and the highest level in road safety of cycling. It has also the best record in developing cycling policies, in documenting experiences and lessons learnt, in implementation of lessons into manuals, in the share of cycling in transport and. I-CE built on this expertise to deliver support and applications in a wide different context all over the globe, in particular in developing countries.

Institutional settings

I-CE has not only expertise in cycling policies and cycling inclusive planning and design, it also has built up expertise and experiences for institutional settings to promote cycling. We consider who are partners and opponents for cycling, who are fans and who are outsiders.

I-CE takes notice of the important role by civil society organisations and set up networks of these organisations in India and  in Brasil, and supports Sustran LAC and Locomotives Africa as networks for a whole continent.  On advise of I-CE, Cape Town, Pune and Delhi set up structures for consultation with civil society and other stakeholders.  With local partners we perform an actor analyses to position all relevant actors according to their influence and to their attitudes.

Structure for capacity building

For capacity building, I-CE developed a structure for capacity building and assessments for both civil society organisations and local governments. To learn more about the significance of cycling and it’s potential in a different context, I-CE initiated a network for academic research, the Cycling Academic Network which started with universities from the Netherlands, Brasil, India and South Africa.

Since planning and designing for cycling is new for professionals, support by capacity building can make the difference in policy development. Sometimes we are surprised what people notice: “One of the important points which has struck the traffic planners and city planners is that the development of the road should be done on the basis of the purpose it serves” said Pravinshi Pardeshi, municipal commissioner of Pune, India.

I-CE has 9 resident representatives in 6 countries who assess with local authorities the needs for inputs. Two of them summarised the results of the Bicycle Partnership Program as follows:

“If I-CE was not involved in planning, things would have went on as usual. The infra would have been built without anyone using it. We gained confidence in our decisions to reintroduce the concept of cycle-inclusive planning for the city. The capacity building helped in clarifying many doubts about cycling-inclusive planning and its benefits. This also helped in convincing stakeholders about the use of bicycling in the city and in reducing the resistance of those who were not in favor of promoting cycling. In Delhi it is an obligation now that all new transport policies include cycling and pedestrian facilities”, according to Anvita Arora, Resident Representative I-CE, Delhi.

“Cycling has become stronger, strategic and fundamental. It is for Rio de Janeiro one of 38 strategic plans for 2012. Moreover, all new roads and parks we have to build to prepare for the World Cup Soccer will have cycling facilities. Cycling is now in the mind of decision makers and they are looking at it as one of the important contributions to provide for accessibility during both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016”, says Ze Lobo, director of the CSO Transporte Ativo and Resident Representative of I-CE. “I think we are strong enough now to survive any political changes because we always rely on technicians who have become like partners.

In the next years I think we are going to develop in the same way, improving our knowledge to exchange with the municipality and also with companies. I-CE is responsible for this in many ways. The financial support has allowed us to move forward and focus on our priorities. The technical support has made us more respected by official departments and gave us the opportunity to learn from cycling cities and other CSOs from all over the world. This provided us an excellent knowledge base. Without that, TA would not be what it is now.”

The Approach

The mid-term evaluation of our Bicycle Partnership program has clearly shown that a 3 pronged approach is necessary to comprehensively bring change on ground with regard to inclusion of cycling:

  • The users and civil society need to be empowered so that they can create a critical mass for demand for inclusion of cycling according to quality standards
  • The critical mass and awareness raising needs to lead to a political momentum on the cycling policies. The policy-makers, both political and administrative need to have a buy-in on the need for cycling inclusion and its social, economic and environmental benefits
  • The planners and engineers need to have capacity to implement cycle-inclusive infrastructure in the cities.

The I-CE network in India, Latin America and Africa has the capacity and the partnerships to make this comprehensive intervention approach with these three categories of stakeholders and create the process that would lead to change on ground.

It is feasible

A main result of our programs so far has been that decision makers, professionals and experts learnt that cycling in a high motorised context is feasible. “A Dutch solution that amazed me in particular was to reduce a lane for motorised traffic on an avenue with congestion. The result is that this avenue has a better traffic flow now. Learning from cycling in the Netherlands gave me a lot of positive energy: If developed countries are doing it, it is even more important that a developing country does it. And we can do it. Dutch cities are a living laboratory for us. I learned also a lot about campaigning to create a favourable political environment. This gave me the reason to always work in partnership with CSO’s”, said Vera Lucia Goncalves da Silva, City of Florianopolis, Brasil.

In a period when there was more hesitation about cycling, we at I-CE heard people saying that the Netherlands is different. Nowadays the eagerness to learn is dominant. As long as solutions are not being copied but principles are being learnt for application in a local context, and good examples are taken from the whole world, we can offer partners what they ask for. One of our partners said, he does not feel like a lonesome crusade anymore. Another said she appreciated how I-CE led her by the hand to integrate cycling in urban transport policies. Most common evaluation by our partners was that they gained trust to involve their colleagues in cycling planning.

Donald Cupido and Elias Tukushe of Cape Town were telling us: “If it took the Dutch 30 years to develop their system, we can avoid lots of their mistakes and do it in 15 years”. An important consequence would be that the development of  road safety problems, does not necessarily have to follow the same path as in highly motorised countries. If the prevention policy for serious accidents will be implemented in developing countries, the curve will be flattened and road safety will not become globally the third cause of death.

# # #

About the author:

Roelof Wittink, Executive director of IC-E, is a specialist on traffic behaviour with a Masters in Psychology. He has published on behavioural modifications, traffic education, attitudes on road behaviour, social marketing, and the benefits of cycling. He was the program manager of LOCOMOTIVES, (2003-2006) on low-cost mobility initiatives by civil society organisations and is currently the manager of the Bicycle Partnership Program, (2007-2010) on cycling inclusive planning that operates in 15 developing countries. Key aspects are the application of expertise on the integration of cycling in a wide variety of local context and building partnerships between civil society organisations, governments, experts and the private sector. Roelof is one of the founders of I-CE . email

About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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