How Bikes Will Take Their Revenge on Cars and Help Us Reclaim Our Streets


Photo by Andrew Gook on Unsplash

As an enthusiastic cyclist and environmentalist, I’m quick to notice the tragedy of the commons flourishing on the premises of personal transportation, especially in the U.S.

Big cities are going car-free. London’s Mayor Saqid Khan’s newest “London Plan” envisions that 80% of all trips in London will be made by foot, bicycle or public transport by 2041.

Without this shift away from car use, London cannot continue to grow sustainably. […] The design and layout of development should reduce the dominance of cars, and provide permeability to support active travel (public transport, walking and cycling), community interaction and economic vitality.

London is one of a number of major cities committing to the future where getting from point A to point B doesn’t depend on personal cars.

Reflected in this decision is a move towards micromobility, a trend of adopting more compact, efficient, and often shared modes of transportation in the urban setting. It is a counterweight to macromobility— transportation that relies on large vehicles for long distances and generic applications. As industry analyst Horace Dediu put it, “it’s the personal computer of 1980s.”¹

I am excited about the switch. As an enthusiastic cyclist and environmentalist, I’m quick to notice the tragedy of the commons flourishing in personal transportation, especially in the U.S. Driving in one’s own vehicle is comfortable, convenient, for some people fun. At the same time, it is seriously polluting the environment and supports a sedentary lifestyle. Both unquestionably are hurting public health outcomes.

As much as it is the means to connect, transportation has been divisive and discriminating throughout U.S. history. Observing some of the struggling areas of New Hampshire, where I happen to spend more time than I ever thought I would, has taught me that owning a car is often a prerequisite to having a job (one that barely pays for that same car).

In this article I’ll review the rise of macro- and micro- mobility in the U.S., some of the regulations that hinder micro-transportation, as well as the circumstances that could transform barriers into opportunities. Ultimately, I will briefly discuss how autonomous cars will take down the main pedestal of macromobility, the personal car.

The rise of macromobility

Macromobility was pioneered in the United States, and the rest of the world followed. The U.S. is now the second largest automobile market in the world, and in many ways represents the epicenter of macromobility — as well as the inefficiencies therein.

In the past sixty years, everyday individual mobility in the U.S. came to revolve around owning a car. Suburbia and its cars sealed the fate of American 20th century in materialism and isolation (or independence, depending how one looks at it), which de Tocqueville noted as illnesses of democracy a century earlier. Homes were decoupled from other essential places for education, work, healing, shopping, praying, and entertainment.

As James Howard Kunstler poetically notes in Geography Of Nowhere: The Rise And Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, automobiles have become associated with stability and freedom, winning a spot in the greater American narrative:

Some Americans were willing to give up their homes before they sold off their cars. Indeed, the car was often the best means for getting away from home and resettling elsewhere — as it was for the Okies who left their dust-blown farms in “rolling junks” and set out for California. To them, the car was more than a symbol of freedom; it embodied the elemental need of living creatures to flee adversity and seek a new home where they might thrive.

Street maps, same scale: How human-friendly are they? Source: Allan B. Jacobs, Great Streets, MIT Press, 1993

According to Horace Dediu, 80 percent of journeys in the U.S. are less than 12 miles, while 90 percent of trips are less than 20 miles (around 32 km). An average commuter travels 15 miles (around 24 km) one way. Almost 80 percent of daily commuters drive alone. Every second trip globally by car is shorter than 5 km. Cars require parking, refueling, and maintenance, too.

What a waste…

Macromobility is well regulated and recognized by the authorities on the federal and state levels. This significantly contributes to keeping personal cars high on the pedestal of transportation.

Even though the states have a final say in licensing and use of consumer products, motor vehicles are classified by a number of federal agencies. These include the Environmental Protection Agency (comparing fuel economy), U.S. Highway Loss Data Institute (size and type), U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (vehicle shadow and weight), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (curb weight). Federal Highway Administration’s standardized vehicle classification from mid-1980s is still in use. It doesn’t recognize any smaller vehicle than the motorcycle, even though one of the Administration’s goals is to “improve safety, mobility and livability” on the U.S. roads.

In 2002, the U.S. Congress updated the consumer product requirements for low-speed vehicles, including bicycles:

a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.

As such, they are not considered motor vehicles and are not handled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the body “responsible for keeping people safe on America’s roadways.” Requirements for drivers of mopeds and smaller motorized vehicles vary by State — while some require a valid licence, others are more lax.

While all these well-established regulatory bodies help keep the roads safe, by design they seldom take into account modes of transportation smaller than the motorcycle. A wide spectrum of vehicles that constitute micromobility is ignored and in some places, such as the New York City, fought against.

This means that most vehicles below motorcycles, including bikes, e-bikes (throttle, pedelec, S-pedelec), smart bikes, scooters, and even skate boards, are not accounted for when designing and securing safe public infrastructure. It is a sad fact that in 2016 9 percent more pedestrians and 1.3 percent more cyclists in the U.S. died in a crash compared to the year prior. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to designing traffic for all participants.

Cities as a switch

The congested, dense, and well-off hubs where everyone is running late will lead the switch to micromobility. Big cities are slow, despite their reputation. Smaller, but fast vehicles such as ebikes are often the best way to travel through them.

Lengths New Yorkers can cover in 30 minutes by car (purple) and bike (green)

Cities and their commuters across the globe are becoming aware of micromobility alternatives — ebikes, in particular; this translates in demand, and I’d expect to see the ebike hype increase in the next year or two. There seems to be a growing understanding of the value of bike-friendly streets among the city leaders, too. In the 2015 Menino Survey, 70 percent of mayors representing cities big and small expressed support for making roads more accessible to bikes, at the expense of parking and driving lanes. Introducing biking lanes makes cities safer for all participants in transportation. Redesigning the Queens Boulevard in NYC to open up space for biking and walking has seen pedestrian injuries drop 63 percent.

China is far ahead in figuring out micromobility, and an interesting case for the rest of the world to study. One, the country has seen incredible public transportation growth in the past two decades, and two, in the past two years it has witnessed an incredible boost in bikesharing. Most users who rent bikes do it to cover the distance in between subway/metro/bus stations (“last mile”), and their initial and final destinations. China’s major ridesharing company, DiDi Chuxing, invested in bike sharing startup Ofo when they saw their short-trip business (0–3 km) disappear. (More recently, Didi made aggressive moves that might overshadow its bikesharing competitors.) China has the greatest number of dockless bike fleets as innovative startups fill the demand. Mobile-first, easily accessible on the streets and close to the major transportation zones, the introduction of dockless system has doubled the cycling miles in the past two years.

Number of available bikes for sharing in cities around the world. Author’s research for Exponential View, various sources. Contact author for more information.

End of the car as we know it is near

An important switch is happening in the manner in which we think about cars and our post-automobile future. Beside the rise of electric vehicles, the advent of self-driving cars is opening the horizons for people to deem different approaches to mobility. Bob Lutz, veteran executive at GM and Chrysler, wrote last year that “[e]veryone will have 5 years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap,” as we’re approaching travel “in standardized modules.”

Veteran car companies are well-aware of the change, too. Ford recently launched its own bikesharing service in the Bay Area, while GM has a car-sharing service. BMW makes ebikes. Volvo, Cadillac and Porsche all launched some sort of subscription model last year, recognizing that young consumers increasingly want to buy mobility, not a car.

As self-driving cars go from fiction to reality, physicality of the roads will need to change, too. This presents a good opportunity to re-think streets and implement lasting changes, making them safe and accessible for all participants. In Principles for Autonomous Urbanism, National Association of City Transportation Officials advices that streets should be designed with special attention to pedestrians and cyclists.

Cities should require that highly automated vehicles be programmed for safe, slow speeds on city streets, with mandatory yielding to people outside of vehicles. Maximum vehicle operating speeds in city street environments should not exceed 20 mph, or 25 mph in very limited circumstances.

Rethinking our short trips

Finally, we don’t have much time left to postpone our individual responsibility for the environment, public health, and habits we encourage one another to adopt. I don’t drive, and never intend to. I proudly bike, walk, use public transport when possible and necessary, and use car sharing and cabs only when absolutely necessary. Fortunately, too, most of the time I don’t live in an area where this kind of lifestyle is hard to implement. (I see a definite uptick in time spent in a car when I’m in the U.S. vs when in Europe.)

With all due respect to those of you who have to drive each and every day, I invite you to at least rethink your short trips. There must be a distance you travel that can be walked, biked, or scootered to.

Here’s one challenge: start logging your travels for a week — distance travelled each day, mode of transport, energy consumed. I wonder if what you find will surprise you? Is there any space to change your habits? Comment below how the experiment goes.

¹ Horace Dediu spoke about micro- and macro- mobility at 2017 Copenhagen Techfestival, hence inspiring this article.

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