Urban design: How the bicycle is changing cities

Researchers are discovering that younger city dwellers are moving away from car ownership towards more sustainable transport methods. One of the key drivers is the rapidly increasing use of bicycles, including ebikes, and the expanding provision of bike-friendly infrastructure. Today, it’s cool to be a city biker. By Jeremy Torr.

SYDNEY, 30 October 2017. Although the official statistics bureaus always lag behind what is happening on the ground, the trends are clear. The American Census Bureau, reporting in 2016, noted that the number of US households that didn’t own a car in 2015 had increased by almost half a million from 2011, to a significant 9.1% of the national total. More importantly, in the four years up to 2009, only 44% of eligible teenagers bothered to apply for a driving licence as soon as they could at 16 – and only 54% had sat for and passed a licence test within the following two years. Young people don’t dig cars.

oBike had already “realised its vision of transforming how people in urban Singapore travel,
— Co-founder Edward Chen

It’s not just young people driving the trend. Governments are also pushing for change; many have indicated the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles will be illegal within the next few decades. India has set 2030 as a target date, the UK and France 2040, and Norway has lowered the bar even further by setting 2025 as the end date for oil-powered vehicle sales. Singapore has gone even further, saying it will freeze the number of private cars on its roads from 2018. No more new cars, period.

Two wheelers

As a result, increasing numbers of city dwellers are taking a serious look at how they get about; in many cases the bicycle is seen as the sensible and healthy alternative. But not necessarily bicycle ownership – a new wave of app-driven bicycle share schemes is booming across the region. One of the first of these, Beijing-based ofo, already has 10 million bikes in almost 200 cities and is aiming to be in 20 countries worldwide within the next 12 months.

 Beijing-based ofo already has 10 million rideshare ebikes in almost 200 cities across the region. Courtesy of ofo.

Beijing-based ofo already has 10 million rideshare ebikes in almost 200 cities across the region. Courtesy of ofo.

These startlingly successful bicycle sharing systems rely on smartphone apps, rather than a sometimes inconvenient fixed docking station to ensure payment – like London’s Boris Bikes. Riders download an app onto their phone which links to a GPS tracker fixed to the bike. This allows the company to take online payment immediately when the bike is unlocked and is ridden by a registered user. More importantly, it also allow potential users to see where the nearest vacant bike is. But for users, probably the biggest plus is that the rider can jump off the bike at any time, and simply leave it at the side of the road or at a bus stop ready to be unlocked and used by the next rider.

 Riders download a smartphone app which links to an attached GPS tracker and the bicycle lock. Courtesy of ChinaFoto.

Riders download a smartphone app which links to an attached GPS tracker and the bicycle lock. Courtesy of ChinaFoto.

The system has proved extremely popular with Asian riders, with millions of rides notched up since the start of 2017. This is partly due to the relatively flat terrain in most Asian cities, but also due to the obvious convenience. However, that convenience has a downside. Not all riders are socially responsible about where they leave the bikes on arriving at their destination.

Riders have left bikes obstructing pavements, cluttering station entrances and even up trees or in rivers. And with hundreds of instantly recognisable bikes in the cities they serve, this has sometimes brought a backlash against the operators. After dozens of bikeshare bikes were dumped in the Yarra or left on railway lines, the Mayor of Melbourne declared them not as a potential urban transport solution, but as ‘urban clutter’. Both Melbourne and Sydney councils have started handing out fines to the bike sharing companies that own the dumped bikes.

Alternative routes

 Singapore based oBike has expanded to several Australian cities, but has faced some vandalism issues. Courtesy of oBike.

Singapore based oBike has expanded to several Australian cities, but has faced some vandalism issues. Courtesy of oBike.

But the rideshare companies are persevering. Edward Chen, co-founder of oBike said his company was committed to helping commuters reduce their carbon footprint, and would work with local authorities to make the schemes work better. Singapore, where oBike born, has taken a different tack to Australian councils and instead of threatening punitive measures against the bikeshare companies, has designated preferred parking spaces near hot usage points such as bus stops, MRT stations and apartments (including the void decks of Housing Development Board or HDB flats). The company is also liaising with local authorities to assess riding patterns to map bike lanes and parking areas.

Chen said that oBike had already “realised its vision of transforming how people in urban Singapore travel,” with the smart use of technology. “Since we launched oBike, we have had over two million users across Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. These numbers show that there is strong demand for bike sharing,” he noted. A recent report by Google – not one to miss out on important tech trends – predicted that bike sharing would see 29 million Asian customers a month by 2025, creating a US$13 billion business.

As well as smart technology enabling more efficient bike usage schemes (given responsible users), many cities are looking at the way design and planning rules have been developed in a way that favours cars, not people or lifestyle.

People first

A new apartment block called Cykelhuset, due to open soon in Malmö, Sweden, will be the country’s first residential complex with no onsite car parking. Architects, Hauschild + Siegel said that although the Malmö city planning rules stated that parking spaces are mandatory for each dwelling, it was confident if it approached the council and proposed a well planned alternative it would get a hearing.

 Cykelhuset reimagines the role an apartment building can play ... in shifting to a more sustainable model. Courtesy of Hauschild + Siegel.

Cykelhuset reimagines the role an apartment building can play ... in shifting to a more sustainable model. Courtesy of Hauschild + Siegel.

“We decided to challenge the status quo by presenting an alternative. Malmö [was] becoming more and more bike-friendly while building codes were stuck in a car-centred ideology,” said Hauschild + Siegel designer Anders Gustafsson in a recent interview.

Their solution was to propose a building designed around bicycles and bicycle users instead of cars. By channelling costs saved by not building car spaces the company promised to provide special bike-sized lifts, doors and access corridors, rentable storage and maintenance spaces, and jumbo-sized mailboxes to cope with internet shopping and for delivery of large, unwieldy items. For unexpected occasions, a fleet of rental cargo bikes or carshare options would be available for transporting oversize shopping or family transport to and from the nearby railway station.

Malmö council responded with a progressively positive answer, and gave the go-ahead for the car-free development. Cykelhuset is due to open in December 2017, and will offer cycle friendly accommodation for 70 apartment-dwelling families over seven floors. To add to its sustainable credentials, Cykelhuset will feature a shared greenhouse on the roof, solar hot water and interior heating, and grey water irrigation systems to keep plants on balconies and the façade well watered.

Hauschild + Siegel say Cykelhuset ‘reimagines the role an apartment building can play in shifting the lifestyle of its residents and the city around it’ to a more sustainable model. One that uses bicycles as an integral part of city life.