Creating a Cycling Culture in the World's Cities

The sad recent news story about a 5-year-old girl killed by a street-cleaning vehicle while riding bikes with her father in the Turkish province of Konya -- a city that had previously announced plans for the country's first bike-sharing program -- got me thinking about what it would really take to create a cycling culture in Turkey. Similar questions, it seems, are on the minds of people in South Africa and Japan as well.

In Istanbul, some friends of mine get up before the sun rises to pedal around the city when traffic and pollution are at a minimum. Other brave cyclists challenge the cars directly, bringing Critical Mass to Istanbul last year. Although biking would be a good way to get around the congested city (and build up major leg muscles on its many hills), the idea has been slow to take root -- something South African bicycling enthusiasts Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler found to be true in their country's cities as well. As they wrote on the website for their Bicycle Portraits project:

We've noticed that in South Africa, especially in the major centers, very few people use bicycles as mode of transport. This is very strange since we have no proper public transport infrastructure, and that which does exist is expensive and unsafe... as our major centers develop there still seems to be a trend to make cities more friendly for cars, not people.... [T]he effect on individuals seems to be very dramatic in a country like South Africa, where there is a growing divide between those who can afford motorized transport and those who struggle to. Owning a bicycle in this social climate can be very empowering, if the correct infrastructure exists.

In an effort to "investigat[e] South African bicycle culture, and the lack of cyclist commuters out there on our roads," Engelbrecht and Grobler are riding around the country, meeting, interviewing, and taking photographs of everyday South Africans who "use bicycles as an integral tool in their day-to-day existence." Eventually, they hope to turn Bicycle Portraits, which I first read about on The City Fix, into a book, an effort for which they're raising funds on Kickstarter. They envision using the money from its eventual sale to "assist the underprivileged cycling community... be it [by] teaching bicycle maintenance skills, providing necessities like helmets, tires, tubes, locks... Ultimately we want to promote cycling as a means of independent transport to empower the underprivileged, and in fact, to encourage everyone capable to ride a bike."

Tokyo a Model for Bike-Friendly Cities
Though that vision may seem far away for the cities of South Africa or Turkey, it's already reality in crowded and sprawling Tokyo, United Nations University researcher Mark Notaras writes for OurWorld 2.0:

On a given day in Tokyo, the diverse array of people using bicycles here in this urban sprawl of 30 million souls includes: the middle-aged salary man riding to work on his fold-up bike in his business suit every day; the trendy adolescent skipping off to do some window shopping; the stay-at-home mother dropping not one, but two kids off at school; the pack of old men determined not to be late for their morning gate-ball contest; and, the serious cyclist kitted out in tight lycra and a fancy water-bottle pouch.

Musing about what it would take to get more people in other cities to hop on bikes, Notaras mentions some of the many initiatives in Japan to promote cycling, including the Green Pedal Map, which provides information in English and Japanese "on bike lanes, danger zones, rental locations, bike parks and so on," as well as the leadership role that needs to be played by government and businesses. Cultural change is required too, so that people begin to see bicycles as the domain of "people of all ages, genders, and social statuses," as they do in Tokyo.

Bicycles Must Be 'Part of the Urban Fabric'
"A real bike-friendly city requires citizens that understand, and are open to the idea of bicycles being part of the urban fabric," Notaras writes. "This can only come as more and more people experience the benefits of riding and themselves feel a sense of pride in having a bike-friendly city."

From the vantage point of this bike-unfriendly city, that seems like a bit of a chicken-and-egg-style conundrum: A city doesn't truly become bike-friendly until more people ride in it, which they likely won't do until it becomes more bike-friendly. But change has to start somewhere. So here's to the brave cyclists of Turkey and South Africa. May their efforts result in cities where tragic accidents like the one in Konya are unlikely to be repeated.