The cheap, green, low-tech solution for the world’s megacities

In a stunning photograph from Shanghai in 1991, clusters of cycling commuters stream across a bridge. The only motorised vehicles to be seen are two buses. That was China in the 1990s: a “Bicycle Kingdom” where 670 million people owned pushbikes. Chinese rulers were then still following the lead of Deng Xiaoping, who defined prosperity as a “Flying Pigeon bicycle in every household”.

Today China is the kingdom of eight-lane highways. Most lower- and middle-income megacities around the world have ditched the bike. But they now need to reclaim it. Modern “megacities” (defined as places with at least 10 million inhabitants) are the biggest human settlements in history, and growing every day.

The world had ten megacities in 1990, 33 in 2018 and will have 43 by 2030, says the United Nations. Over a third of their population growth will be in India, China and Nigeria. More cars will mean more traffic jams and more damage to people, the planet and city life. Happily, it’s perfectly feasible for these places to become bicycle kingdoms again.

For now, poorer megacities tend to be designed for rich people who can afford cars — which in India means one household in 12. Often mayors can find money for highways, but not for bike lanes or even pavements. In lower-income countries, bikes tend to be stigmatised as poor people’s vehicles, whereas in rich cities they get stigmatised as hipster toys. Many people in poorer megacities dream of living in Los Angeles and owning an SUV. For now, though, they can spend hours a day stuck in motionless status symbols that sometimes cost a third of their income, especially with soaring petrol prices.

The more cars, the less mobility. In Istanbul, the world’s most congested city according to satnav provider TomTom, the average person lost 142 hours a year in traffic, while Moscow, Bogotá, Mumbai and Delhi all topped 100 hours. The Mombasa-Nairobi highway in Kenya once hosted a three-day traffic jam.

Then there are the carbon emissions, the 1.3 million people killed each year in traffic accidents and the estimated 4.2 million who die prematurely from outdoor air pollution, most of them in poor countries. For comparison, the combined global annual death toll from homicides and armed conflicts is about half a million. Add on the terrifying numbers of people in car-bound cities who will die early because they hardly get any exercise: an estimated 77 million Indians are diabetics, and most don’t know it. Cars are serial killers.

Poorer megacities seeking to push out cars can seldom afford metro trains. London’s Crossrail, first mooted in 1974 and approved in 1990, a mere bolt-on to the existing Tube, has finally opened at a cost of £19bn. Paris is splashing out even more on its expanded metro. It would be cheaper to give every commuter a free electric bicycle.

Many poor cities, inspired by the bike boom in high-status western capitals, have recently drawn up cycling plans. But they are too scared of drivers to implement them, says Gil Peñalosa, an urbanist who helped bring bikes to Bogotá. Still, Nairobi, Jakarta, Addis Ababa and Beijing are among those cities that are now expanding cycle paths. The electric bicycle is a game-changer, much more significant than the overhyped, expensive and insufficiently green e-car: global sales of e-bikes are projected to reach 40 million next year, compared to 9 million for electric vehicles. Globally, most trips are less than 10 kilometres, which e-bikes can cover within half an hour, says the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.

Many megacities are early enough in their development to avoid the wrong turn towards cars that European cities made after the war. Mayors should be building charging infrastructure for e-bikes, not more arterial roads.

In some cities, the heat discourages cycling, though the problem can be overstated: steamy Dhaka has long been the world’s rickshaw capital, most Indian households still own bikes, and Shanghai’s sweltering summers didn’t deter cyclists in 1991. Possible heatproof solutions could be to organise carpools, extra buses, or earlier working times in summer.

In crime-ridden cities such as Johannesburg, some people don’t dare cycle for fear of cycle-jackings. But many elsewhere yearn to get on their bikes. Just under half of Chinese people say they would like to use bikes for their daily commute, while another 37 per cent want to go by moped or electric scooter, according to a survey by McKinsey. The next step — as in high-income cities — is to replace delivery trucks with cargo bikes.

How often does a knot of problems have one cheap, green, healthy, low-tech solution? Smart cities will actually implement it.

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