Considering the accelerating growth rates of mega cities across the globe, cycling in traffic can prove quite dangerous. Safety measures vary considerably from country to country and while metropolises like Beijing seem to have gotten the hang of it, other more developed cities such as London, Paris, or New York appear to struggle with keeping their cyclists safe.

Last year, Britain reported 13 “cyclist deaths” in just one month. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, US-Americans are not only among the world’s least avid cyclists, but also some of the most likely to get killed by traffic, according to an OECD report.

photo: glashaut/ photocase.com
photo: glashaut/ photocase.com

One of the problems faced by extremely crowded cities is that, even in rush hour, most cyclists ride alongside heavy vehicle traffic. So, despite sticking to rules like wearing a helmet and knowing the highway code, roughly 17 percent of all cycling fatalities involved hit-and-run crashes where one (or several) of those involved later fled the scene. Moreover, motorists were charged with traffic violations in nearly one third of all fatal bicycle crashes – and in more than half of all bike-related deaths, the investigating officers stated that the motorist contributed to the crash. Sobering thoughts for bicycle lovers, yet this is about to change …

Inspired by bike-friendly Northern European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, both witnessing dramatic increases in bike-uptake over the past 40 years with the share of bike miles of total distance traveled rising to more than 35 percent, many US and UK cities are embracing one of the key European tricks: bike lanes that are physically separate from vehicular traffic.

Amsterdam, photo: *paula*/ photocase.com
Amsterdam, photo: *paula*/ photocase.com

British architect and designer Lord Norman Foster’s plan for elevated SkyCycle bike routes in London – think bike paths suspended above existing rail infrastructures – sounds like an excellent solution. Thanks to SkyCycle, Londoners would be able to cross a city of 8,000,000 on their own bikes without any need to change transport. “It’s about having an eye on the future,” says Sam Martin of Exterior Architecture. “If London keeps growing and spreading out, with people forced to commute increasingly longer distances, then in twenty years, the city is just going to be a ghetto for people in suits. After rail fare increases, a greater percentage of people’s income is being eaten by transport. There has to be another way to allow everyone access to the center and stop this doughnut effect.” The proposed network of elevated bike paths would allow citizens to zip through town blissfully unaware of the roads below. At an estimated cost of £220 million for a route from Stratford to Liverpool Street Station, we are eager to see if the project pulls through and becomes a government-funded priority.

Meanwhile, a British company called Pro-Teq has come out with another innovative idea: a photoluminescent spray coating that could provide enough road illumination to remove the need for street lighting, thus saving both money and energy. Their waterproof Starpath coating absorbs light during the day and glows at night. The new technology is currently being tested on walking paths in Cambridge. The coating works best on tarmac – Britain’s predominant road surface. And even when it stops to glow, the effect can be refreshed in no time. Right now, the company behind it all seems to be working on different colors for cycle lanes. “The surface is environmentally-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. We hope that this will prove to be a very nice, pleasant, and effective way of doing this,” explains Hamish Scott, owner of Pro-Teq Surfacing.

In increasingly overpopulated cities, such urban planning revolutions are needed right now to protect pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and the traveling public. Separate cycle lanes, reduced inner city street parking, and a ban on all heavy vehicles during rush hour would be a welcome start.

In Berlin, where cycling has been embraced by many residents, most Berliners don’t even own a car and an estimated 500,000 commuters cycle to work every day. With this in mind, the Berlin Senate recently launched a dedicated cycle safety initiative (Radsicherheit Initiative – German language site). To accommodate the sheer mass of cyclists, and to reduce the number of cycle-related accidents, citizens were asked to report the most dangerous traffic spots for cyclists in the city. The originally one-month campaign, launched in November 2013, proved hugely successful, receiving more than 5,000 submissions from worried or angry bikers. The Senate, in turn, used this detailed and insightful feedback to improve the city’s already extensive network of bike routes. The wide, clearly marked lanes provide safety in numbers and make it easy for new cyclists to understand the rules – just follow the herd! Although criticized by some bikers for being a city initiative, the scheme helped to maintain the city’s high ranking among the world’s top 10 bicycle-friendly cities.

photo: kallejipp/ photocase.com
photo: kallejipp/ photocase.com

In Copenhagen, Mikael Colville-Andersen recently launched his Copenhagenize Flow project, a cycle path comprised of modular tiles that allows cities to road-test a proposed bike lane for a certain amount of time. The pre-fab and recycled modular system easily clicks together to form separate cycle tracks of adjustable width and unlimited length. The system is very simple, cost-effective, and flexible to implement and equally easy to remove and re-install somewhere else, if required. Cautious city governments can test and kick-start their bicycle infrastructure at a fraction of the usual cost. No road works required – even families with children could participate in the assembly process. And once government and citizens have been swayed by the many advantages of separate bike routes (in Copenhagen alone, the introduction of cycle lanes on streets increased cycling by ten percent), they can be removed and replaced by permanent ones.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afvb49Hr1y4
Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co., on the top 10 design elements that make Copenhagen a bike-friendly city

Beyond its huge environmental benefits, cycling – even commuter cycling – is also a social activity. Everywhere across Europe, you find people chatting at red lights on their way to work or when they are taking their kids to nursery. Harmonious cycling, however, requires tackling the problem from all angles – cyclists, drivers, politicians, and planners alike are responsible for placing themselves and others at risk – after all, people continue to get killed because someone, somewhere is not paying attention. So, beyond staying alert in traffic, people of all persuasions need to embrace the pioneering initiatives of cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Graz and be willing to adapt such solutions to their own local conditions. By tailoring cycling initiatives to the local topography, infrastructure, and culture, and by learning from our neighbors’ experiences, cities across Europe and beyond could become a lot safer for everyone.

Text: Franca Rainer
Header image: Daimler AG