Below I outline three possible scenarios for cycling’s global role in 2050. I then extrapolate current major trends to conclude with what I consider to be cycling’s most likely role in the world of 2050.
1. Mass velomobility
Widespread concerns about health, climate change and livability have translated into advocacy for and implementation of a radical set of policies, re-shaping the transport environment, and especially cities, away from motorised modes and towards cycling. Massively increased fuel prices combined with high levels of tax on both ownership and use of motorised vehicles have accelerated social and cultural change towards sustainable modes of mobility. These processes started first in the world’s most prestigious cities – such as London, New York, Berlin and Paris; but caught on quickly and spread across the globe, including to cities which in 2013 had been leaving cycling behind.
Little motorised traffic penetrates urban space, which is characterised instead by parks, trees, and people meeting, walking or cycling. The benefits of these changes have ensured they are embraced, encouraging still further change. The private car is extinct and has disappeared as a status symbol. Short journeys are walked, but cycling is the normal mode of transport for almost everyone for journeys beyond two kilometres but less than ten kilometres: some people use e-bikes to help with lack of fitness, steep hills or longer distance; some people (particularly young children) and freight are transported locally by load-carrying (often electrically-assisted) velomobiles. High quality public transport systems exist, but within cities their use is considered inferior to making journeys by bike.
Urban space is pervaded by a spirit of community, neighbourliness and conviviality. Release of space from parked and moving cars has ensured plenty of room for walking and cycling to mix without conflict. A new understanding of cycling has developed – as a practice which has helped safe-guard human well-being on the planet; cycling is therefore considered fundamental to ‘the good life’ and is rarely seen as difficult. History books and children’s stories tell of ‘the time of the car’, but the youngest generation scarcely believes it; imbued with an ethic of living sustainably on a finite planet, it takes for granted the localised, resource-lite, energy-efficient lives which are now normal.
2. Going Dutch
Increasing concerns about health, fitness, pollution and climate change have led to re-shaping of urban space away from the car and towards the bicycle following the lead shown by (and the best practice pioneered in) the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Growing public demand and government support for cycling form part of a broader desire for less car-centric cities in which people choose between different modes, with cycling favoured for shorter journeys beyond walking distance.
Cycling is generally regarded as ‘a good thing’, but partial resistance to it remains across areas of the world which had previously embedded car use as normal (north America, Australasia, much of Europe) or which adopted a culture of car ownership and use more recently (Latin America, Africa, Asia). Levels of cycling vary greatly: continuation of pro-cycling policies in many northern European countries means cycling usually accounts for over half of urban journeys; elsewhere cycling (including assisted cycling) typically accounts for between 10 and 30% of all urban journeys.
Cycling is still being actively promoted by government and other institutions, and remains in competition with other modes (trams, buses, trains and cars – whether privately or collectively owned). It is designed into the urban fabric in various ways: in central urban areas, which are now generally car-free, it tends to share space with (and give way to) pedestrians; further out it tends to be separated from other modes along bigger, busier roads but to mix with them on quieter residential streets, where speeds are below 30 km/hr. Cycling is typically afforded priority over motorised modes within urban space, but this priority is challenged across suburban space, and reversed across rural space (where cycling remains predominantly a leisure practice).
As urban cycling levels have increased, people have gradually re-organised their values, attitudes and lifestyles around it, so that whilst some groups remain resistant to actually doing it, hostility to the idea of cycling has declined, and it is widely accepted as a normal means of moving around. However, the bicycle’s status is highest and cycling as a mode of transport most popular amongst affluent, educated urban groups (and very popular amongst retired people as an active, healthy mode of (mainly rural) leisure). Attempts to sell ‘the Dutch model’ of cycling have expanded to all parts of the world, including India and China.
Levels of cycling remain relatively high across parts of northern Europe, reaching 50% of all journeys in a select few Dutch, Danish and German cities. Elsewhere there are some ‘cycling beacons’ (often hyped by short-lived institutional efforts to boost cycling in particular places), but levels of cycling remain generally negligible, at a few per cent of total urban trips. Countries where cycling was once common, such as India and China, have become more organised around the car; problems associated with transport congestion and pollution have grown dramatically.
Cycling continues to be seen in some places as a potential solution to assorted problems but it remains a struggle to convert positive rhetoric into more utility cycling; in other places cycling has become a discredited ‘solution’ – past efforts to promote cycling have failed, so the search for solutions has moved on to other ‘eco-friendly’ transport projects which fit better the interests of neo-liberal capitalism, such as new generations of ‘smart cars’, car-sharing schemes, and high-profile public transport projects.
Outside the few places where utility cycling is ‘normal’ it continues to be seen as a fringe activity of small, inconsequential sub-cultures; many people from these sub-cultures still advocate cycling as the most efficient, healthy and sustainable means of urban transport but their advocacy fails to make much impact, either on public opinion or governmental and other institutional agendas and policies. However, cycling does attract small, isolated pockets of funding for little local projects aimed mainly at children or ‘hard-to-reach’ groups.
Conclusion: cycling futures
The least likely of these scenarios is surely the last, ‘business-as-usual’. Culture and society change continuously; nothing stays the same; so the idea that things 37 years from now might remain much as they are today is unrealistic.
Three major trends likely to have an impact on people’s willingness to cycle are underway:
- Climate change and its unintended and serious consequences is established scientific fact. But without strong institutional intervention, lifestyle changes in response to the realities of climate change will be highly uneven, both geographically and socially;
- Amongst the world’s richest people, the car’s status is in decline, the bicycle’s on the rise. These look like long-term trends, not short-term fads;
- Cities across much of the ‘rich’ world are becoming susceptible to ideas (and associated re-shapings) around livability – no longer mainly places to escape, they are being re-made into desirable places to live, work and play.
This suggests two potential futures for cycling:
1) Based on cycling remaining an elective practice
The urban rich embrace cycling as a genuine response to anxieties around climate change as well as a marker of a new, middle-class lifestyle which prioritizes livability. Urban governments will increasingly respond to and seek to capitalise on cycling’s rising status, both with public bike schemes and more cycle-friendly spaces. But poor people will be pushed out from cities and, together with rural populations, will be less inclined as well as less able (because of longer distances and less hospitable conditions) to cycle.
2) Based on cycling being increasingly structured into the urban environment
Here an urban elite institutionalise their increasingly favoured practice of cycling, and – if they can do so across urban space generally – there is a chance they might also democratise it. This ‘democratisation’ will occur both because improved infrastructure for cycling will enable people from beyond the urban elites (temporarily) to gain its (diminishing) status effects, and because the ‘colonisation’ of urban space by this ‘elite infrastructure’ will coerce people into using it. (I’m not shying away from the difficult language of coercion and colonisation here, but would note that it just as easily and equally applies to on-going processes which result in car-centric cities and lifestyles.)
Of these two potential futures (I’m not talking about the three earlier scenarios now), the first seems more likely but the second is more desirable, especially if it can be facilitated and made more palatable by informed, critical and progressive cycling advocacy. It is the second which would best ensure 2050 is characterised by mass velomobility.