The bicycle: The smartest urban means of transport

Bicycle city

In the organization of a Smart City, transport is one of the most important and relevant areas: it is present in all the equations designed to solve the smart functionality

Transport is at the base of some recurring city problems. Whether cities are big or small, traffic jams, pollution and accidents are undesired collateral effects arising from using the car as the preferred means of transport. Traditionally, measures were taken to rationalize vehicle use: promoting public transport, encouraging the use of high-passenger-load cars, creating shared-transport systems or pay-per-use transport systems. Some restrictive measures are also to be taken into account, such as forbidding certain cars to circulate in given days depending on its car plate number or limiting the maximum speed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

According to data from April 2013, there were more than 530 public bicycle services in 49 countries, and more than 500,000 bicycles were available. The use of the bicycle as a means of transport has increased exponentially, and its adoption rate is “passed on” from one country or region to another. As a case in point, “two-wheeled” transport services are being deployed in a steadily increasing manner in the USA, and European cities that were traditionally reluctant to such means of transport are starting to give in; according to the arguments, that means of transport benefits most people. Certainly enough, unfavourable weather conditions or a complex terrain may foster an understandable reluctance towards the use of bicycles, but in fact it is just a matter of acquiring habits. It may be somewhat difficult at the beginning; however, to give just one example, in Germany or the Netherlands bicycles are used even in snowy days. The countries more willing and ready to use bicycles are the Netherlands and Denmark, along with Germany and Belgium, represented by cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bordeaux or Berlin. Some Spanish cities have earned their place in rankings, such as Barcelona or Seville, which became worldwide known after deploying the right infrastructure for bicycle transport in a fast and proper way. Another ranking, that of the European Cyclists’ Federation, sets Sweden in the third place, Finland in the fourth and the UK in the tenth position. Anyway, most bicycle-friendly cities are in Northern Europe.

City Bike


Benefits for a Smart City 

Modifying cities to make it possible to use the bicycle as a means of transport is expensive at the beginning, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, some research projects have shown that savings resulting from using bicycles are high and involve other benefits in non-economic aspects such as an increase in urban quality of life.

As for economic research on the subject, the European Cyclists’ Federation, ECF, estimated that 200 billion euros could be saved every year (about 400€/inhabitant in the European Union) if only 7.4% of the total European Union population were to use bicycles as a means of transport. The largest portion of total savings would come from the reduction in healthcare costs, which would amount to a total of 110 billion euros. The reduction was calculated using the Health Economic Assesment Tool (HEAT) applied to cycling, which was developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The goal to be achieved is getting at least 15% of the total population in the European Union to use bicycles as the daily means of transport.

Other reports, such as the one written by the League of American Bicyclists back in 2009, “The Economic Benefits of Bicycle Infrastructure Investments” also reinforces the aforementioned theory regarding the positive effects obtained by the introduction of policies that favour using the bicycle as a means of transport.

The report “Calculating the economic benefits of cycling in EU-27” (June 2013), divides the economic benefits associated to the use of bicycles into several categories: healthcare, improvement in traffic flows, fuel savings, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced air pollution, reduced noise pollution, fostering of tourism and fostering of bicycle industries. The latest two involve a 62-billion-euro positive impact, and the rest account for 143-155 billion euros. Again, the biggest impact would be achieved by the healthcare sector. As a whole, the economic impact derived from the use of bicycles as a means of transport by 7.4% of the total population of EU-27 reaches 217 billion euros. The complete report may be accessed clicking the link, where figures are offered in more detail.

The positive impact would not only take place in Europe. According to the Benchmark Report 2014 by the Alliance for Biking and Walking in the USA, for each dollar invested in cycling as a means of transport, 3 dollars are obtained in areas such as health care. The aforementioned report considers that benefits of hundreds of millions of dollars would be obtained as a result of obesity reduction. In particular, the cost of obesity amounts to 180 dollars a year per capita. If only one out of ten Americans would adopt cycling as a habit, a total of 5,600 million dollars would be saved every year. Figures obtained in London (UK) are also available in the report, and focus on the reduction in time off work among people who cycle on their way to work. In particular, non-cyclers stay 8,7 days per year off work, while cyclers are only 7.4 days per year off work, which involves saving around 204 million dollars each year.

In the Queensland region in Australia, the Department of Transport and Main Roads sets bicycles in the context of road network maintenance, which amounts to 27 million Australian dollars per working day. Cost reductions may be obtained when using bicycles, which are less destructive to roads. Besides, costs derived from traffic jams reach 5,000 million Australian dollars every year, which would be reduced if bicycles were to be used on a regular basis.

More benefits than drawbacks

Clearly enough, cycling has its drawbacks. As a means of transport, it is not suitable for everybody: just think of people with reduced mobility. Some apparently trivial matters such as perspiration become an obstacle that prevents cycling to work or to a social event in case it makes you sweaty. Apart from that, the co-existence of cars and bicycles in urban roads brings about significant exposure of cyclists to air pollution produced by cars. Nevertheless, some research studies, such as that done by the British Medical Journal for Barcelona show that cycling has more benefits than drawbacks for the health of the city and that of its citizens.

Benefits of cycling

Using the bicycle as an urban means of transport may improve the way in which cities are enjoyed, both for cyclists and for other citizens (because of pollution reduction or noise reduction derived from using a silent means of transport). From an economic point of view, costs from damaging pollution effects on people or public infrastructure are reduced, as well as those involving air quality and cleanness.

  • A clean, environmentally-friendly means of transport
  • Silent
  • Improves overall fitness and contributes to reducing healthcare costs
  • Traffic jams are not usually a concern
  • Reduces the need for fossil fuels
  • Makes it possible to carry objects around
  • An indirect source of cost reduction for cities and countries

Approaches to cycling in cities

The most immediate way to adopt a “two-wheeled” mobility strategy involves owning a bicycle. The bicycle industry is developed enough to virtually offer a solution to every need. From hand-made, tailor-made models to those than use exotic materials such as bamboo and wood, or very cheap folding bikes affordable to most people. With or without an electric engine, a double chain wheel or a single gear, tens of brands are available, prices ranging from barely 100€ to several thousand euros. The current article does not intend to focus on this modality, but it should be said that from a technological and industrial design point of view, wonderfully outstanding and mature models (technologically speaking) may be found.

Folding bikes are optimal for urban settings. Some benchmark brands are Brompton, Dahon and btwin, depending on the investment to be made on the bicycle. Whether it is a matter of thousands of euros or hundreds of them.

Brompton S6L Barcelona

Brompton S6L Barcelona Limited Edition
A price of 1,599€ gives you access to a limited edition of the renowned Brompton bicycles inspired in the city of Barcelona. The starting point model is S6L, which has a 6-speed gearshift and weights less than 12 Kg.

 Dahon Mu Rohloff

Dahon Mu Rohloff
With a price of 3,995€, Mu Rohloff by Dahon is a technology display for urban mobility. Belt drive, 14-speed gearshift, disc brakes, light and resistant… what else could be asked?

Btwin TILT 720 auto folding bike

Btwin TILT 720 Auto Folding Bike
The bicycle costs 549.95€, and includes belt drive and a two-speed gearshift. Once folded, it is easy to transport by means of a “Pop-up” system completed in a matter of seconds.

 Links of interest

PBCS Urban Solutions website

A study on cyclists and pollution

Alliance for Biking and Walking

BMJ (British Medical Journal)

BMJ (British Medical Journal)  Health Impact Assessment Study: the impact of pollution on Barcelona cyclers (2011)

European Cyclists’ Federation

Bicimad website



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