Poor megacities should invest in charging stations for electric bikes, not avenues


In a stunning photo of Shanghai taken in 1991, crowds of cyclists cross a bridge on their way to work. The only visible motor vehicles are two buses. This was the China of the 1990s: a “Bicycle Kingdom” in which 670 million people owned a bicycle. The rulers were still following the lead of Deng Xiaoping, who defined prosperity as “a Flying Pigeon bicycle [fabricante estatal chinesa] in every house”.

Today China is the kingdom of eight-lane highways. Most low- and middle-income megacities around the world have abandoned the bicycle, but now need to get it back. So-called modern megacities (defined as clusters of at least 10 million people) are the largest human settlements in history — and they’re growing nonstop.

The world had ten megacities in 1990 and 33 in 2018; according to the United Nations, it will have 43 by the year 2030. More than a third of population growth will take place in India, China and Nigeria. More cars will mean more congestion and more harmful effects on people, the planet and urban life. Fortunately, it’s entirely feasible for these places to once again become bicycle kingdoms.

For now, the poorest megacities tend to be designed for wealthy people who can afford to own a car. In India, that’s one family in 12. Mayors often find money to build expressways, but not bike lanes or even sidewalks.

In lower-income countries the bicycle tends to be stigmatized, seen as a vehicle for the poor; in rich cities it is stigmatized as being seen as a toy for modern people. Many residents of the poorest megacities dream of living in Los Angeles and owning an SUV. For now, though, they can spend hours each day sitting in immovable status symbols that sometimes cost more than they earn, especially now, with gas prices soaring.

The more cars, the less mobility. In Istanbul, which according to GPS device maker TomTom is the most congested city in the world, the average time lost by each person in traffic in a year was 142 hours. The inhabitants of Moscow, Bogotá, Mumbai and New Delhi all lost more than a hundred hours. In Kenya, the highway between Mombasa and Nairobi has already suffered a three-day traffic jam.

And then there are carbon emissions, the 1.3 million people killed each year in traffic accidents and the estimated 4.2 million who die early from outdoor air pollution, mostly in poor countries.

By way of comparison, the global annual total of deaths from homicide and in armed conflict is about half a million people. Add to that the staggering numbers of people living in car-dominated cities who will die early because they hardly exercise: an estimated 77 million Indians are diabetic, and most are not even aware of it. Cars are serial killers.

The poorest megacities that want to reduce car traffic rarely have the financial means to build subway lines. In London, the Crossrail rail network, whose construction was first suggested in 1974 and approved in 1990 and which is nothing more than an addition to the existing underground network, was finally opened and cost £19 billion. Paris is spending even more on expanding its metro network. It would be cheaper to give a free electric bicycle to every citizen who needs it to commute to work or school every day.

Inspired by the bicycle boom in high-status western capitals, many poor cities have recently created cycling plans. But they are still too afraid of motorists to implement the plans, says urban planner Gil Peñalosa, who helped bring bicycles to Bogotá.

Even so, Nairobi, Jakarta, Addis Ababa and Beijing are some of the cities that have been expanding their network of bike paths. The e-bike is a game-changer, something much more significant than the expensive, insufficiently green and overly lauded electric car: global e-bike sales are projected to reach 40 million units in 2023, up from 9 million in the case. of electric cars. Worldwide, most trips are less than 10 kilometers, a distance an e-bike can cover in half an hour, according to the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.

Many megacities are still at a sufficiently early stage in their development to be able to avoid the misguided car-driving followed by European cities after the war. Mayors should be building e-bike charging infrastructure, not arterial avenues anymore.

Heat is a disincentive to cycling in some cities, but the problem is sometimes overestimated. Dhaka, with its hot and humid climate, has been the rickshaw capital of the world for years; most Indian families still own bicycles, and Shanghai’s hot summers did not prevent cyclists from taking to the streets in 1991. Possible solutions to beat the worse heat might be to organize group rides, put extra buses on the streets or move work hours forward. during the summer.

Some people are afraid to ride their bikes in crime-ridden cities like Johannesurgo. But many people in other megacities yearn to ride a bicycle. Nearly half of Chinese say they would like to cycle to and from work daily, while another 37% would prefer mopeds or scooters, according to a McKinsey survey. The next step, something already being done in high-income cities, is to replace delivery trucks with cargo bikes.

How often does a dense tangle of problems have a single, cheap, green, healthy, low-tech solution? Smart cities will implement this solution.

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