The Rise of Cycling Cities in Europe

In some Western European cities, private vehicle ownership rates are surprisingly low. This does not mean that the population living there cannot afford their own vehicle, but rather that commuting takes different forms in some of these cities: the spread of cycling seems to be one of the most important contemporary trends changing cities’ vibes and local lifestyles. In particular, cities in the Netherlands and Denmark are undisputed leaders in terms of share of cyclists as these countries have long cycling traditions and the relevant infrastructure. However, a number of other metropolises, as well as second-tier cities in Western Europe, are rapidly improving their cyclability.

Trends in cycling

According to the consulting and bicycle advocacy agency Copenhagenize, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the bicycle capitals of Europe. Over one third of all trips in Amsterdam and 26% of trips in Copenhagen were made on bikes in 2013. The main reason is that it is the fastest way to get around. Superb cycling networks, abundant bicycle parking facilities and increased flexibility compared to travelling via motorised vehicles all add up to the efficiency of bicycle transportation in both cities.

A number of second-tier cities in Spain and Sweden are improving their  cyclability and rapidly catching up Copenhagen or Amsterdam. For example, bikes’ modal share in Seville jumped from 0.6% in 2006 to 7.0% in 2013 after 80km of cycle paths were completed in 2007-2008 (and more were added later). Bordeaux raised the share of trips made by bicycles from 2% in 2007 to 10% in 2013, partly thanks to the bike-friendly tramway network. Nantes spent €40 million on lengthening its cycling path network to 400km over 2009-2014 and implemented a successful bike share system. As a result, the share of trips made by bike rose from 2% to 5% in the metropolitan area over this period.

Not surprisingly, those cities with the best bicycle infrastructure are also those with the fewest cars. Only every third resident owns a car in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, compared to almost double this amount in much less cycleable Athens and Rome (with 670 and 650 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants in 2013 respectively). In fact, there are over five times more bicycles than passenger cars in Copenhagen.

Impact on consumer lifestyles and local businesses

The spread of cycling’s popularity in European cities introduces new ways to reach consumers. Hundreds of cities in Europe have implemented successful bike share systems in recent years, which often serve as new advertising platforms. In fact, in 2013, French outdoor advertising group JCDecaux was the largest operator of bike sharing systems worldwide, running bike sharing schemes in 66 cities across the globe.

Advertising on bicycles generally generates positive feelings for associated brands, as “cycling” is positively perceived thanks to a number of useful health-related effects. For example, a 2012 survey in the UK found that people cycling to work are more energetic and productive in their daily tasks. Similarly, a key conclusion of Danish annual research (“Mass Experiment 2012”) for improving schoolchildren performance found that children who cycle or walk to school concentrate better than those brought by car. According to yet another French study in 2011, the overall health benefits for a driver switching from driving to cycling a 5km commute are worth about €1,300 per year.

A growing cycling population is also good news for small businesses in the central parts of cities. A cycling infrastructure combined with good public transport attracts people to city centres instead of forcing them to visit out-of-town shopping centres. A cyclist is also more flexible to stop and shop at a few different places on his route, without the hassle of having to find a parking place for his car. In cities with high modal shares of cycling, a number of businesses are starting to see the benefits of offering cycle parking or being located next to a cycle path.