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Designing a Bike Path to Global Health

A bicyclist in Beijing navigates through traffic dominated by cars. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Beijing, China, last week experienced its first “red alert” over air pollution, meaning it was unsafe to go outdoors at all. The city’s air is now so thick that one artist has vacuumed up the haze and made into a brick.

The Beijing haze isn’t just unpleasant. It’s also deadly. Air pollution is an overarching risk factor for myriad respiratory health problems. A 2010 World Health Organization (WHO) study concluded that 1.2 million people died premature deaths in China in 2010 alone as a result of air pollution — well before the level of toxic smog was as high as it is today. And China isn’t alone in having respiratory health problems. World Health Organization data from 2013 pinpointed lower respiratory infections as the number one cause of death in the developing world overall.

Worldwide, bicycles placed at the center of urban transportation could lead to a higher quality of life in myriad ways, ranging from improved aerobic fitness to less traffic congestion to lowered emissions from cars. This last change would mean much less pollution overall, and therefore better respiratory health (and decreased climate change too).

Yet even in China, where bicycles have long been considered “smarter than cars,” the number of bicycles on the road is in decline.

In fact, researchers at John Hopkins University have found that global bicycle ownership has gone into sharp decline in the last 30 years. Their recently published study considered 1.25 billion households in 150 countries, and found that as of 2012, a total of 580 million households, or 42 percent, owned at least one bicycle. In contrast, in 1989, the earliest point in their data set, more than six of every 10 households on Earth had a bicycle.

To reverse that downslide would be a health innovation of sorts — although one with perhaps the best-established impact of any innovation effort to date. It’s hard to quantify exactly how many cases of respiratory disease a more bicycle-loving city might avert. But Olufolajimi Oke, the lead researcher of the study, says, “More bicycles in use are correlated with clearer conditions … The more people use their bicycles, the less they use their cars. And then you have less pollution, especially in the urban areas. It’s common sense, but it’s also been documented.”

Ideas on how to increase bicycle access abound.

Architecture student Charles Palmer emphasizes the need to focus on inclusion. Palmer, a 2015 recipient of the RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship, researched the viability of bicycle-based transportation in 10 developing-world megacities (including Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, China, plus cities in Brazil, Mexico, Bangladesh and India). His suggestions for expanding bicycle usage include attention to other issues such as socioeconomic inequality, inclusion of women and the public image of bicyclists. “Until the idea of a cyclist as the sports person or as a poor man is removed from the equation, very few authorities are going to support cycle-oriented development,” Palmer says.

That said, if development were to scale up, marginalized people might particularly benefit. World Bicycle Relief, a nongovernmental organization based in the U.S., has provided over 55,000 bicycles to people in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia.

“We’ve seen bicycles used for many different purposes to provide healthcare,” notes Creative Director Matt Pierce. World Bicycle Relief’s own offerings include a program that gives free bikes to professional caregivers of HIV/AIDS and TB patients; a program that assists HIV-vulnerable people to set up small, bike-based businesses; and another that trains bicycle mechanics in business and technical skills, as both economic development and a way to ensure the organization’s donated bikes stay in use.

Putting an end to industrial air pollution — particularly the burning of coal that has so clogged Beijing’s air — would also be a great way to make bicycling more appealing, of course. Bike riders would be protected from disease-causing fine particulate matter while they ride.

Although Oke’s study shows a decrease in China’s once-universal bicycles, ownership there is still well above the world average. Even better, as Oke points out, “Ownership of bicycles is not the same as usage of bicycles. A good example of this is that, in many developing nations, bicycle sharing is growing in the culture.” There, China is a model: It now has more bike-share bicycles than the rest of the world combined.