As the citizens of cities get richer they sell their bicycles, get a scooter, move on to their first car, snap up a second car, get a show-off set of wheels and then? Well, if they are lucky they get a bike again.
Today it’s the richest urban centres that are united in two-wheeled unison. While the cities in the white heat of fast development are sat in gridlocked car chaos (hello São Paulo, Istanbul and Bangkok), the most developed and wealthy metropolises are driven by the lure of the pedal. You can almost judge the wealth of a city by the number of people who don’t travel by car.
The sun is out this week in London and the capital’s roads are packed with commuters weaving their way through the traffic on bicycles. In data released earlier this year it was revealed that there has been a 155 per cent increase in people cycling in inner London in the past decade. London is still far behind many other cities in its cycling culture: 36 per cent of Copenhagen’s residents go to work by bike. And a report this year by the Copenhagenize Index, a consulting group that looks at a host of bike-friendly indices, also named the likes of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Seville, Bordeaux, Malmo, Berlin, Tokyo and Montréal at the top of its charts. (One developing city also sneaks in: Rio de Janeiro, which has a proactive cycling mayor, an obsessive fitness culture and some safe places to ride.)
But what unites these places is not only a desire to be a bit more green, get healthy or a wish to avoid the subway – there are a couple more intriguing demographics at play. From the 1950s to the 1980s there was a feeling in the West that many cities were broken places and that safe and comfortable living for the middle classes meant living in the suburbs and commuting to work by car or train. It was a shift exacerbated in many instances by urban riots and a failure to invest in the fabric of a city’s core, which in turn lead to the concept of white flight. But that’s changed.
From New York to London, the city has been reborn: the only place to live now for the cool crowd is in the heart of the action. Twenty years ago, Clerkenwell in central London was an area of modest offices, lock-ups, watch repairers and some public housing. Now it’s prime apartments wherever you look – and it’s the same in once-neglected neighbourhoods heading east. Many of them are home to young, fit-ish people who realise that getting around the city is easier by bike. But what’s also on display here is a bit of inverted snobbery: “Why do I need a car? I live in central London.”
Transport luxury becomes not a seat in a slow-moving chauffeured limo from your leafy suburban roost but a breezy ride on a bicycle between work and home. Today as you walk past the offices of design companies, media firms and fashion houses, their courtyards are rammed with bicycles. You look in the window of a bicycle shop, see the price tags and the gadgetry and the stripped-back aesthetics and you know that the market for these machines is people who are leaving their Porsches in the garage these days.
The humble bicycle is anything but. It has the bell ring of democracy but the cyclists pushing through the summer traffic are also part of a new shift, one that sees the car as for the masses. And that’s something carmakers, architects and public-policy wonks are going to increasingly have to take note of. For the old sticker “My other car’s a Porsche”, now you need one that just says “I always do it on two wheels”.
Andrew Tuck is the editor of Monocle.