The bicycle as a catalyst for happiness

Posted on Jul 21, 2020

What follows below is a repost of a writing I made for bacc , a bicycle association based in Barcelona engaged in multiple initiatives and actions around the Catalan region. The post was received quite positively and since it was also missing some footage, I decided to translate it to English and add some missing videos. You can read (in Catalan) the original version here .

By the end of May 2020, the Netherlands enjoyed some amazing pre-summer days (temperatures reaching 23 degrees, Dutch standards!), reason why together with some friends we decided to plan a small trip by bicycle to the beach, sleeping for one night at a camping site. Due to the coronavirus situation the rail operator NS didn’t allow transporting bicycles in their carriages, so we planned the entire trip cycling in mind. Our goal was to make it to a beach only reachable on foot or by bicycle, passing by the natural park next to Haarlem, only accessible by these two modes of transportation also. We ended up cycling around 90 kms in two days… using an omafiets (dutch for grandma-bicycle, which can barely sustain itself).

Two premises enabled this trip by bicycle: infrastructure and culture. Safe bike lanes, street signalling across the entire trip (some small gaps here and there) and agreed traffic rules when sharing the space with other vehicles (not all the time, to be fair).

We found all sorts of users during the trip: elderly people using e-bikes, middle-aged couples with kids using a bakfiets (cargo bikes), groups of young people going for a day out… It was definitely impossible to avoid sharing the same space with scooter and moped users, which is quite a generalised trend in the Netherlands, being allowed to use bike lanes as long as they do not surpass 30 km/h (although recent legislations have started to ban their presence in bike lanes), as well as passing by too close to cars in certain parts (something we are very used to in Barcelona!). Nonetheless, we felt quite safe during the entire trip, mainly thanks to the infrastructure existent for bicycles, reason why we can find images like the ones across this entire post.

How is it then that we kept meeting significant amounts of bicycle/e-bike users, spanning ages from toddlers all the way up to 80 years old? They do not have to become bicycle activists, and they do not have to be young and brave, fighting and exposing themselves to motorised traffic: they exist because the infrastructure permits them to be. Bicycle modal shares in the 30%, 40% or 50% ranges exist because of infrastructure. There is no secret formula. If you want to increase the modal share of your city or region, you create infrastructure. If you do not want to, you don’t create it. You need other elements such as certain cultural ingredients and promotion/marketing campaigns, but without bicycle infrastructure you can keep waiting for bicycle users to come (spoiler: they won’t).

After more than 6 years living in Amsterdam and just recently moved to Barcelona, I would love to go to the beach in Sitges or Masnou without having to risk my life, be a young man or be brave. I would love to go with my partner and my children using a cargo bike. Coming across elderly people. Catalonia has a climate that others would kill for: in summer you have to take it a tad slower, but for the entirety of the rest of the year the climate is optimal. Dutch people would rather have this climate while cycling, instead of their daily wind, cold and drizzle. Barcelona and Catalonia are not flat, but the persistent daily wind in the Netherlands pretty much accounts for a daily dose of a mountain climb. And e-bikes are the perfect use case for those who live close to the hills.

Meanwhile we in the south dream about and see this from afar. Paris, London and other metropolitan regions are catching up to the Dutch and Danish models. But what is the strategy in Catalonia? Motor industry and pretty much that’s about it (electric vehicles! Sigh). There are no significant differences between political parties, they all support similar measures. Do I want this future for my children? Definitely not, specially after having had the privilege of a quality of life such as the one I have been able to have in the Netherlands. Spain will probably need two or three generations, but we could make the change happen faster. It is not about suppressing anything but about creating alternatives, leadership and vision. Because cycling is not only about commuting: it is a bag with tons of presents in it. And it’s very hard to understand that this goes far beyond commuting until you do not have an entire country moving by bicycle.