Open street events like CicLAvia in Los Angeles serve to promote active mobility, while reinforcing social cohesion, creating public joy, and allowing people to imagine alternatives to a car centric environment. Photo by CicLAvia.

March 02, 2022

Strengthening the Human Infrastructure of Cycling

                                                   Guest Author: Lucas Snaije, Research & Advocacy Manager, BYCS



As cities around the world embrace cycling as an increasingly important part of their transport strategies, urban policies to encourage it are still predominantly focused on urban planning and design measures, in line with the mantra “build it and they will come”. If we are to successfully combat the many challenges caused by car dominance in cities, a dramatic shift in mobility cultures is essential. In order to achieve such a shift, we need to think about strengthening the human infrastructure of cycling, alongside transforming the physical infrastructure of our streets.

A recent report on the human infrastructure of cycling published by BYCS explores this burgeoning concept, which asserts that initiatives to change behaviour and broaden awareness of cycling are a valuable tool to encourage more (and more diverse) people to cycle.

Human infrastructure is a relatively new concept when applied to cycling, and suggests looking beyond the built environment to pay closer attention to the social attitudes and knowledge networks that influence people’s choices about how they get around.
We cannot achieve truly inclusive cycling cities if we ignore how the attitudes and cultural values transmitted to us at an early age shape our understanding of the world, and how these socio-cultural elements in turn shape our mobility behaviours and cultures. There are barriers to cycling that infrastructure simply does not solve, such as perceptions, access, ability, or awareness. Even with the best protected bike lane outside their door, if a person doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle, can’t afford one, or doesn’t perceive cycling as a mode of transportation that is for them, they aren’t going to use it. Failure to account for such barriers will continue to exclude those who would benefit the most from cycling.

Leadership and Initiation from the Grassroots

The human infrastructure framework is especially helpful as we build on the momentum of the current cycling boom. In our research, we found dozens of initiatives around the world, from open streets, awareness campaigns, cycle buses and school streets, to earn-a-bike programs, cycle training and e-bike subsidy programs. These programs are widespread, however they are rarely given the long-term support they deserve by governments. Such initiatives are seen as secondary priorities, temporary interventions, or “nice to haves”. They are often initiated and led by civil society stakeholders or local NGOs, operate on razor-thin budgets, and lack the resources they need to scale beyond initial pilots. 

The “Mamás Pedaleando Sin Miedo” (Mothers Pedalling Without Fear) workshops, led by Bicitekas in the Miguel Hidalgo District of Mexico City, supports cycling mobilities of care while strengthening social bonds among mothers in the community. Photo by Bicitekas.

These programs reveal the potential of “soft” initiatives to accompany bicycle infrastructure, and offer transferable insights and good practices for cities and organisations to adopt.

  • In South Africa, Open Streets Cape Town has mobilised tens of thousands of inhabitants, encouraging cycling and walking in a safer environment, and additionally creating a space for people to experience the city differently, breaking down social fragmentation, and providing opportunities for community engagement and awareness around sustainable transport.
  • In India, the Power to Pedal campaign, led by Greenpeace, has distributed hundreds of bicycles to women labourers from Delhi’s Zamrudpur community and Bangalore’s Munnade and Laggere garment labour unions,  supplemented with cycle training. This has improved their mobility, independence and access to the city, while responding to transport inequality, exacerbated by gender and class.
  • In Mexico, The Bicitekas advocacy group has carried out cycle education and awareness courses for mothers in Mexico City’s northern district of Miguel Hidalgo, leveraging safe cycling skills as a way for mothers to navigate household serving journeys in an affordable, independent and reliable manner, while also strengthening community bonds.
  • In Switzerland, The Bike4Car e-bike trial, where thousands of regular drivers are given the opportunity to trade their vehicle for an-ebike for a period of two weeks, has provided strong evidence that exchanging one’s car keys for an e-bike for just a few weeks influences long-term habitual associations with car usage, and that this change persists even a year after the end of an intervention.
  • In the USA, Earn-a-Bike programs are extensive and each year equip youth with life skills, physical health, mentoring, and asset-building experiences. Thousands of bikes have been distributed to families in need, with a number of studies finding that cycling education programs that result in the child earning a bike are associated with significant increases in time spent cycling. 

These are just a few initiatives among many that support the human infrastructure of cycling, not only by increasing uptake, but by reducing transport poverty and inequality, and promoting community cohesion, public joy, and healthier lifestyles.

Between 2018-2020, 1,248 people earned their bike through Earn-A-Bike programs in San Diego. 700 bikes were sold at prices under $40 to people in need, and 2,567 bikes were donated by local groups and individuals. Photo by Earn-A-Bike.

Cities Taking Action

Even in countries with quality cycle lanes and many people cycling,  such as the Netherlands, continuously promoting cycling through a variety of programs, trainings, and subsidies contributes to the maintenance of a cycling society. Despite having world class cycling infrastructure, the Arnhem-Nijmegen urban region continues to strengthen the human infrastructure of cycling, with a particular focus on addressing a stagnating cycle mode share among vulnerable populations.  One such response to this issue is the Bicycle Heroes program, a campaign that challenges 8-12 year old children to think about the bicycle as a means of transport, and come up with creative solutions to address problems they encounter while cycling. Its intentions are to enable more children to cycle safely and independently, while integrating their perspective in urban planning and policy. 

The Bicycle Heroes program in the Netherlands, challenges 8-12 year old children to think about the bicycle as a means of transport, and come up with creative solutions to address problems they encounter while cycling. Photo by BYCS.

Greater attention to cycling cultures is also growing in cities outside Europe. The city of Oakland for example, has recognised in it’s latest cycling master-plan “Let’s Bike Oakland” that funding bicycle programs is equally as important as funding bicycle infrastructure to achieve safety and equity goals. The city has started working with local community partners, and is developing programs such as education courses for youth, e-bike libraries, and providing bicycle resources such as locks, tire pumps, and tools at public libraries in every neighbourhood. There are also numerous indications that cycling cultures are gaining interest around the world, from Buenos Aires, to Addis Ababa or Bengaluru, and these are encouraging signs that cities are both recognising the value of behaviour change programs, as well as the role that communities have to play in shaping local cycling cultures. 

The Tandem of Human & Built Infrastructure

It is important to underline that human infrastructure programs implemented in isolation will only have limited success. Perceived safety remains the largest barrier to cycling around the world. If cities do not commit to the rapid provision of protected cycle lanes and the slowing of vehicles, uptake of everyday cycling will only be marginal. However, there are a number of steps that cities can take to pay closer attention to the human infrastructure of cycling, and if done correctly in conjunction with physical interventions, can generate new demands for cycling, and ultimately increase the use of cycle lanes. 

Our report puts forward 6 recommendations with 35 detailed action points. They focus on:

  • reducing skill and cost barriers
  • developing awareness campaigns and storytelling with a focus on diversity
  • engaging with communities in a meaningful manner
  • connecting cycling to urban wellbeing, and 
  • growing the role of social research and knowledge sharing in the development of good practices in this field. 

If hard and soft measures can be better coordinated as a holistic strategy, and the importance of cycling cultures and human infrastructure further recognised, the achievement of cycling cities can be accelerated, in a manner that is inclusive of all residents.


About BYCS:

We are an Amsterdam-based global NGO guided by the belief that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world. We envision an urban future in which half of city trips are by bicycle by the end of the decade. To help achieve this we nurture, strengthen, and scale community-led cycling initiatives globally, striving towards this bold vision that we call 50×30.

Visit BYCS website >>



Sign up for updates on our projects, events and publications.

Send this to a friend