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Lessons for a 'cycling megacity'

Which megacities are best for commuting by bike? UK architect Charlie Palmer travelled the world to find out.

Over the next 20 years, concern about sustainability, climate change and health will push many of the world’s largest cities to curb car use, partly through making cycling easier and safer.

These challenges resonate particularly strongly in fast-growing urban areas in countries such as Brazil, China and India, where hugely important choices are being made on transport infrastructure.

Currently there are 23 megacities – cities with populations of 10 million people and above – around the world. 

But by 2025 the UN predicts this total will rise to 37, with the addition of nine new megacities in Asia. 

All but eight of these 37 will be in the developing world – where the quality of life for hundreds of millions will be partly determined by the ease with which they can travel and commute through densely-populated, sprawling conurbations.

Last year, I was awarded the RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship to examine at street level how urban public space is being shaped in developing-country megacities to foster a mass culture of cycling.

Below, I examine which steps cities in Latin America and Asia have taken to promote mass mobility by bike (and increase what planners call ‘modal share’, the percentage of journeys done by a particular mode of transport). I also look at the challenges urban sprawl poses for planners, policymakers and cyclists themselves.

Today the residents of megacities face increasing commuter times, more cars on the roads, chronic pollution, and high rates of fatal accidents. 

These challenges and dangers have stimulated a shift away from the 20th century ‘modern ideal’ of a car dominated future.

Meanwhile, mayors all around the world are looking for alternative strategies on how to move masses of people around their cities.

So what makes a cycling megacity? 

It would be an urban area that is growing and changing rapidly but where expansion and fast-paced development is not overwhelming to commuters.

A city where everyone can move freely at no extra cost, where commutes aren’t ruined by pollution and overcrowding.

Where the city helps keep residents healthy; where people are more productive at work; where people live longer lives; and where people are happier. At present, most of the world’s cycle-friendly cities, such as Amsterdam, Berlin, and Copenhagen are much smaller than megacity scale, and tend to be located in northern Europe. 

However, there are elements of transport policies used in Europe that could be applied – in part – to larger, developing world urban areas.

Here is a city-by-city account of what I experienced in nine urban areas in five countries, which I chose because of their size and, with the exception of Sao Paulo, their location along roughly similar latitudes.

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