“Imagine if we could invent something that cut road and rail crowding, cut noise, cut pollution and ill- health – something that improved life for everyone, quite quickly, without the cost and disruption of new roads and railways. Well, we invented it 200 years ago: the bicycle.” – Boris Johnson, Mayor of London 

This follow up reflection of my previous blog post has been encouraged and inspired by the enthusiastic response from the worldwide community of cyclists — individuals who depend on and use this very reliable mode of versatile transportation on a daily basis. At one point in the first 24 hours after it was published, the number of views to the initial blog post exceeded 1000 per hour, and it totaled over 200K views. The article has been adopted by the World Economic Forum Agenda Blog and even landed on the Facebook page of the United Nations, with great support from the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and World Bicycle Relief. It has been translated into French and Spanish, and a German language version is in the works. The conclusion, based on comments that were made, was very clear: the world still loves the velocipede whether as a form of transport or as an Olympic sports event.

In response to the previous blog Brian Cookson, UCI President summed it up well with this reflection, “Cycling is one of the most popular sports in the world, but it’s also a mode of transport for millions, helping to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and keep people healthy. UCI wants to contribute to a future where everyone, regardless of age, gender, or disability gets the opportunity to ride and bike, whether as an athlete, for recreation, or for transport. In ten months’ time, the Paris climate talks will provide the final opportunity to plan for a sustainable future: cycling – a truly zero-carbon form of transport – must be part of the solution.”
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres also recognized the potential of the bicycle as a low carbon alternative when they took a spin on Ghanaian bamboo bikes as a side event at the COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland in November 2013. The Ghana Bamboo Bike Initiative showcased the bicycles, which use locally grown bamboo. The strong, but lightweight bamboo bikes can be used for multiple purposes and in a variety of terrains. They were introduced as a non-polluting, affordable form of transportation as well as a way to create employment opportunities for rural women. Young women with little or no education are trained in Ghana to manufacture and assemble these bikes. The beneficiaries are also instructed on how to use bamboo waste materials to manufacture charcoal briquettes that also help to address energy needs.

As an attendee at several Olympic and Paralympic Games in a number of different capacities and as participant on several different levels at other global sport events, an idea has come to mind related to cycling that might appeal to the organizers of future global sports festivals. How about implementing bicycles as an option for local and internal transportation at these events? Instead of using only mopeds or golf carts, why not consider cycling as an option to promote health and demonstrate a focus on the beauty of universality of this sport. Has there ever been a bikeshare station at the Olympic Village? Or, among the Olympic venues? I have not seen one.

Wouldn’t it send a great message if UCI President Brian Cookson, IOC President Thomas Bach, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had the opportunity to bike together in the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro?  World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Y. Kim could accompany them, and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, could pace them. That would leave a simple and effective legacy for cariocas to use for their daily transport needs.

Another opportunity for bike lovers will come up during the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris in December, 2015.  France is second to China with the highest number of bikeshare stations, and its capital, Paris, has a computerized system Vélib that includes 1,230 stations and a fleet of 18,000 bicycles. Wouldn’t it be a great if delegates from all over the world were to receive a free pass to use the bikeshare bicycles in their welcome packet? It would give them a chance to not only talk the talk about climate but also to ride the ride for positive climate care during the final Climate Summit.

In this effort to reenergize a global focus on bicycles and bicycling, I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a new generation of bike lovers from the UCI, World Bicycle Relief, and my own colleagues from Connect4Climate and the Sport4Climate initiative. These new and young advocates are proving to me that there is an enthusiastic ray of hope for cycling and the use of bicycles to create change. Their contagious passion for bicycles rekindles my own love for cycling as well.

As for us at Connect4Climate, there will be plenty of biking around the world with our global communication initiative Sport4Climate that showcases how community of sport can get involved in tackling one of Earth’s most formidable foes: climate change.  Sport has a universal appeal, and cycling is one of the most important pillars of the Olympic Movement. On our touring calendar, the stages will include the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, COP 21 and, obviously, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where we want to be an active part of the Olympic relay carrying the flame and enlightening the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony. We will also make sure that the mascots Vinicius and Tom will wear the Connect4Climate bracelets.

Even the French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympic Movement, was an avid bike rider, and affectionately called his bike “Nini.” He immensely enjoyed bicycle riding among other sports activities in his lifetime. Wouldn’t it be great if the global cycling community could follow de Coubertin’s lead and once again realize the joy and benefits of cycling? Just recently the creator of Connect4Climate, Lucia Grenna, nostalgically revealed her trustworthy “Bianchi” as her top choice for transport. It is obvious that things are looking up for Cycling4Climate!

Many of us simply underestimate the uniqueness, longevity, versatility and simplicity of the bicycle. Besides its obvious roles as an environmentally friendly form of transportation and enhancer of health, there is also something very special about bikes. The synergy between the bike and the rider is such that it promotes mental relaxation, encourages excellent opportunities for leisure, and enhances social interaction. It also helps the rider gain a greater awareness of his immediate and/or local environment.

The popularity and practicality of the bicycle are without question vital links to help lessen worsening morbidity trends attributed to pollution. This is especially true in areas where rapid urbanization and motorization are taking their toll. China is a prime example of such trends as the bicycle and rickshaw have been a traditional mode of mobility for decades, but not anymore. In 2004 there were just 10 million private cars in circulation in China; by 2020 – just 5 years from now – there is forecast to be 150 million. While we in the West are beginning to return to the bicycle, millions of others are forsaking their bikes for cars. Reversing this trend could be of huge benefit to our future climate and the health of our cities – but only if we act now.

Every year, air, water and land pollution causes roughly 8.9 million premature deaths worldwide.  Most of these deaths occur in developing countries. This represents 13 percent of all deaths around the world. While pollution poisons our air, water and land, it is also toxic to our bodies and economies by exerting higher burdens for cost of healthcare, lost productivity, as well as a diminished quality of life. If we invest in the proper infrastructure, bicycles can be used more and will help in many ways to foster a greater renaissance of mental and physical health and wellness.

There are those who see the bike as just a form of recreation or kids play. However, it’s a major form of transportation for hundreds of millions, and could be for billions. A third of US carbon dioxide emissions are from transport, yet half of all car trips are just 5 km or less. Such a distance takes only 15 minutes to ride on a bike. Of course cycling may not be practical for every trip by everyone, but if people are mindful of the option and if there are better facilities and a supportive culture, cycling could offer a zero-carbon alternative to the car and save billions of tons of CO2 in the coming decades.

Sport has the potential to be an influential if not the most influential element in the environmental movement. It has the potential to be more influential than politics and more influential than business. Sport has the capacity to transform the way people view the planet and to encourage them to be advocates for environmental change. I believe that the cycling community can and should be a strong leading voice from the global sports industry about how we doing something so simple can benefit our health and the health of our planet. This is especially important as we travel the road to Paris: COP 21.

This article was first published by the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Leszek Jan Sibilski is a consultant to the World Bank’s External and Corporate Relations, Global Engagement Department (ECRGE), as a part of the Connect4Climate program.

Image: Jean Martin of Montreal looks at renting a BIXI (combination of bike and taxi) bicycle in Old Montreal May 12, 2009. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi.