As the need for sustainable travel grows, bicycles are on the up. In 2011, the global market was worth $45 billion. By 2022, that figure will jump to $65 billion.

Bar chart showing value of global bicycle market
The global bicycle market is expected to reach $65.4 billion by 2022.
Image: Statista

We use them to commute to work, to pedal around the park – and sometimes, to race up and down mountains. The bicycle has brought joy and functionality to people’s lives since it was invented in the 19th century.

It provided freedom for women to take to the road unchaperoned and allowed rural residents to travel to new communities and marry outside their usual gene pool. This brought a new level of social diversity that sparked geneticist Steve Jones to call the invention of the bicycle the most important event in recent human evolution.

A vintage photograph of women cyclists
The bicycle gave women a newfound sense of freedom.
Image: Public domain

But the role that the humble bike has played is even more extraordinary than that. Here are five ways that it has not just changed – but saved – lives.

Two-wheeled ambulance

London Ambulance’s Cycle Response Unit is the brainchild of ambulance driver Tom Lynch. A former BMX champion rider, he considered the idea of responding by bike while stuck in heavy traffic in the centre of the city.

Launched in 2010, the unit has dozens of dedicated paramedics treating patients in the busiest parts of London, using custom-built bicycles equipped with blue lights and sirens and carrying life-saving medicines and equipment.

Cycle paramedics attend more than 16,000 calls a year and are able to resolve more than 50% of cases at the scene, avoiding the need for a two-person ambulance.

Pedal power

In 2012, former bus driver Carlos Marroquín founded Bici-Tec, a community-based social impact charity in San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala, that converts old bicycles into human-powered machines to process food, grind grain, shell nuts and pump water.

Marroquín’s machines help rural families complete tasks in minutes that would have previously taken them hours. Improving processing time allows farmers to increase their productivity and income.

Managing Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s disease is an incurable neurological condition. Its symptoms, including tremors, balance problems and speech changes, are generally treated with medication. But in 2003, while on a charity cycle ride, neurologist Dr Jay Alberts noticed something about his tandem partner, a Parkinson’s patient: her symptoms were improving.

Alberts realized that by cycling with him, the patient was able to boost her own pedalling rate from 55 revolutions per minute to somewhere between 80-90. This intense, ‘forced’ exercise was giving her more control over her movement.

The discovery led to an eight-week trial in which Parkinson’s patients rode on tandem bikes three times a week for 40 minutes each. The result was a 35% improvement in their symptoms.

Saving the gorillas

Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is home to a third of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park rangers wanted to raise awareness in local communities of the risks to these great apes, but the villages surrounding Virunga had no electricity, and most residents had never seen a film.

In 2012, The Great Apes Film Initiative (GAFI) brought a pedal-powered cinema to Virunga, enabling over 75,000 children in remote schools to learn about the gorillas and how to help protect them. The bikes that drive the cinema are ridden by school children, making the project more interactive and engaging.

A means of escape

Gino Bartali was a champion road cyclist in Italy who twice won the Tour de France. When the German army occupied Italy during World War Two, he joined a secret network set up by the cardinal of Florence, offering protection and safe passage to those threatened by the Nazis.

Bartali became a courier for the network, using his long training rides as cover for delivering forged documents allowing people to leave the country. The documents were hidden in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle. When he was stopped and searched, he asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.

Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali
After winning the Tour de France, Gino Bartali used his bike to help people escape the Nazis.
Image: Ciclismo Italia

In 2013, Bartali was honored as Righteous Among the Nations – non-Jews who helped save Jewish lives during the war – by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust centre.