The bicycle is witnessing a resurgence. When it was invented over a century ago, it lacked the gears, brakes and the chain drive that we are so accustomed to now.
Then there were also the racing versions with the excessively large front wheel, which made the ride uncomfortable and the bicycle difficult to manoeuvre. Subsequently, more safe and comfortable options were invented, and ball bearings and pneumatic tyres became common, allowing for more comfortable rides.
The manufacturing process further evolved using simple techniques for shaping metal that could be repeated to keep costs low while maintaining quality. The lessons thus learned were later applied in the sphere of automobile production.
Bicycles are closely woven into the social fabric of many countries. For decades, Chinese cities were teeming with people on bicycles. And although modern transportation has reduced bike usage in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, bike-sharing companies in China have established a strong foothold in recent years.
Similarly, the bicycle has been an important part of life in rural India, where unpaved roads made it an indispensable option. In both China and India, of course, and driven by strong demand, manufacturers were able to keep prices comparatively low. But since people living in poverty in rural India still find it difficult to buy one, some provincial governments have used ownership of a bicycle to achieve other social needs, such as support for education.
Politicians have thus introduced various schemes which provide a free bicycle to households living in poverty when certain conditions are met, such as when a girl child graduates from a primary to a secondary school.
In parts of Europe, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, the bicycle has managed to retain its hugely popular appeal. And in other European countries, the more recent introduction of e-bikes, with a small motor that requires lesser human effort to pedal uphill, has helped increase bicycle usage in urban areas, especially for certain groups such as parents with small children and the elderly.
Some cities have also introduced user-friendly bicycle sharing programmes. With the tagline “Good for you, good for Oslo”, the municipality of Oslo, via a mobile phone app, makes it easy to locate and then use the phone to unlock a bicycle and later park it in one of its 246 stations spread across the city.
The initiative in Oslo and in other cities thus typically appeal to three major benefits of riding a bicycle – environment friendly, physical exercise and ease of access. But bicycles are also about human freedom as so eloquently expressed in a famous song by the British rock band Queen: “I want to ride my bicycle; I want to ride it where I like.”