Improving urban wellbeing: as easy as riding a bike

Improving urban wellbeing: as easy as riding a bike

The landscape of post-earthquake Christchurch, New Zealand is changing rapidly. When there is change, there will be innovation. Cycling in Christchurch is like much of the rest of the world: the media features it frequently, people talk about it on the street, local councils promote it and the politicians discuss it at meetings. But this topic in Christchurch is particularly interesting as the city rebuilds itself after a devastating natural disaster.

The social, environmental, health and urban benefits of cycling have been well researched internationally. However, our built environment is having a hard time adapting, delivering and maximising these benefits that have been outlined academically. The recovery work in Christchurch created a unique opportunity where, as designers, we could rethink how a city can function and fast-track some of these adaptations.

People often ask me “why is cycling important for a contemporary city?”

I think urban cycling or utilitarian cycling, when designed right, can bring the most cost-effective benefits to a community among transport infrastructure options, and complement a city’s existing transport system. For example, cycleways are physically cheaper to build and maintain, they require less space, and they have higher capacity than roads for cars. While the cost, space and capacity arguments for cycling are great when compared to traditional roading, that is not why I’m motivated to work in the cycling space.

I’m motivated by the ideas of connect, control and happiness. They are the distillation of decades of my riding for fitness, commute, errands and most importantly, for fun. These three ideas guided me through my post-graduate studies, years of professional work, and they stay true to this day.

Connect refers to connections with your environment and the social aspect of human behaviour. Riding a bicycle in the city creates an environment where you are immersed within your surroundings through all your senses. You see the faces of people walking or riding bicycles, you feel the wind on your face and the potholes on the road, and you interact with the person next to you on your daily commute.

Riding a bicycle gave me a sense of control of my life. The feeling of me physically controlling my destiny through a bicycle is a psychologically satisfying emotion that is difficult to experience in our unpredictable world. Also, there is something special about the simplistic mechanics required to achieve this feeling – just go for bike ride!

Happiness is an underrated aspect of cycling. The smile of a kid who just learnt how to ride a bicycle says a thousand words; it is one of the purest expressions of “happiness”. Our increased responsibilities once grown-up mean that this sense of pure enjoyment is harder to come by. An academic colleague who is doing a PHD on happiness and cycling said that, “there is a mentality that commuting has to be miserable, and I’m doing it wrong if I’m having fun while doing it.” He went on to identify that the medical field argues that the inclusion of physical exercise within transit is one of the main reasons why the cycling transit environment is enjoyable. The writer Darrin Nordahl even published a book Making Transit Fun! in 2012 exploring some of these ideas.

My three motivations all contain an element of looking after our mental health, which I think is important when discussing riding bicycles. Medical research has shown that for the first time in history, the current generation is able to make ourselves feel unwell despite good physical health. This can be the result of the lack of social and physical interaction with other human beings as a result of our digitally connected world.

It’s relatively easy to provide physical cycling infrastructure. But how can we create better social capital through cycling in order to capitalise on the great benefits that are presented in academia?

One way to start triggering these benefits is through bike-share, where the community is given easy access to bicycles throughout Christchurch. AECOM was the first corporate backer for the Christchurch BikeShare program. I would like to thank the senior leadership in New Zealand for sharing the vision I have for the Christchurch community, and I hope our role continues to go beyond simply providing infrastructure, and contributes to the social wellbeing of the community around us.

Now, how about a bike ride?

 

Jack J. JiangJack Jiang (jack.jiang@aecom.com) is an architecturally trained urban designer who specialises in cycling infrastructure. Beside his internationally recognised research work and daily architectural work, he works with the AECOM Transport team on active transport projects to bring a holistic approach to cycle network design. Outside of work, Jack initiated the community projects Lazy Sunday Cycle Christchurch and worked with the local council to deliver Back on Bikes Adult Cycle Safety Training.

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Comments

  1. Great blog Jack – thanks and I agree, let’s go for a ride!

  2. Great thoughts. Nicely written and spot on about many uncelebrated aspects of daily bike riding. The biggest obstacle in cycling bike share schemes for NZ cities is our shameful mandatory helmet law. It won’t work with this in the way, no matter how good the infrastructure, sorry to say.

  3. Good to see Jack Jiang working towards a more sustainable world. Cycling is efficient and silent . As someone working to reduce noise pollution this is a welcome article.

  4. Shameful? Mandatary law? I wish Dutch government would introduce this law in Holland, especially for e-bikers and older people. Alas, the government is still sitting on a fence whether to accept the proposal or not.
    There has been a significant rise in accidents these last two years. Especially with e-bikers.
    A friend of someone I know lies in coma, after an accident. She will never be able to tell the tale.
    If she would have worn a helmet, maybe she would have survived.

  5. Long time since we have been for a ride together Jack. Great to see you doing well and great blog. Cheers, Ellen

  6. Great article. Yes getting back to the basics is beneficial!
    Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the population in our communities engage in this practice.
    As we all look to the example that Christchurch offers, we need to continue to apply pressure on our own local council and government representatives to expand cycling options in our home communities. We also need have officials accountable for the enforcement of safe practices as we continue to build and implement designated routes or pathways.
    Further, employers need to get in the loop by offering employees better incentive to participate in this custom. Some of these incentives may include basic platforms like showers in the work place and a safe and secure storage of bikes on site.
    Let’s keep the conversation going!

  7. I find cycle ownership a fascinating thing.

    In developing countries, as they climb the global scale, car ownership is an established indicator or wealth and status. Whilst cycling is seen as being an activity for the poor.

    In mature economies, whilst cycling remains a mode of transport for many who cannot afford a car, it also becomes a status symbol for many who feel they have transcended the status of automobile membership.

    Perhaps it is like the Blackberry vs a non-smart phone. You remember how it was a big status thing in the office to have a Blackberry? It meant you were important, that people needed you at a moment’s notice! And then you met the CEO who stuck with his Nokia 6310…

  8. I agree with Jack Jiang that riding a bicycle is good for mental health. I started riding my bike in Christchurch this year, not every road is safe for cyclists, but I did see some roads are getting better and more friendly to cyclists.

  9. Excellent post Jack. The connection aspect of riding through the city that you discuss keeps me pedaling through the Chicago winter. The perspectives of the city that you get while saddled on a bike are extremely unique. The challenge in Chicago, despite an extensive network of bike lanes and bike-sharing service, is the illusion of cycling as a risky behavior. This perception is a huge barrier to entry for new riders.

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