Foto: 100copies Bicycle Art

Bicentennial of the bicycle


On Two Wheels into the Future

Cheap to manufacture, easy to maintain and service, ecological to use: no other means of transport moves more people around the world than the bicycle. Thanks to new technologies, its importance might even continue to grow. This year the invention celebrates its bicentennial.

Text Felix Enzian

It must have been an unusual sight for travelers who were underway between Mannheim and Schwetzingen, Germany, on June 12, 1817: a tall wooden contraption rolling along the dusty avenue past astonished passers-by, topped by a young man, more standing than sitting, rhythmically pumping his legs. This vehicle was the first bicycle, and its inventor, Karl Drais, was presenting it to the public for the very first time. Although it only had two wheels, mounted one behind the other, the vehicle didn’t fall over, but instead achieved a sheer breathtaking speed of 15 kilometers per hour—faster than every pedestrian and even every mail coach.

The vehicular device that Karl Drais presented on that day, almost two centuries ago, represented a mobility revolution, comparable to that of the first automobile. The single-track “draisine”, as it was later called, was the first to employ this two-wheeler technique and thereby became the precursor to today’s bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds—an innovation that went down in history.

The idea for a vehicle propelled solely by human physical strength was initially born of necessity—at least according to a not entirely uncontroversial theory posed by historians. In April 1815, the Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted—a mega-event, the ash of which was blown up into the stratosphere and encircled the globe, even darkening the skies of Europe for months. The summer of 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer, with snow in July, persistent rains and massive crop failures. As a consequence of this natural disaster, foodstuffs became significantly more expensive. The price for oats, the main source of energy for horses, doubled—thereby increasing the prices for the transport of goods.

These hardships provided fertile ground for the horseless “riding machine” of Karl Drais, a for-est officer from Karlsruhe. On January 12, 1818, his vehicle received a Grand-Ducal Charter, comparable to today’s patent. Despite this, it took almost a century before the invention became a mass-produced commodity; after various accidents with the difficult-to-steer draisine, some cities prohibited its use on footpaths, even as the railroads simultaneously began their triumphal progress. Most people forgot all about Drais’s invention.


The breakthrough didn’t arrive until the end of the nineteenth century. Innovations including the chain drive and inflatable tires made the bicycle a usable invention. For the growing working classes in cities, it became the perfect means of transport, since it was both affordable and easy to repair. The two-wheeler evolved into a central pillar of urban mass transportation, especially in Europe and Asia. It wasn’t until the mass distribution of cars and scooters that bicycles again largely disappeared from cityscapes.

The bicycle is many things today: a means of transport in the mobility mix, a lifestyle product, a high-tech sporting device, goods transporter, ersatz taxi and increasingly also a ray of hope for a new mobility. Metropolises are shifting gears as you read this: two hundred years after the first ride, bicycles are to become a central component of urban mobility once again.

London, for example, is investing one billion British pounds through 2025 to develop a network of bicycle expressways. It is hoped this will reduce inner-city traffic congestion and curtail fine-particulate air pollution. Around 10,000 kilometers eastward, the Chinese city of Hangzhou manages the world’s largest bike-sharing program—with more than 84,000 bicycles at around 3,500 stations. Even Mexico City, plagued with mega-traffic jams on a daily basis, is expanding its bicycle infrastructure. The city’s Secretary of Environment Tanya Müller García says, “The bicycle plays a crucial role in establishing a more sustainable city and also in reducing congestion and pollution.”

Hamburg, Seville, Singapore: the list of major cities that wish to encourage bicycle riding as part of the urban mobility mix can be extended almost indefinitely. The term “intermodal mobility” is playing a central role almost everywhere.

The Development of the Bicycle in Seven Pictures


What this means is described in a study conducted by EBS University Wiesbaden. The study’s authors found that by 2030, people on the go will be able to access a wide variety of mobility forms inconceivable today. The offerings will include traditional vehicles such as cars, motorcycles, buses and subways, but also innovative concepts such as vehicle sharing, ride-shares and highly automated taxis. A person will choose the best option depending on the situation. Bicycles are particularly suited for short trips where other vehicles are impractical or unavailable—for instance from a subway or train station to a workplace. With bike sharing or an electric bicycle, the two-wheelers could make an important contribution to solving the last-mile problem—the final leg of any given journey.

In Copenhagen, residents don’t just ride a bicycle for the last mile. The Danish capital is the world’s most famous “bicycle city” and has invested around 150 million euros since 2006 in expanding the associated infrastructure. In order to revitalize the city center, which many consider unattractive, since the early 1990s city authorities have been reducing the amount of public parking in order to create space for pedestrians and bicyclists. Following an urban master plan, the bicycle infrastructure has systematically been expanded so that today, bikeways are accorded highest priority.

Thanks to a specially built “Cykelsuperstier”—bicycle expressway—bike riding today in Copenhagen is the fastest and shortest way to get around in many cases. The addition of bicycle parking spaces in the city center, bike-sharing programs and the possibility to transport bicycles for free in commuter trains are additional building blocks of this urban development program. Today every third employee commutes at least part of the way to and from work by bike; a share that is hoped will climb to 50 percent in the coming years. “We’ve developed a culture of bicycle riding,” says Helle Søholt, co-founder of Gehl Architects and one of the protagonists behind new mobility concepts in Copenhagen. “It’s become part of the lifestyle, one which took many years to develop.”


The goal for architect Jan Gehl and his colleagues: to “Copenhagenize” other cities. Around the world the team is spreading the word so that other cities can learn from Copenhagen. Gehl has already developed initial concepts for more bicycle friendliness in other municipalities including Mexico City, São Paulo, Melbourne and New York City.

Throughout all of this, it remains clear that reorganizing urban mobility won’t happen overnight. It will require time, because this is a true revolution: “The majority of modern cities were designed for cars,” says American scientist Ralph Buehler, who teaches urban planning at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. “Regardless of whether it’s highways or parking spaces along the sides of streets: everything’s been designed to make traveling by car as simple as possible.”

A glance at China shows where this journey may lead. To reduce air pollution and relieve congested inner cities, car registrations are only awarded by lottery in some big cities and conventional motorized scooters are partly forbidden. Electric bikes are to replace these and become increasingly integrated into sharing systems. The two largest Chinese suppliers recently garnered 200 million US dollars in capital from investors. Bloomberg wrote an article about it titled: “China Returns to Pedal Power.”

Karl Drais, who laid the foundation for this development two hundred years ago, would surely have been pleased with the success of his “walking machine.”