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.
PINNING THE HOPES FOR NEW MOBILITY
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.