‘Cycling for Sustainable Cities’ exciting new book: review

book cover Cycling for Sustainable Cities
Cycling for Sustainable Cities is a must read for every cycling advocate
Reading Time: 6 minutes

This weekend I finished reading a new book about cycling: “Cycling for Sustainable Cities” and I am very impressed with it. On average I propably read a book a year about cycling and cities such Janette Sadik-Khan’s ‘Streetfight’, ‘Frostbite‘ by Tom Babin, ‘Happy City’ by Charles Montgomery or Pete Jordon’s ‘In the city of bikes’. They are all great and inspiring books to read.

Add ‘Cycling for Sustainable Cities’ to that list.

This new 440 page book edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, who visited Ottawa already twice, is actually a collection of articles by dozens of researchers on a variety of topics from children and cycling to older adults and cycling, from bicycle parking to e-bikes, from cycling in Amsterdam to cycling in India and a number of other topics such as bike share.

Overwhelming support for better infrastructure in Cycling for Sustainable Cities

subway map of Ottawa Gatineau bike infrastructure
Subway style bike map of Canada’s National Capital Region showing the multi use pathways

Although there are many cycling angles discussed in the 18 chapters, what comes back every time is the need for protected cycling infrastructure. You might say: “well duh”, but it is not obvious to many decision makers who aren’t cycling themselves. And there has been a long tradition in North America of promoting cycling in traffic, which -as the authors show- especially women really didn’t buy into. Fortunately, the authors present you with a smorgasbord of research that shows overwhelming support for protected infrastructure to increase cycling numbers.

Health Benefits

As avid cyclists residents already know, cycling turns out to be good for the health of a population too, and the authors share the numbers with us to prove it. An interesting tool is the WHO Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT): it includes an economic assessment of the value of a reduced mortality that results from specific amounts of cycling. (p 39)

Cycling in China and India

What I really like about this book is that they also expand into cycling in China and India as well as South America. There are big differences between the two nations, but while China used to have enormous bike modal shares and is reintroducing cycling somewhat, India is struggling.

For many reasons, traffic is total anarchy on the Indian subcontinent. I have travelled in India and I can confirm this. I ended up in a bus collision on our first day in India, driving in from Nepal. The locals were very upset and beat the shit out of the regional bus we were sitting in, and at some point, the bricks started to fly through the bus windows. Glass all over the place and the doors were kept closed. Eventually we escaped, climbed on the roof of the bus to retrieve our backpacks and took another passing bus.

In China, bike infra is disappearing due to the widening of roads and the ever increasing distances in the megacities.

The Netherlands as a model for the world in Cycling for Sustainable Cities

A bike street in Utrecht, Netherlands running along the Rietveldhuis.
A bike street in Utrecht, Netherlands running along the Rietveldhuis.

Throughout the entire book the Netherlands is presented as the model for the entire world. From infrastructure to policies, the Netherlands is miles ahead of any other nation in the world. Unlike Copenhagen, the Netherlands keeps improving for cycling.

I was somewhat surprised to read that growth has stalled in Copenhagen. The subway system appears to eat into the cycling modal share as well as an active pro car lobby that wants to see more cars downtown. The enemy always lurks behind that lamp post! Sadly, the authors conclude that cycling remains stagnant in Copenhagen since around 2016. You can read about my Copenhagen adventures here.

Copenhagen uses blue paint to guide cyclists across intersections.
Copenhagen uses blue paint to guide cyclists across intersections and, unlike Ottawa, doesn’t build protected intersections

It was also interesting to learn that Amsterdam initially did not have a bicycle master plan: an increase in cycling was the byproduct of a change in city policies after protests broke out against taking down a neighbourhood to make space for transit.

Focus on health rather than safety

Interestingly, the authors mention that research shows that social marketing cycling campaigns focusing on health appear to be more successful than ones focusing on safety. One study found a significant relationship between gas prices and cycling (cycling goes up).

On the other hand, road tolls didn’t affect the cycling modal share. Yet, “restricted parking and the need to pay for parking have been shown to increase the likelihood of cycling and may even stimulate a modal shift away from the car towards the bicycle” (p 125). As you will read, there are tons of studies out there already that show what might work in your city and what might not.

Human scaled infrastructure

Everyone can ride a bike (photo: Hans on the Bike)

In the e-bike chapter the authors predict that “e-bikes will begin to fall in a much larger class of low speed vehicles and the details of their form will matter less than there performance”. They expect that there will be a host of new vehicles -as we can see with the e-scooters in Ottawa already- “that are gaining access to appropriate low-speed and human scaled infrastructure formerly known as bike lanes”. (p 169)

US high school restrictions

What stunned me was that several high schools in the US actually prohibit kids to come to school by bikes for liability and safety reasons. The most recent planning guide lines for high schools in fast growing suburbs ask for large swaths of land to accommodate the school and its recreational facilities: 15 acres for an elementary school and 30 acres or more for a high school. My elementary school with just short of 200 kids back in the Netherlands was 0.45 acres! Those swaths of land can only be found on the edge of new developments and are therefore too far for kids to walk or cycle. Or too dangerous.

Lots to absorb in Cycling for Sustainable Cities

Bike share in Lyon, integrated with public transit

There is a lot to absorb in this book. But it is an invaluable tool for cycling planners and cycling advocates. The book is chockful of data and hundreds upon hundreds of references if you are interested in the actual research.

If you are somewhat new to cycling advocacy I recommend you don’t read the entire book cover to cover in one go. It is rather academic at times and the large numbers of references don’t make for easy reading on a Sunday afternoon with hot chocolate at the fire place (under a palm tree with a Martini for my friends in the southern hemisphere).

Where to start in Cycling for Sustainable Cities

Instead start reading the somewhat more accessible chapters such as cycling in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, cycling in Portland, Oregon and Seville, Spain (Seville here I come!) and cycling in Paris, London and New York. Then read the India, China and South America chapters. Then switch to the more topical chapters such as bicycle parking, women and cycling and older adults and cycling and e-bikes and bike shares. Save the chapters about social justice, health, safety and policies for later. Everything is important, but you want to start easy as this book can be quite overwhelming.

Cycling for Sustainable Cities should be on every cycling advocate’s book shelf

If you are into cycling advocacy, this is a book that you definitely should have on your (virtual) book shelf. It will last a generation. It is a very helpful book to find information to build your protected cycling infrastructure case: it has lots of data and compelling arguments why cycling is so important for the livability of your city.

There are several paragraphs about Canada too, mostly mentioning the several advocacy organizations, highlighting the progress in Quebec. I never knew that Montreal only started its extensive cycling infrastructure after an inspiring visit to the Netherlands in the mid 1980’s.

And I am #proud to share with you that Bike Ottawa gets a mention in the book too! Progress!

Cycling for Sustainable Cities is available at MIT Press


  1. Thanks for the info and the maps. Too bad most are closed in winter, or because of covid-19, or you have to pay to use the LRT to get to theirs. But I’ll make a note for spring cycling, even if it doesn’t help for winter walking. You are doing a great service for all of us,

  2. Love reading all the ins and outs of cycling in Ottawa. Maybe if the summer is opened up, I’ll get further afield. My biggest problem is finding a toilet/port-a-potty/restaurant to use. Sometimes there are bushes available, but not everyone is willing to use them in an emergency. Any way we could have a map indicating where these places might be available. Or is there a department at City Hall where we should be addressing this issue.

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