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Cycling for All
newsid: 168759

Pump-tracks and urban cycling facilities to make citizens healthier

Urban cycling facilities cater to all ages
Urban cycling facilities cater to all ages

More people than ever live in cities, and this trend is not going to stop anytime soon. Booming cities are at the same time a challenge and an opportunity to improve people’s lives.

Take health. Thoughtfully-designed neighbourhoods, with good cycling infrastructure and laws that protect cyclists’ safety, are effective for the integration of physical activity into the fabric of people’s lives. The enormous health and economic benefits of making cities fit for bikes is one of the strongest arguments of cycling advocates, and it is no coincidence that the top positions in the Forbes list of America’s Healthiest Cities are scooped up by cities that are walkable, bike friendly and rich in opportunities for active recreation. Making cities fit for cycling helps promote equity (see the Bogotá case we illustrated last year) and social inclusion. Furthermore, evidence shows that businesses thrive in bike-friendly towns and cities.

Creating conditions for better utilitarian cycling is the most impactful action cities can take. However, providing citizens with urban recreational cycling facilities also bears its share of benefits.

“Anything that gets people cycling is good. Leisure time is a good start – and it’s just a small leap from sport to transport” says Dr Randy Rzewnicki, Health Policy Officer at the European Cyclists’ Federation. 

Urban bike parks are an increasingly popular feature provided by cities for their inhabitants, sometimes as part of the legacy of a major sporting event. They can range from the very basic (e.g. a simple BMX pump track erected in a park for a few thousand dollars) to state-of-the-art BMX tracks built in accordance with the UCI guidelines, or even multi-activity areas, with different tracks catering for varying abilities.

BMX is a relatively inexpensive form of cycling (an entry-level bike for beginners can cost a couple of hundred dollars) and a great workout. And of course it is a sport that is very attractive to the youth. In a deprived area of south London, the track of the Peckham BMX Club nurtures the next generation of stars of the sport. The club reaches out to local schools and youth groups – “appealing to kids who might well be drawn into gangs”, as club founder CK Flash puts it in an interview with The Guardian. So remarkable is Peckham’s story, that it inspired a feature-length film, “1 Way Up”, released last summer.

On a similar note – and on the same bank of the Thames – since 1981 the Brixton BMX Club has been giving local kids a recreation opportunity that helps them build their life skills.

The London 2012 Legacy plans led to the construction of 5 BMX pump tracks, one in each of the Olympic Neighbourhoods. The tracks and the clubs that go with them (like the Bow School BMX Club in Hackney) are lifelines for the local youth of these very built-up areas, where many parents cannot afford to pay for expensive activities. The BMX clubs help keep unhealthy behaviours at bay, they are something that the community’s youngsters must work together to maintain, and a place where they can find mentors to identify with and trust.

A similar initiative is underway in Edinburgh, where the city council is completing an urban bike park in one of Scotland’s most deprived areas, to fight social exclusion and anti-social behaviours. The project, co-funded by the national government, is part of the Commonwealth Games 2014 legacy.

The first urban bike park in Europe opened in Zurich last year. 4 tracks over a 5,500m2 estate, Bikepark Zürich is managed by the City Council. The investment amounted to 2m Swiss Francs (2.12m US dollars) – a sum that demonstrates the public administrators’ high consideration of the sport.

In the US, the city of Seattle has financed part of the construction of the “I-5 Colonnade Trails”, a mountain bike skills park built underneath the Interstate 5 highway. It is a shining example of successfully making use of land that would otherwise remain vacant.

Moreover, in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has squeezed 3 miles of trail in Manhattan’s Highbridge Park.

While measuring the social impact of such facilities is difficult, there is evidence showing the health gains they foster. A recent study suggests inverse correlation in children between proximity to a recreation programme or park and likelihood of being overweight as adults. A US study identifies the lack of availability of facilities that enable and promote physical activity as the main cause of higher physical inactivity levels observed among populations of low socioeconomic status and minority backgrounds.

Ambitious cities may even think bigger: velodromes, for example. The debate’s on – and we will add more ideas and best practices shortly.

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