‘Build bicycle-only cities!’ says architect

The cycle of life: The bicycle was initially invented to solve a shortage of horses in Europe.

Should we ban cars? It has been 200 years since the first ever bicycle was invented, changing human transportation forever. Now, one man is calling for a city called “Velotopia”…

Imagine a circular city called Velotopia, with a diameter of about 15km. There are no traffic lights, no car parks — in fact, there are no cars at all. The only motorised vehicles are driven by the emergency services and rubbish collectors. There are trains to take you out of the city, but not to other places within it.

How do you get around this strange city? The clue is in the name: it comes from velocipede, a vehicle with one or more wheels which is powered by human feet. In other words, a bicycle.

Velotopia is also the name of a new book by architect Steven Fleming, due to be published in October. It promotes the building of such cities.

Building bicycle-only cities is a radical idea — but Fleming argues that it will boost “our health, wealth and planet”. In an age of air pollution, climate change and rising obesity levels, Velotopia promises to tackle all three.

The book is being published 200 years after a German named Karl Drais invented the very first bicycle. His wooden machine was propelled by pushing your feet on the ground, a bit like a scooter. It was soon dubbed the “hobby horse”.

In 1839, bicycles were vastly improved by the Scotsman Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who added pedals. The penny farthing was a short-lived — and dangerous — experiment with a large front wheel in the 1870s.

By the end of the 19th century, the “safety bicycle” — which looked much like modern bikes — arrived on the scene. They were particularly revolutionary for women, who had the freedom to travel long distances alone for the first time. They were also an excuse to ditch long skirts and corsets. As American suffragette Susan B. Anthony put it at the time, “Woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.”

Today, more bicycles are produced each year than cars, and there are around two billion cyclists in the world. It is a fast, clean, healthy way to move around. Should we all share Fleming’s dream of Velotopia?

Can you handle this?

“Bring it on!” say cycling fans. Building new cities is a great way for countries to boost their economies and solve housing shortages. If those cities are designed for bicycles instead of cars, they will also improve people’s health and save the planet. Plus, the endorphins released by all the exercise will make people happier. Where’s the downside?

“Slow down,” warn others. For one thing, cars are more practical for travelling long distances and transporting families. People should be free to drive them if they want to. For another, building new cities is not always a good idea — you have to be sure people will live there first. Why not focus on improving the cities that already exist, rather than getting carried away with huge social experiments?

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live in Velotopia?
  2. What is the best invention of the last 200 years?


  1. Design your own version of Velotopia. Keep in mind that people need places to live, work, shop and learn — all within cycling distance.
  2. Look at the illustrated history of cycling at the top of this story. Split into ten groups, each choosing one of the events or inventions featured. Create a short presentation about it for the class.

Some People Say...

“The bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion… it contributes so much to man’s welfare and nothing at all to his bane.”

Angela Carter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Bad harvests in the 1810s led to the starvation of thousands of horses in Europe — and so Karl Drais was inspired to invent a form of human transportation that did not need to eat. He revealed the bicycle (which he named after himself, the draisienne) in 1817. Two hundred years later, cycling is still a popular form of transport.
What do we not know?
How bicycles work — mathematically, that is. More specifically, we do not know the conditions needed for a bicycle to remain upright when it is being ridden hands-free, or pushed forwards without a rider. We just know that it does stay upright. Engineers have been refining the bicycle’s design over 200 years of trial and error — but they are still unable to prove the forces and the equations that explain how it works.

Word Watch

From the Latin velox meaning speed, and pes meaning foot.
The Guardian published an extract from the book (from nai010 publishers) this month; in it Fleming describes how it would work in more detail: including elevated roundabouts to slow cyclists down as they turn; lightweight bridges for pedestrians; and dirt tracks and jumps for mountain bike lovers.
Air pollution
The World Health Organisation says that air pollution caused by combustion of fuels (including by cars) caused 3m deaths worldwide in 2012.
Climate change
The planet’s temperatures are rising due to emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; 27% of these come from transportation each year.
Significantly overweight people have an increased risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Penny farthings forced their riders to sit quite high up. If the large wheel hit an obstacle, cyclists could be spun over the top and hit their heads on the ground.
According to the World Bank, around 100m bicycles are produced each year, as opposed to around 60m cars.

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