On Your Bike

200 years old, the bicycle is as relevant as ever

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the bicycle. While much has changed in the last two centuries, health and environmental concerns and the emergence of new technology have given the bicycle industry renewed impetus.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • More and more commuters are preferring to switch to two wheels for their journey to work.
    • There are 184 bicycles for every 100 households in Germany, while nearly 2 million households now own an electric bicycle.
    • The German Bike Association is calling for a €500 subsidy on e-bike purchases.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Jedermann-Rennen Velothon
The number of city dwellers using the bicycle as a means of transport rose by 40 percent between 2000 and 2015. Source: DPA

If it wasn’t for bicycle makers, there might never have been a car. Just ask Karl Benz. When the inventor of the first automobile was granted a patent in Mannheim in 1886, his motorized creation was rolling on wheels made by the Frankfurt bicycle manufacturer, Kleyer.

The company produced penny farthings at the time, and their large wheels were central to Mr. Benz’s design. The founder of Mercedes-Benz had a real fondness for bicycles. He used a hollow gas tubing to reduce the weight of his motor car, an idea he copied from American bicycle designers.

Benz isn’t the only famous name in the automobile industry that links cars with bikes. In the same year Mr. Benz patented his motor car, Adam Opel was building his first penny farthing in Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt. “Anyone can enjoy the pleasure of riding a bicycle regardless of age and standing,” wrote Mr. Opel. “The three-wheeler allows even ladies and elderly gentlemen to partake in healthy recreation. Riding is equally invigorating for body and soul.” Barely half a century later, in 1927, Mr. Opel’s company was the world’s largest manufacturer of bicycles.

Larger institutions, such as Deutsche Telekom, Commerzbank and Deutsche Bahn, have long been using company bicycles.

As we consider what we want the future of mobility to look like, the role of the humble bicycle is coming into ever sharper focus. It may be celebrating its 200th birthday this year, but its importance as a means of transport hasn’t dimmed with age. At a time when cars are increasingly being painted as evil (they kill, they pollute, they congest), bicycles are winning over new friends. “The bike is an alternative to the car,” says the German Bike Association (ZIV). “More and more politicians are seeing it this way.”

Although the car continues to dominate working life in Germany, with around two-thirds of commuters driving to work, there is a growing willingness to switch to two wheels. According to the country’s statistical office, there are 184 bicycles for every 100 households – but only 105 cars. The number of city dwellers using the bicycle as a means of transport rose by 40 percent between 2000 und 2015.

The trend presents strong business opportunities. The ZIV speaks of a “large market for manufacturers and dealers.” The Freiburg-based JobRad, which rents out bicycles to companies, says it has partnered with more than 3,300 businesses across Germany, making its bicycles available to around a million employees. Larger institutions, such as Deutsche Telekom, Commerzbank and Deutsche Bahn, have long been using company bicycles. This has an attractive financial advantage. Since the end of 2012, employers and employees have been rewarded with tax breaks on bicycles that are provided for both personal and business use.

The bicycle industry is looking forward to a continued run of strong sales.

When it comes to protecting the environment and leading a healthy lifestyle, the bicycle isn’t just a means of transport – it can also be a status symbol and cool new gadget rolled into one. The statistics show that nearly 2 million German households now own an electric bicycle. Businesses are also keen to make the most of the technology, with the rapid growth of so-called e-bikes inspiring the logistics industry to come up with new ideas.

The parcel company DHL, for example, has been trialing the use of cargo bikes in Frankfurt and Utrecht in the Netherlands. The four-wheeled “cubicycles” can carry up to 90 parcels. DHL hopes that as well as helping postal workers hand out their parcels more quickly, the trial will reduce CO2 emissions in the two cities by more than 16 tons a year.

The bicycle industry now wants a cash incentive for e-bikes, along the lines of the “environmental bonus” offered to electric car buyers. In France, the government already pays a subsidy of up to €200, or $213 on electric bicycle purchases. ZIV is proposing €500 in Germany. “Unlike car makers, bicycle manufacturers have found a solution for electromobility,” a ZIV spokesman said. But so far, the German transport ministry – which is rumored to be mulling an e-bike subsidy – has kept its plans quiet. The ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on the matter.

With the first whiff of spring in the air, the bicycle industry is looking forward to a continued run of strong sales. According to initial estimates from ZIV, revenue in 2016 increased on the figure of €2.42 billion the year before, driven by considerable growth in e-bike sales. A very welcome 200th birthday present, indeed!

This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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