Cycling in the Heat: Overcoming Challenges and Promoting Sustainable Mobility

By |2023-11-08T14:53:13+01:00October 5th 2023|Sustainable Infrastructure|

Hot weather conditions can discourage urban dwellers from biking. Mathias Merforth introduces inspiring city approaches that promote cycling despite the obstacles faced. Join the ride!

As temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more frequent due to climate change, cycling in hot climates poses a unique set of challenges. Just as extremely cold weather can deter cyclists, scorching heatwaves can also discourage individuals from hopping on their bikes. However, cities around the world are proving that cycling can remain a viable and rational choice even in the face of adverse weather conditions.

Challenges of Summer Cycling

The physical, infrastructural, and urban challenges of summer cycling are manifold. Cyclists grapple with the physical strain of exertion in high temperatures, enduring profuse sweating, dehydration, increased heart rates, stress on the body, sunburns, and heat strokes. These hurdles, reminiscent of the challenges faced by ‘winter cyclists’, can dissuade individuals from pedalling during the summer months.

Infrastructure also plays a crucial role in facilitating or hindering summer cycling. Insufficient urban greening and shade pose significant issues, as do the lack of green and blue infrastructure such as permeable surfaces, water infiltration areas or urban greenery. In addition to that, cycling paths are often not adequately separated from vehicular traffic. Hence, cyclists find themselves not only exposed to the harsh rays of the sun, but to noxious exhaust fumes and uncomfortably sticky roads. Beyond that, the absence of showering, changing, and storage facilities in offices and buildings further discourages bike commuting. The built environment exacerbates these challenges through the urban heat island effect, where heat-absorbing pavements and buildings replace natural land cover, leading to higher temperatures in dense urban areas. Dust, eye and throat irritation, and an overall unpleasant environment further dissuade cyclists. The cumulative effect of these unfavourable conditions poses significant hurdles to summer cycling, particularly for longer distances.

Promoting Cycling in Hot Climates: Singapore, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Seville

Despite these obstacles, cities across the globe have demonstrated that weather alone does not need to dictate the quality of the cycling experience. In Singapore, for instance, plans are underway to construct 700 kilometres of new bike lanes by 2030. These intra-town cycling paths, many of which will traverse shaded parks, aim to cater to both recreational cyclists and short commutes. With approximately half of these lanes already built, Singapore is also ramping up efforts to provide shower and changing facilities in office buildings, encouraging more office workers to embrace cycling.

Aerial view of a large, well-signposted bike lane

Design study for cycling infrastructure in Ang Mo Kio (Singapore) © Singapore Land Transport Authority

Los Angeles, where summer temperatures lately reached maximum values of a scorching 40°C or higher, has prioritised cooling the city as a core objective. The city council aims to reduce average temperatures by 1.7°C by 2025 and by an ambitious 3°C by 2035. To achieve this, Los Angeles is increasing its green cover and implementing innovative cooling surfaces on streets and cycle lanes. These surfaces boast higher reflective coatings and, in some cases, cooling materials, effectively minimising the heat radiating from concrete surfaces. The introduction of sun-reflecting coating (a water-based asphalt emulsion sealcoat) in a lighter colour, holds promise in countering the urban heat island effect.

Mexico City, while generally enjoying a temperate climate, faces unique challenges due to the urban heat island effect, altitude, and air pollution. Over the past 15 years, the city has made substantial efforts to develop cycling infrastructure and expand bike-sharing services. During the pandemic, the installation of temporary pop-up bike lanes resulted in a remarkable increase of up to 275 per cent in daily bike trips. Many of these lanes have now become permanent fixtures and were strategically positioned along main avenues with existing tree cover. Moreover, Mexico City closes Avenida Reforma, one of its largest road spaces, to cars every Sunday, making it exclusively accessible to cyclists, pedestrians, and other non-motorised forms of transport.

Seville, located in the scorching south of Spain, offers another example of successful urban cycling in hot climates. Just a few years ago, cycling accounted for a meagre 0.5 per cent of trips. However, the construction of segregated bike lanes, informed by resident polls on cycling needs, has resulted in an exponential increase in the number of cyclists. The conversion of car parking spaces into well-connected bike lanes has been crucial in encouraging residents to embrace cycling as their preferred mode of transportation. Presently, Seville witnesses a staggering 70,000 bike trips per day (up to a mere eleven times more than before), transforming the city’s transportation landscape.

Demystifying Heat as a Barrier to Cycling

Evidently, creating an attractive cycling environment in tropical or hot climates hinges more on providing the right infrastructure than on uncontrollable weather factors. A study highlights that local climate and weather conditions are less inhibiting for city dwellers accustomed to their respective climates. Instead, their dissatisfaction stems from a lack of essential infrastructure such as a lack of showers in office buildings, or the absence of bike lanes and bike-sharing schemes. By adopting cycling models akin to those employed in temperate climates, cities can foster the growth of cycling cultures even in challenging weather conditions.

Furthermore, e-bikes offer a less physically demanding alternative, appealing to individuals who may shy away from exertion in high temperatures. Forward-thinking companies in cities like San Francisco have already begun providing employees with vouchers for free bikes or e-bikes, accompanied by charging stations and secure bike parking facilities.

A young Black man cycling along a wide sidewalk

A student cyclist riding along a wide protected sidewalk with tree cover in Lagos (Nigeria) © GIZ TUMI

What Can We Learn from These Real-life Examples?

Priority 1 – Providing Information

Cyclists can benefit from practical advice tailored to hot weather cycling. Recommendations for cycling in hot weather conditions involve adapting equipment – wearing lightweight, long-sleeved clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses, and incorporating water bottle holders on bikes – which can significantly enhance the cycling experience. Additionally, opportunities for multimodal trip combinations – bike share and parking schemes, as well as high-quality public transport support users in cycling at least one way or a part of the trip – while boarding a climatised bus or rail service on the way back or for the remaining kilometres, should be promoted.

Priority 2 – A User-centric Approach

Polling the public on route preferences and cycling patterns can guide planning decisions when designing cycling infrastructure, roads, and public spaces. This data-focused approach places the user at the heart of the decision-making process, enabling planners to understand why certain cycling corridors are more attractive than others. For instance, cyclists tend to naturally choose cooler times of the day and shaded routes for their rides. This might not necessarily be the shortest or most rapid way. Moreover, surveys and data analysis will help to identify routes with less climate-related stress factors.

Priority 3 – Urban Planning

Embracing mixed-land-use development represents a cost-effective strategy to encourage walking and cycling. This approach involves avoiding the construction of major points of interest, like shopping malls, and outside built-up areas, as they necessitate car access and detrimentally impact smaller, decentralised businesses. Furthermore, reducing travel distances is a game-changer. Long-term goals should include making most urban amenities accessible within a 5-minute bicycle ride or a 15-minute walk. By creating compact, walkable, and bike-friendly neighbourhoods, active modes of transportation become the preferred choice regardless of the weather conditions.

Adaptation strategies to cope with climate change such as Urban Heat Plans may address the challenges of cycling in the heat, underscoring the city’s responsibility to create a conducive cycling environment irrespective of weather conditions.

Priority 4 – Adapting Road Infrastructure to Reduce Climate Stress for Cyclists

Integrating climate adaptation into cycling projects presents a practical and cost-effective opportunity to enhance a city’s resilience. Constructing and upgrading cycling infrastructure can simultaneously improve a city’s permeability, reduce flooding risks, and contribute to the concept of a “sponge city.” Moreover, expanding tree coverage not only benefits cyclists by providing shade but also mitigates the urban heat island effect and supports biodiversity.

Infrastructure adaptations are crucial to make cycling more attractive in hot climates. This involves planting trees, installing drinking stations, and providing shade near bike parking and rental facilities. In addition, using pavement coats with higher solar reflection properties, reducing sun exposure through priority signalling, as well as offering facilities for washing, changing, and storing clothes can significantly improve the cycling experience even in warmer weather.

A woman talking to a man on a bike

A cyclist being surveyed in León, Guanajuato (Mexico) © GIZ CiClim

In conclusion, adequate cycling infrastructure plays a vital role in promoting cycling in high temperatures, just as it does in more temperate climates. By implementing these priorities, cities can overcome the challenges of summer cycling, create attractive cycling environments, and promote sustainable mobility regardless of the weather conditions.

Mathias Merforth