The Bicycle: A Vital Tool and Symbol in Times of Crisis

Just as there are few symbols of human resilience and hope in an hour of need as powerful as the bicycle, there are few inventions that become such vital tools in times of crisis — like we’re seeing in the war in Ukraine.

(Be aware that there are graphic photos farther down)

For more than a decade and a half I have worked to re-establish the bicycle as transport in scores of cities around the world, spoken at length at keynotes about the spectacular utility and beauty of the invention and documented its humble usage in tens of thousands of photos. Nevertheless, I am sure to highlight that I am not a cyclist or a member of any cycling sub-culture — I’m just a person who uses a bike to get around.

With THAT said, I will admit that the pure, raw poetry of what is surely one of humankind’s most splendid inventions is something that means a great deal to me. I just don’t bang on about it as much as you might imagine.

If The Bicycle had a curriculum vitæ and showed up at a job interview, it would be quite the event.

“Yeah, so I contributed pretty much single-handedly in the emancipation of women starting back in the late 1800s — essentially for the first time since the Agricultural Revolution. I expanded the mobility radius of the working class around that time, too. Enabling them to travel farther for work and basically propping up economies around the world. It’s wild to think, but I improved the human gene pool, LOL, by enabling men and women to travel farther in search of partners. The American Highway System? You’re welcome — although you humans messed THAT up later. Improving public health? Yeah, I’ve had THAT covered for almost a century and a half. Oh, and hey… I’m right there ready to go in any disaster or war zone…”

All delivered in a matter-of-fact, nonchalant tone punctuated with lots of humble shrugs and nervous laughs. As I wrote in my book Copenhagenize, there has been no invention in human history that has transformed human society so quickly, effectively and positively.

The bicycle just is. It has no regard for race or gender. It has always simply performed its timeless task of providing us with a valuable tool to make our daily lives easier. We take it for granted and that’s okay. But when crisis or disaster strikes, this is when the bicycle becomes an incredibly valuable tool and symbol.

Like most other humans I have been following the tragedy that is the brutal Russian war against Ukraine very closely. Shocked, angry, saddened. In the early days of the invasion, photos emerged of citizens on bikes in the besieged capital.

Above, a Ukrainian is carrying all manner of weaponry on a bike (left). A cyclist goes for a training ride on empty streets surrounded by soldiers and armoured vehicles (centre).

Inevitably in the bike silo on social media, photos did the rounds of Mayor Klitschko of Kyiv (right) and President Volodymyr Zelensky on bikes. The bicycle humanises people in the dark heart of a conflict and we crave to see such imagery. Before the war, Klitschko was often seen on a bicycle riding to work or to meetings in the capital. Indeed, he has recently called for private companies to resume bike rentals to allow citizens to move around the city during the war.

Whenever a celebrity dies, if there is a photo of them on a bike you can be sure it’ll show up in the SoMe feeds that offer a tribute to them.

Bicycles in the Ukrainian war zone

We are now well into the war in Ukraine and the media coverage often features photos of citizens on bikes in the ruins of their cities bombed by Russia. I’ll get into why this is a poignant, recurring theme.

The Bicycle’s Role in War and Disaster Zones

Through the years I have have collected photos showing how the bicycle fulfils a vital role during wartime and disasters.

Nagasaki, Japan. 1945

This is a man carrying goods on a bicycle after the Americans bombed Nagasaki with an atomic bomb in 1945. The bicycle in its inherent role as an integral tool. A functional workhorse and practical transport form. In the case of this man, it assists him in transporting what we can only guess are incredibly important goods that will hopefully ensure his survival. A photographer chose to shoot this photo and publications chose to print it.

We can see photos of people fleeing conflict or disaster on foot, carrying what they can. We can identify with that. What would I bring with me if that was me?

Add a bicycle, however, and it seems to change. The human subject somehow becomes more resilient. They have acquired a vehicle that will help them carry more and travel farther away from the horrors. People with bikes humanise the situation for the viewer.

I have a habit of trying to analyse what photos get the best legs during times of crisis by showing up on multiple platforms after capturing the imagination of a wide variety of photo editors.

Photos from the early days of the invasion in Ukraine showed people trying to navigate bombed bridges as they were fleeing. Some of the most replicated photos on media sites showed people carrying bicycles. It was also the photos of soldiers helping a mother carry a baby carriage across the rubble that were shown around the world. The same applies to that baby carriage as to the bicycle.

It’s the same thought process as classic (perhaps clichéd) photos of a child’s teddy bear or doll in a bombed out setting — but while the teddy bear speaks silent volumes as a still photo, the baby carriage and the bicycle show human determination, movement and a quest for freedom.

Citizens with bicycles in the aftermath of the Japan tsunami in 2011

In the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in 2011, the world was offered photos from the ravaged streets of the cities that were affected. Again, I noticed how many photos featured people with bicycles. Japan is the third most cycling nation in the world, so bikes are ubiquitous in the Japanese urban context, but still they were a primary focus of news photographers — even those from countries where bicycles are no longer mainstream.

In the photo above (right), we can be amazed at the force of a tsunami that tosses around cars like matchsticks, while in the background people are using bikes to get around after the fact.

Post-tsunami photos from Japan

In these photos, the human scale of a person on a bicycle is used as a stark contrast to the huge ship lying on its side (left) and a bicycle jutting out of the mud is chosen as a motif for a quiet, visual moment of reflection of human fragility and the power of disaster— like the teddy bear (right).

On the day of the tsunami, public transport ground to a halt in many cities, including Tokyo. The 20 million daily rail and metro passengers (20% of whom rode a bike to their station of origin that morning) had to scramble to get home and bikes were sold out in the megacity in hours. You simply couldn’t get a bike. I heard about this from friends in the city that I was texting to make sure they were alright, but a number of news outlets reported on this as well.

I am well aware that I have a tendency to geek out about such under-the-radar observations about the bicycle’s role as a tool and the symbolism it projects. There is no rule of thumb for photographers to include a bike when covering wars and disasters. It is merely a relatable, human subject.

In a seemingly endless hour of sorrow and destruction, the bicycle offers hope. In an unfathomably ravaged terrain with the air filled with not only the stench of destruction and death but also the thick, heavy sensation of despair, humans with bikes portray survival, whether they use them to search for loved ones, to gather the remnants of their belongings, to get home to their family in lieu of public transport or cars.

The photos show how timeless the bicycle’s role is in society and how it assists citizens in their darkest hour. An hour that most of us can never imagine.

The bicycle symbolises freedom and resilience.

The aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Concepcion, Chile. At center, a man salvages a valuable bicycle from the ruins

I’ve documented the same photographic focus on bikes in many disasters through the years. After a savage 8.8 earthquake struck the city of Concepcion, Chile in 2010, bikes appeared in the news cycles. Above, a man salvages a bicycle from the ruins (centre). Choosing to save a valuable item for later use. Citizens roll around the city to see the destruction or check up on their homes (left and right).

Bicycles are often the best way to get around when a city has been destroyed.

Aftermath of earthquakes in Concepcion, Chile in 2010 and 1960

Above, we are offered the opportunity to share the awe of the citizen on his bike as he regards the brutal result of the powerful earthquake (left). And history repeats itself. Above, at right, is a man trying to get his bicycle across a shattered bridge in the same city after an earthquake in 1960 (right).

Post-tsunami salvaging in Indonesia in 2004

As another example, many of the photos after the tsunami that devastated Indonesia in 2004 featured the unspoken theme of showing bikes. A man salvaging a bike from the rubble (left) and a mangled bike atop a pile of debris (right).

Post-tsunami photos from Indonesia in 2004

People on a bike photographed to show the contrasting scale of the destruction (left), resilient citizens on bikes and trishaws starting to piece their life together (center) and people regarding the destruction by bike (right).

The bicycle’s role is integral not only in areas stricken by natural catastrophe or war. In the above photo, North Koreans are packing a load of used bicycles at the port in Maizuru, Japan on October 13, 2006 after the Japanese government adopted trade sanctions against North Korea. A response to the the country declaring it had done nuclear testing of a device on October 9, 2006.

The bicycles went off to North Korea to serve their indispensable role — even in a dictatorship . Clearly regarded as important goods to transport back in light of the sanctions.

Bicycles as a Symbol of Death and Destruction (Graphic Photos)

While the primary intention of showing bicycles in war and disaster zones appears to be to offer scale and hope, there is also a contrasting theme. The bicycle plays a poignant role in the storytelling of these photographs, as well, and it’s not always positive. A German bicycle battalion in the Great War going off to kill (left). The iconic photo of the charred remains of a boy and his bicycle in Dresden, Germany after the Allied bombing (right).

The photo above (left) has been widely distributed in the past week after Ukrainian forces re-entered the city of Bucha and discovered the widespread massacre of civilians by Russian soldiers. There are many photos of citizens executed in the street but one of the most shocking was the man who was gunned down as he was riding his bicycle and it was widely distributed.

I have seen a number of such photos from war zones through history, like the boy in Dresden, but also from more recent history, in Sarajevo in the 1990s. A couple lie next to a bicycle in the street after being executed by a sniper (center) and the famous photograph by Annie Liebowitz of the bicycle and bloodstains of a boy who was also killed by a sniper in the city.

The bicycle is freedom and hope and resilience but it is also a stark, ever-human reminder of the horrors of war. They killed him! All he was doing was riding a bike?!

Let us return, shall we, to the bicycle as a positive symbol?

Should We Include Bicycles in Disaster Preparation?

This park transforms into a disaster relief facility in Tokyo

When I was filming the Tokyo episode of my urbanism tv series The Life-Sized City, one segment was about a park that has a dual-purpose. It’s a lovely community park that transforms into a disaster relief area for the locals, who have been instructed to gather here when the earthquake strikes. As ever, Japanese preparedness and design thinking is an inspiration.

There is a warehouse next to the park with all the necessities for surviving the the aftermath of the earthquake and this is pretty standard around Japan. But what about providing bikes as well? A small fleet of bikes with utilitarian baskets and maybe trailers for post-disaster use? A municipal bike hub?

Although maybe it isn’t necessary since historically, bicycles have had a habit of appearing when they’re needed most, salvaged by citizens who instinctively know their worth.

In Portland, Oregon, USA, they are way ahead of the curve regarding using bicycles in disaster mitigation. For more than a decade they have performed Disaster Relief Drills featuring cargo bikes. If an earthquake or tsunami strikes, citizens are preparing themselves for how to tackle the humanitarian needs afterwards and bikes are the key. This should be standard disaster preparation policy around the world.

No bikes in Copenhagen after The Rain? Lol.

While Portland gets it and citizens in war-torn cities or disaster zones intuitively figure it out in a hurry, the entertainment industry often lacks the same imagination. When the Danish Netflix series The Rain premiered in 2018, a post-apocalyptic Copenhagen was shown. When you live here, it was wild to see your city reimagined as a disaster area.

It was, however, comical to see the few survivors wandering around on foot. C’mon, man. This is a city with more bikes than humans AND with over 50,000 cargo bikes. Survivors wouldn’t be walking or pushing shopping carts. The main group of characters wouldn’t schlep to Sweden. EVERYBODY would be on bikes in order to carry valuable stuff or to escape quickly from external threats.

It’s hilarious to think that the Danish writers and producers didn’t even consider this reality considering they live here. Other disaster films often feature bikes, though. Not on the scale that would be realistic based on what we see in ACTUAL disaster zones, but still. Above, King Christian X of Denmark liked to irritate the German occupiers during World War Tour by taking a ride around Copenhagen. He was guarded voluntarily by a fleet of cargo bikes ridden by the city’s bike messengers (left). The over 50,000 cargo bikes in Copenhagen would be just as indispensable in the event of disaster as they are today (right).

After the bombs in Ukraine. After the tsunami in Japan.

News photographers with their human eye sub-consciously focus on bicycles in ravaged areas, photo editors select these photos for distribution and we the viewers see them and use them to sense the situation.

Despite the unspeakable horrors of war and the destructive nature of disasters, I find solace and poetry in the way the bicycle remains a valuable tool and a symbol of hope, resilience and freedom, as well as representing the human-scale of tragedy.

Long live the bicycle and whatever small roles it can play when we need it the most.

Vintage Ukraina/Україна bicycles

On a vaguely related note, when I was living in Moscow in the early 1990s, I rode around on a vintage Ukraina/Україна bicycle and I’ve loved them ever since. They were the most popular brand in the Soviet Union and were exported to over 30 countries. The Leitner bicycle factory was moved to Kharkiv from Riga during World War 1 and it was nationalised after the October Revolution. Over 30 million were made. Awesome bikes.

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