The Bicycle and the Future of Mobility

Past Exhibition

In an era marked by rapid urbanisation and growing environmental concerns, the intersection of mobility and sustainability has become a major focus for shaping a greener tomorrow. The Bicycle and the Future of Mobility invites visitors to consider the fundamental question: how will we move in the future?

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This exhibition focuses its attention on the bicycle: the 200-year-old technological innovation that kickstarted the development of virtually all powered mobility, and might very well hold a key to its future.

The exhibition includes a number of sections that explore the bicycle’s growth from “horse replacement” to “horseless carriage”, the variety of technological innovations and material developments across its history, and the many ways in which those innovations were expressed.

The exhibition concludes with a section that sheds light on the transition towards sustainable modes of transportation in Qatar, and our responsibility to make that happen. Focusing on present-day solutions such as electric micro-mobility vehicles, and public transportation, it invites visitors to think creatively and imagine the future of mobility in the country.

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Colnago C35, Italy, ca. 1989, Materials: Carbon Fiber, Steel, Rubber, Leather, Property of Qatar Museums.

From Bicycles to Cars and Beyond

Ironically, the bicycle story has its origins in a climate crisis: the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia led to drastic reductions in global temperatures, crop failures, and the death of livestock – including horses – across Europe. Karl Drais, a German engineer, saw his invention, the “laufsmachine” or “running machine”, as a vehicle to replace them. Considered a failure at the time, his idea went on to inspire countless technological, social, and urban developments.

Experts today consider the invention of the bicycle more important to the development of the automobile than the invention of the internal-combustion engine. Many of the material and production technologies that came to be used for automobiles originated with the bicycle. Chain-and-sprocket drive, pneumatic tires, ball bearings, tension-spoke wheels, advanced metal-stamping techniques, and brazed tube construction all owe a great deal to the bicycle industry that boomed in the 1880s.

Early bicycle mechanics did not just turn into car manufacturers such as GMC, Ford, Rolls-Royce, and Rover, but also into aircraft developers such as the Wright Brothers, The American aviation pioneers who invented, built, and flew the first successful, motor-powered aeroplane.

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Manufrance Hirondelle Superbe, France, ca. 1890, Materials: Steel, Rubber, Leather, Property of Qatar Museums.

Playground of Technology and Engineering

The bicycle’s intimate connection to riders, coupled with its simplicity, has led to countless technological developments, across many different vehicles. From drivetrains to materials, cars to planes, bicycles have been driving innovation since the early 1800s.

From the very beginning, the desire to make models that appealed to a wide range of riders led to improvements in efficiency and comfort. Inclusivity has always been at the forefront of bicycle design, and accommodating for women’s fashion in the Victorian age meant dealing with a lot of skirts. Step-through frames and shaft-drive powertrains meant easy mounting and dismounting with no chain to worry about. All of that sounds just as good today as it did back then.

From pneumatic tires and suspensions to smooth out the ride, drivetrain improvements to aid in speed and reduce effort, and materials to lighten the load, bicycles have consistently shown us the way forward.

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Manufrance Hirondelle Superbe, France, ca. 1890, Materials: Steel, Rubber, Leather, Property of Qatar Museums.

Thinking Outside the Diamond

The history of the bicycle takes us back more than two centuries, and yet many of these ancient machines look, at first glance, like they could be found in use today – how is that? The reason is that it took only a few decades for the now-common diamond-shaped frame to appear. And it has been tough to improve upon it.

Created in the 1880s, the design exploits an innate simplicity that required fewer parts and fewer joints, combined with the strength of triangles. This basic formula has been executed in a wide range of materials – from wood to titanium to carbon fibre, and everything in between.

Throughout this period of time, as with every industry, there have been those who march to the beat of a different drummer, who see things differently. In this section of the installation, we celebrate those who drew outside the lines that defined most bicycles. From curves to quads to Xs and Ws, bicycles have always presented an opportunity to question the status quo.

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Bomard Industries Spacelander, USA, 1960, Materials: Fibreglass, Chrome-Plated Steel, Leather, Rubber, Property of Qatar Museums.

Bicycles Go to Work

Bicycles were initially created as a working tool – how does one cover lots of agricultural property without a horse? – though today they are seen in many places primarily as a recreational vehicle. Their utility is often advertised more as a health benefit than anything else – “ride to work, live longer!” Remarkably, this is even true for electric bicycle manufacturers.

An interesting early job for bicycles was catching other bicycles. In the mid-1890s, major American cities’ police departments had bicycle patrols to catch “scorchers”, the term at the time for rogue, speeding cyclists. Otherwise, bicycles allowed police to cover more ground, and respond to disturbances more quickly.

Bicycles also factored into the conflicts at the turn of the century. Beginning with scouts and messengers in the late 1800s and expanding through the World Wars, armies developed folding frames that could be transported by soldiers when necessary, but were also capable of carrying weapons and munitions over longer distances.

Folding bicycles, as well as lightweight and powered types, are now promoted extensively as the next generation commuter vehicle. They are indeed a healthier – as well as less-polluting, quieter, and more space effective – solution to urban mobility.

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Bomard Industries Spacelander, USA, 1960, Materials: Fibreglass, Chrome-Plated Steel, Leather, Rubber, Property of Qatar Museums.

A Bicycle Built for Two (or more)

In the late 19th Century, when bicycle production had matured, the creation of bicycles for more than one rider soon followed. The most common was the Tandem, which put two or more riders front-to-back in between two wheels. There were also Sociables, which put riders side-by-side between those two wheels, and innumerable configurations that sat multiple riders on multiple wheels. The point was to go places together.

As this was the Victorian Era, “propriety” drove the design process: men would never be seen with their back to a woman, so the women sat in the front. The frame would have a step-through accommodation for her skirt, but that was as much deference as she would be afforded: the man would have control of the steering. The large hats worn then also caused problems; but rather than give women the ability to steer, they simply agreed that they should sit in the back.

Despite this, Susan B. Anthony, the American social reformer, said of the bicycle, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Women could be independently mobile with relative ease, for the first time.

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Tino Sana Wood Bike, Italy, ca. 2008, Materials: Ash, Beech, Steel, Leather, Rubber, Property of Qatar Museums.

Better, Faster, Stronger – The Sport of Cycling

Humans are forever focused on improving themselves, on being the fastest, on being the best. Bicycles presented yet another opportunity to prove their abilities: almost as soon as they were invented, people started racing them.

Starting with races from city to city, and later encompassing entire countries, European bicycle racing took off at the turn of the 20th Century. The infamous Paris to Roubaix race, with its punishing cobblestones, was inaugurated in 1896: it has been run 120 times since then, stopping only for World Wars. A few years later, in 1903, the Tour de France brought the whole of France to be a part of the course.

Racing drove the popularity of cycling, and the development of ever faster bicycles. Lightweight frames and components, greater durability, and ever-increasing mechanical efficiency have taken riders further, faster as the years have gone by. Large teams analyse every component and every angle – including the rider’s - in wind tunnels, hoping to shave seconds off their times. In just a few decades, the weight of a champion’s bicycle has been cut in half, and their speed has increased by around 10%.

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Tino Sana Wood Bike, Italy, ca. 2008, Materials: Ash, Beech, Steel, Leather, Rubber, Property of Qatar Museums.

Futures from the Past

Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the automobile self-starter, once said, “My interest is in the future, because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” Every generation attempts to envision a future style, one that announces loudly and clearly that they are looking far beyond our current ideas and technologies. Cycling is no different.

Born at the time of the Industrial Revolution, bicycles brought technology down to a human scale – both in terms of possession and operation. The average person on the street couldn’t have a rocket ship, but they could have a bicycle that looked like it could take off. And it made the rider feel like they were taking off.

From shapes to materials to the latest technologies, bicycles have often sought to transport their riders both forward down the street, and straight into the future.

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Tino Sana Wood Bike, Italy, ca. 2008, Materials: Ash, Beech, Steel, Leather, Rubber, Property of Qatar Museums

Materials in Motion

Much has been discussed about the simplicity of frame design, and the constraint of those shapes has led to a phenomenal amount of materials exploration. As virtually any material can adopt the simple form of a straight pole, the options are limitless.

From the almost architectural wooden beams of early bicycles to the plumbing-like pipes of the first mass-produced models, early machines seemed more constructed than designed. Some of the initial models weighed about as much as a couch, and materials were brought to bear in removing that bulk. Bamboo, which is basically a natural tube, was utilised as early as 1894: significantly lighter than steel, almost as strong, but much more expensive. It didn’t catch on.

In more recent years, the steel has become lighter through alloying and manufacturing improvements, and given way to even lighter aluminium and titanium. Wood can be found in straight gauge, fantastical shapes, and on virtually every component. Finally, carbon fibre composites allow for unlimited shapes and spindly lines – all while providing the stiffest frames with the lightest weights.

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Bianchi Model 1912, Italy, ca. 1916, Steel, Rubber, Leather, Property of Qatar Museums.

Bike to the Future: The Transition Towards Sustainable Mobility in Qatar

The transportation sector is still the fastest-growing contributor to global pollution. According to the International Energy Agency, it accounted for 23% of global CO2 emissions in 2022, up 3% from the year before. Therefore, countries are increasingly moving towards more environmentally friendly transportation systems, where bicycles and e-bikes are taking a more central role.

In Qatar, this transition has already started with significant investments in green public transportation and infrastructure projects. Both Qatar’s National Environment and Climate Change Strategy and the Transportation Master Plan for Qatar 2050 are set to ensure an integrated, world-class, and multimodal transportation system that offers safe, reliable, inclusive, and eco-friendly transport services. Infrastructure for pedestrians and bicycles constitutes a key element in both of these plans. An interesting example to mention is the Olympic Cycling Track opened on the National Sport Day 2020, which achieved a Guinness World Record title for the world’s longest continuous cycle path (33 km long and 7 metres width) in September 2020.

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Dursley Pedersen Roadster, England, ca. 1905, Materials: Steel, Rubber, Leather, Property of Qatar Museums.

Let’s Imagine the Future of Mobility in Qatar

Bicycles, e-bikes, autonomous cars, flying taxis, vehicles operating with alternative fuel sources (such as hydrogen and battery electric), cargo drones, and hyperloop systems are all being considered and tested as options for the future of transportation in several cities around the World.

How will the future of mobility look like in Qatar? How can we make our mobility more environmentally friendly? How will we move in the future and what will move us?