Health and Healthcare Systems

Could the pandemic usher in a golden age of cycling?

A worker paints a sign representing a cyclist on a new cycling path in Vincennes near Paris prior to the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, May 2020.

Europe's governments are ploughing millions into pop-up 'corona cycleways'. Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau

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Europe is seeing a rise in schemes to support cycling, as governments look to protect their public transport systems, boost public health and capitalize on clean-air gains as they take their first steps out of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Milan are among the major European cities rolling out both permanent infrastructure and pop-up ‘corona cycleways’, in a wave of investment that includes free bicycle repairs and even cycling lessons.

The initiatives come as Prime Minister Boris Johnson urges Brits to consider hopping in the saddle as they begin a phased return to work. Polling reveals that 57% of his compatriots plan to reduce their public transport usage due to fear of illness.

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And as research emerges linking air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates, many authorities are seizing the opportunity to remake civic life in a healthier image.

Leading the peloton is France, which has earmarked €20 million ($21.7 million) to get people pedalling. Minister for Ecological Transition Élisabeth Borne said she wants to see a “step forward in cycling culture” in the country. Her package makes all citizens eligible for free bike repairs of up to €50 at nominated outlets, as well as free training and more temporary bike parking spots.

The news comes as France starts to ease what has been one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns, with residents in one of the country’s low-risk ‘green zones’ now able to travel up to 100km, meet in groups of up to 10 people, and exercise outside for longer than one hour.

Local governments across the country are being urged to create new lanes to boost uptake in a country where 60% of car journeys are less than 5km. Paris – which lies in a ‘red zone’, where restrictions remain – plans to provide the city’s cyclists with 650km of bike lanes, while Mayor Anne Hidalgo has introduced a partial traffic ban on the busy Rue de Rivoli to make space for pedestrians and cyclists.

A man wearing a protective face mask cycles down the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, 5 May 2020.
A man wearing a protective face mask cycles down the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
Gearing up for change

World Health Organization guidance recommends both cycling and walking as an ideal way to meet physical exercise requirements in lockdown. Some cities with an established cycling culture, such as Amsterdam, are working to accommodate the increase in physical activity within social distancing rules. The Dutch capital – where 40% of journeys are made by bike, compared with a 2% average across Britain – is allowing pedestrians to spread out over cycle lanes, and is shifting bikes to the road, where cars are now obliged to observe a reduced 30kph speed limit.

German cities have been using removable tape and temporary signage to create wider bike lanes that allow cyclists to comply with social distancing. The pop-up lanes are created by narrowing existing car traffic lanes. After they were a success in bike-loving Berlin – where they didn’t slow car traffic unduly – they are due to be rolled out in more than 100 German cities.

Germany has permitted bike repair services to remain open across the country throughout lockdown. Three states, including Berlin, have kept bike vendors open, too. Helpful public safety messages include guidance on how far behind another rider constitutes a socially distanced cycle (the answer, it seems, is 20 metres).

Image: Statista

Over in Westminster, the British government has announced a £250 million ($307 million) emergency active travel fund that will see pop-up bike lanes, protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions and cycle corridors introduced across England. Last month, the Scottish government announced a similar £10 million boost for “active travel infrastructure” that will include provision for cyclists.

The news comes as UK cycle sales shift up a gear: the BBC reports a 200% boom in use the cycle-to-work scheme. Shares in bike vendor Halfords have risen 23% amid reports of “very strong” sales, while in Britain alone, sales of VanMoof electric bikes jumped 184% between early February and the end of April.

Milan: from worst-hit to model city

The Italian city of Milan is seizing the chance to remake its cycling infrastructure with both hands, the Guardian reports.

The average commute in this small, densely populated city – capital of the hard-hit region of Lombardy – is less than 4km. This suggests that large numbers of people could easily switch to cycling and help make the city's previously high pollution levels a thing of the past.

To encourage this, the city has unveiled its Strade Aperte (“Open Roads”) plan, which will see 35km of extra cycling and walking provisions, including temporary bike lanes, a 30kph speed limit and whole streets given over to pedestrians and cyclists.

With Italy a month ahead of much of the West in dealing with the pandemic, other densely populated cities will be watching with interest as it seeks to change habits and preserve green gains.

Deputy Mayor of Milan Marco Granelli told the Guardian: “Of course, we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before”.

The list of cities across Europe prioritising the needs of cyclists goes on. Rome is planning to roll out 150km of bike lanes as it moves into phase two of lockdown withdrawal. Barcelona has removed parking from 21km of city streets to make space for cyclists. Budapest has created temporary cycle lanes and lowered the price of BuBi, the municipal bike-sharing scheme. Leicester, in the UK, has established a temporary bike lane to a local hospital as a “keyworkers’ corridor”, while Greater Manchester has set aside £5 million for pop-up cycleways and widened pavements.

As the pandemic rages on, bikes remain a safe way to maintain your physical and mental health and – if permitted – commute to work. Thanks to the provisions of these forward-looking governments, cycling is getting safer all the time.

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