photo: a bicycle rider wearing a mask in London
With the U.K. under lockdown, bicycles continue to provide essential transportation. Daniel Leal Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

In a Global Health Emergency, the Bicycle Shines

As the coronavirus crisis forces changes in transportation, some cities are building bike lanes and protecting cycling shops. Here’s why that makes sense.

Speaking in Parliament in London earlier this year, Chris Boardman, the former Olympian cyclist and the walking and cycling commissioner of Manchester, said: “Pick a crisis, and you’ll probably find cycling is a solution.”

He was talking about climate, health and air pollution, but he also might as well have been talking about coronavirus.

As Covid-19 rages, almost half of the world’s population is under some form of restricted movement. In a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus, people must stay home, aside from strictly limited essential trips for food and medicine and a daily outing for exercise. We all need to comply with restrictions to bring this life-threatening virus under control. I believe the best way to keep a safe distance from others when we do move is by walking, and cycling.

Many experts view cycling as a safe way to avoid crowded public transportation systems — and the citizens in a number of world cities appear to agree. In New York, cycling spiked by 52% over the city’s bridges after social-distancing protocols were put in place. In Chicago, bikeshare use doubled in early March. In Dublin and London, advocates are offering support to new riders who are taking to the streets in droves.

Cycling can help communities in “food deserts” access shops that are farther than a walk away. It speeds the delivery of food and medicine for households without a car, or those who are quarantined at home. And it helps people avoid car trips, cutting air pollution and freeing up public transit for those who absolutely need it.

To protect people doing essential trips — including medical staff, who need to get to work — networks of emergency cycleways could be built quickly and cheaply, using easy-to-install temporary bollards and wands, as the city of Seville once did. Low-traffic neighborhoods can connect those routes, stopping shortcutting drivers using residential streets with low-tech planters and bollards, while allowing residents in and out by bike. During the crisis, and as society recovers, this network could keep residents active and healthy, where local restrictions permit. It would also be free to use — more valuable than ever amid a global economic disruption. Once we reach the other side, communities could decide whether to keep the new infrastructure or not.

This is hardly the first time that cities have used cycling as an emergency transportation solution. The usefulness of bicycles in disaster recovery was demonstrated anew after severe earthquakes in Mexico City in 2017 and Tokyo in 2011. A broader global crisis — the 1973 OPEC oil embargo — offered another opportunity for bicycles to step up. That shock to the gasoline supply dealt a severe blow to daily life in the U.S. and many car-dependent Western European nations. But in the Netherlands, where the country’s own mid-century car boom had driven up road fatalities and stoked widespread public protests, it helped trigger a transport revolution. The Dutch government enacted a mass program of cycle track construction that continues to this day. Now, nearly 30% of all trips nationwide happen on a bike, and cities are even connected by bicycle “superhighways.”

As with the oil crisis, city leaders around the world have responded in different ways to keep people moving during the coronavirus emergency. It is heartening to see many governments recognizing and uplifting the value of the bike: Bogotá, Colombia, is installing tens of kilometers of emergency cycleways to keep people moving while enhancing social distancing. The mayor, Claudia López, described cycling as “one of the most hygienic alternatives for the prevention of the virus.” Mexico City is now considering a similar plan. In the U.S., New York City leaders are looking at ways to accommodate new riders, and say they will build two emergency bicycle lanes to plug gaps in the network.

And even if they are not building new infrastructure, other places are protecting the right to cycle. Last week, Germany's Federal Minister of Health, Jens Spahn, recommended that people walk or cycle to work rather than use public transport as states around the country impose lockdowns. Amsterdam residents, already avid cyclists, are being encouraged to ride to stay healthy while public gatherings are banned and social distancing orders are in place. In London, the city’s bikeshare system is now free for health workers to use. And in New York, San Francisco, Berlin, and across the U.K., bike shops have been allowed to stay open as essential services — but not so everywhere else.

Alas, not all nations are in the same lane. France and Spain, two European nations worst hit by coronavirus, are in the latter camp, having banned recreational cycling in attempts to contain the virus’s spread. In France, people are restricted to within two kilometers of home for exercise, and it is not clear whether cycling for essential trips is permitted. In Italy, only cycling for essential trips is permitted, and for physical activity, so long as people stay one meter apart. In Spain, riders flouting leisure cycling bans have been fined.

That is why, prior to the U.K.’s lockdown, more than 80 experts in transportation and public health signed a letter asking the U.K. government to allow safe walking and cycling to continue during the pandemic. “Confinement, sometimes in overcrowded accommodation with little or no private green space, and particularly during times of anxiety has health risks,” their letter states, adding that green spaces should be kept open for walking and cycling, to allow for exercise and the psychological benefits that accompany it. For trips such as shopping, and for those critical workers who still need to commute, walking and cycling should be supported. “We call on decision makers to protect the right to walk and cycle safely (from risk of infection and traffic injury) for those who are not symptomatic.”

Cycleways and pedestrian routes make transport more resilient, and fairer. They are immune to oil prices, and quite resilient to extreme weather and viruses. They don’t discriminate by income, gender or race. They make infinitely more sense than streets lined with public-subsidized private car parking. What’s more, without them we have little hope of tackling the other global crisis in our midst: climate change.

There could be something positive to come out of the tragedy of this pandemic — a means of transforming the way we travel, cleaning up our air, improving our health and tackling the climate crisis. It is our opportunity to take.

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