Can the coronavirus start a cycling revolution?

Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson told British citizens to return to work if they couldn’t work from home, and he added something that will strike fear into campaigners for sustainability: avoid public transport. It’s good advice and I agree with it, but it does raise important questions for the future.

How long are we going to have to avoid public transport? If public transport operates with the reduced capacity of social distancing, will people who currently use it switch to cars? How embedded will that habit become if social distancing lasts for a while? After all the benefits of low traffic and cleaner air, will reopening the economy mean even more traffic and pollution than before?

Indeed, traffic in Wuhan has soared as people returned to work but stayed off public transport. Can we avoid that phenomenon elsewhere?

Fortunately, the government is hoping to mitigate this public transport shortfall by supporting active transport. At the weekend the Transport Secretary was talking about a £2 billion spend on walking and cycling, hoping to capitalise on the increase in active transport that we have seen in recent weeks.

  • One measure will be to quickly create more space on the roads for pedestrians and cyclists. Councils will fast-track cycle lane construction, and create temporary lanes too. Some streets will be closed to traffic.
  • Similar to ideas announced in France last week, the government is proposing bike repair vouchers to encourage people to fix up their bikes and start using them again.
  • There will also be more government leadership on active transport in the form of a cycling commissioner, longer term budgeting, and a national strategy in the summer.

This is all very positive, and it builds on some earlier hints that the government might be taking a different tack on sustainable transport, after years of neglect.

Britain isn’t alone in using the Coronavirus to change the way people travel. Several European cities, including Brussels and Berlin, have announced new cycling infrastructure and traffic restrictions. Paris plans an impressive 650 kilometres of bike lanes to ease post-lockdown transport. Stuttgart has released a bike navigation app to help citizens plan routes across the city. Budapest is creating a city-wide bike network, with the option of keeping it open after the lockdown if it proves popular. Milan has already announced that it plans to fundamentally reorganise its street space over the summer, to permanently reset transport around biking and walking.

Across the Atlantic, several US cities with bike schemes have made them free, such as Chicago, Austin and Detroit. (Others have suspended them instead to avoid the costs of cleaning them regularly). Citi Bike in New York City has announced plans to expand into new areas, increase the number of bikes and ensure that hospitals are well served. Temporary cycling lanes have been springing up, and many places have designated bike shops to be essential and exempt from the shutdown. San Diego is among those experimenting with ‘slow streets‘, where traffic is reduced or halted in favour of cycling and walking.

Further afield, Uganda banned cars from Kampala during its lockdown, but allowed bikes. Micro-loans are being arranged in Argentina to help people by bikes. Lima is building 301 kilometres of bike lanes and subsidising bike sales.

So far much of this support for cycling is quick and improvised, aimed at keeping people off public transport while it is below capacity. Most cycle lanes being added are temporary. How much of it survives and becomes part of the city long term remains to be seen, though it is interesting to see places like Milan make a deliberate effort at transformation.

Will it stick here in Britain? Hard to say, but we have a Prime Minister who is an enthusiastic cyclist and did much to promote it when mayor of London. You can lobby your local authority to get involved through Living Streets, and there are positive signs from the Transport Secretary Grant Schapps: “As we look to the future”, he said last week, “we must build a better country with greener travel habits, cleaner air and healthier communities.”

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