Whereas the coronavirus has been disastrous for most forms of human endeavour, cyclists have never had it so good. Lockdowns have brought blissfully empty roads, which have been a boon to even the most reluctant pedaller. Residents of big cities have been feverishly reimagining their lives on a saddle, rather than behind the wheel. This is cycling’s moment, and it could have profound long-term implications for transport policy.
Early in the pandemic governments latched on to cycling as a healthy way for people to move around safely, exercise and keep reasonably sane. Thus in most American states, for instance, cycle-repair shops were allowed to stay open as essential businesses. Italy’s government offers 60% reimbursements, up to a maximum of €500 ($545), to any city-dweller buying a bicycle, or indeed any sort of motorised two-wheeler. City leaders, from Bogotá to Berlin, have helped by turning over their tarmac, or bits of it at least, exclusively to bikes. Milan converted 35km of its roads into cycle lanes and the Big Apple 100 miles (160km) for the use of both pedestrians and cyclists. Oakland, California, closed 119km of road to cars. Cycling has thus become easier, and safer.
Now Western governments are seizing on cycling’s big moment to try to make such temporary measures permanent. Because social distancing is likely to endure for months, or even years, public transport won’t return to normal soon; it may never do so. So the bike will remain an essential tool in many countries’ strategies to taper their lockdowns. As the French environment minister, Elisabeth Borne, put it, “the bicycle is the little queen of deconfinement”; poetry in motion. Paris has been preparing 650km of cycleways to help the city gradually open up.
Politicians hope to persuade people of the virtues of cycling beyond the end of this particular crisis. Cycling has well-advertised, longer-term gains: less pollution and a healthier population. The gains from having fewer cars and lorries on the road are already evident. Global carbon-dioxide emissions in early April fell by 17% compared with the mean 2019 levels, according to a study in Nature Climate Change, and “changes to surface transport” made the largest contribution to the reduction.
National and city governments are fizzing with new, or revamped, schemes. Grant Shapps, Britain’s transport minister, in a speech on May 9th , promised to make “a ‘once in a generation’ change to the way people travel in Britain.” He announced a £2bn investment in more cycling infrastructure and better pavements. Manchester has plans for the country’s “most comprehensive” integrated walking and cycling network. France wants to spend €20m to subsidise cycle training and more parking spaces for bikes. Bologna is bringing forward its plan for a Bicipolitana, 493km of cycle lanes, from 2030 to later this year, when 60% of it should be finished. Seattle plans to shut 20 miles of streets to most cars permanently.
But a two-wheel revolution cannot be taken for granted. Cycling novices in the northern hemisphere have been lucky to enjoy most of the lockdown in fine spring weather; just wait for winter. And some evidence indicates that many people are yearning to get back in their cars, also handy as lockdowns end but social-distancing rules remain. In China, for instance, one survey concluded that the proportion of people who want to use a car would surge from 34% to 66% after lockdown ends; the same survey showed that more Chinese were now keen on buying a car. Other surveys suggest huge drop-offs in enthusiasm for trains and buses.
A country’s legal framework can encourage cycling too. Most European countries, with the notable exceptions of Britain and Ireland, have presumed-liability laws, under which the burden of proof in any collision between a motorist and a cyclist is borne by the driver. Proponents, such as Road Share, a British lobby group, argue that countries with these laws, like Denmark and Germany, enjoy much more, and much safer, cycling than those without, because they encourage motorists to be more cautious.
But turning cities like London or New York into so many Copenhagens will be less of a sprint, more several Tours de France. In the Danish capital over 60% of commuters cycle to work (or study). The figure is in the low single digits in most American cities. But at least for now cyclists around the world can demand more of their governments, knowing they have a tailwind of public goodwill.
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