Cities champion cycling to head off traffic as COVID-19 restrictions ease

As cities start to gradually lift lockdowns, some are looking to extend temporary measures that support cyclists and discourage crowding in public transport, while preventing anticipated surges in car use.

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A recently installed bike bath on Rue de Rivoli, Paris. Photo: Ville de Paris

Just two months ago, when cases of COVID-19 began to take off around the world, commuters in many cities, afraid of travelling in tightly-packed metro trains and buses, turned to bicycles to get around— their own, but also those in bike share programmes, which soared in popularity practically overnight.

City authorities responded swiftly with temporary bike lanes, free bike share programmes or installing more capacity, and even allowing basic bike maintenance services to remain open as lockdowns swept across the world.

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Bike sharing in Milan. Photo:Comune di Milano

But as cities start to focus on exit plans for easing off lockdowns, some mayors are looking to make the changes more permanent, to help take the load off public transport as safe distancing measures continue, while discouraging those still wary of public transit from rushing back onto roads again.

“We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops,” a 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,” he said.

His city, the capital of Lombardy — one of the regions hardest hit in Europe by Covid-19 — and Italy’s financial capital, is set to transform 35 kilometres (22 miles) of streets to favour cyclists and pedestrians, as the city eases off a strict nationwide lockdown and businesses gradually restart.

Under the Strade Aperte (“Open Streets”) plan, work on low-cost temporary bicycle lanes, widened pavements, reduced speed limits (30 km/h; 20mph), and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets should be in full swing by summertime.

In this “phase 2” of easing off the lockdown, metro services are expected to run at 30 per cent, to allow for safe distancing, which brings its capacity to move passengers down from 1.4 million to 400,000 per day.

With 55 per cent of Milanese using public transport daily (before the pandemic, at least), the government fears that this would mean more traffic in a city nestled in a region that breathed some of Europe’s most polluted air, a good proportion of it from traffic. Under lockdown, traffic congestion fell dramatically, taking air pollution down with it, the contrast was stark.

"We cannot think of this meaning a million more cars on the road," Milan transport councillor Marco Granelli told Radio Lombardy, according to CityLab.

"To avoid this, we will have to strengthen two-wheeled transport. This is why we're putting in place an extraordinary plan to create new cycle paths," he said.

Granelli said that the City was "preparing documents and plans to add about 35 kilometres of new cycle routes to the little more than 200 already existing”.

In any case, Milan’s circumstances made it a good candidate for the switch: it’s small, densely-populated and the average trip made in the city is less than 4 kilometres.

Paris reserves 50 kilometres of road for bikes, dangles carrot to attract cyclists

Paris is another major city whose preparations for gradual lifting of nationwide restrictions (from 11 May) include changes to nudge citizens in the direction of active transport.

Much like Milan, the City of Light hopes that active transport will make up for reduced capacity on public transit under safe distancing measures, rather than private vehicles.

It is planning to reserve for bicycles 50 kilometres of lanes normally used by cars, and another 30 streets made pedestrian-only, “in particular around schools”, Mayor Anne Hidalgo told Le Parisien.

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Paris has budgeted € 150 million to make the city a 'world capital of cycling'. Photo: Ville de Paris

Before the pandemic, Hidalgo’s plan had been for every street in Paris to be bicycle-friendly by 2024, but the city’s dread of a sudden spike in car traffic clogging its streets has led to its speeding up plans to boost the attractiveness and viability of cycling.

According to France24, Paris authorities expect 20 to 25 per cent of the city’s population to flow back in from country homes or other places to which they fled before the lockdown kicked in mid-March.

“It is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by vehicles. Pollution combined with coronavirus is a dangerous cocktail,” said Hidalgo.

"I know that the majority of Parisians do not want to see a return of cars and pollution," the mayor said.

The French government has launched a €20 million (INT$22 million) scheme to boost cycling as pandemic restrictions ease, covering bike repairs and tune-ups of up to €50 for everyone at registered mechanics, training to learn to ride safely, installing temporary bike parking spaces, and monetary incentives to encourage employers to get their staff to commute by bicycle.

Again, travel patterns already favour the switch: 60 per cent of trips made in France in “normal” times were less than 5 kilometres, making bicycles “a real transport solution”, according to Elisabeth Borne, France's Minister for Ecological Transition.

Bogotá beefs up and speeds up cycling network

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Residents bike through the streets of Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Dario Hidalgo.

Across the Atlantic, Bogotá, Colombia’s capital of 7.4 million people, already a cycling network champion with 550 kilometres (340 miles) of bicycle lanes crisscrossing the city, is also speeding up existing plans to boost cycling in response to its sudden popularity.

In March, 22 kilometres (13 miles) of new bicycle lanes appeared overnight on Bogotá’s roads, largely by altering car lanes, part of its intention to open 76 kilometres (47 miles) of temporary bike lanes to reduce crowding on public transport and improve air quality, according to Smart Cities World.

The Associated Press reported that Mayor Claudia López said the city faced “a ‘triple threat’ of bad air quality, seasonal respiratory illnesses and now the coronavirus, which could combine to cause a surge in emergency room visits and collapse the healthcare system”.

“We can’t withstand that pressure,” she told residents.

European cities expand spaces for cyclists and pedestrians

Other cities have given over more space to cyclists and pedestrians to facilitate safe distancing between residents.

In Barcelona, known for its enthusiasm for experiments in tactical urbanism, the City Council has committed to broadening pavements and spaces for pedestrians and creating bicycle lane corridors by reconfiguring roads, while in some areas, cars will be limited to a single lane and a maximum speed of 30 km/h, says La Vanguardia.

Combined, pedestrians gain 30,000 square metres of public space over 12 kilometres of streets in the densely-populated city.

"Health should motivate all the actions that we carry out from now on," said Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Janet Sanz, presenting the measures alongside Mayor Ada Colau and Councilor for Mobility Rosa Alarcón.

Like Milan and Paris, Brussels also recently announced it would create 40 kilometres of new cycle paths in the hopes of getting fewer people to use public transport as restrictions are relaxed in the Belgian capital.

For now, many cities’ actions are deemed temporary measures, but in others, city leaders like Pierfrancesco Maran, one of Milan’s deputy mayors, see a chance to do things differently for health in the longer run.

“We should accept that for months or maybe a year, there will be a new normality, and we have to create good conditions to live this new normality for everyone,” he told the Guardian.

“I think in the next month in Milan, in Italy, in Europe, we will decide part of our future for the next decade.”

This article first appeared on the BreatheLife website here. The BreatheLife campaign is a CCAC initiative led by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Bank. 

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