Post Pandemic Trend: Fast-Building Cities' Bicycle Infrastructure

The way we travel around our cities is changing. We’re having to keep our distance from one another, so that means fewer buses, trains and cabs. Cycling has a myriad of benefits for your health, not to mention to that of a city. More people on bikes usually means fewer people in cars. Fewer cars means better air. 

From Berlin to Bogata cycling infrastructure is popping up or being reinforced. So is this strange period we’re going through the smartest time to transform our cities into bike-friendly utopias? 

Cycling campaigners are staging a protest over what they describe as the failure of London's councils to improve safety. Like a lot of people in major cities, I’ve been put off by the lack of cycling infrastructure and the scary headlines. But with fewer cars on the road I’ve taken the plunge and bought a bike, from Ben here. 

So Londoners are buying bikes like nobody’s business, shops are selling out. I wonder if we can make it stick? How important is cycling going to be, for a city like London, going forward? 

It’s simply not going to be safe to fill public transport at anything like the volumes that were common before the pandemic. Something has to change. Now is a really unusual moment in history. Are we ever going to get a chance to re-organise a city like this ever again? 

We need to push for a genuine modal shift, not just because people like cycling, but because it's altogether cleaner, healthier, safer. People's lives are being substantially shortened in this city, in many cities because of the presence of really serious airborne pollution. If people cycle, that that level of pollution is going to fall enormously. 

The amount of people you could fit safely into a road space, even with social distancing, is far, far greater with bikes than it is with cars. You can see a cycle lane that appears to be half empty next to a car lane that is completely full of cars, you’ll find that they have the same number of people. But one of them is completely gridlocked and causing pollution and the other one is causing no pollution and it's completely fluid. 

You need to think about where people are going and where they want to go and make sure that they're safe from doorstep to doorstep. Most of us associate a road with the motor vehicle, but actually there was a time when streets were for people. 

Cars have come to totally dominate our road space. Even in Amsterdam around 70 percent of the road space is allotted for cars when they constitute, I think, less than a quarter of journeys every day. So even a place that's famous for giving a huge amount of space and putting cyclists and pedestrians first cars still own the road. 

It's one thing to encourage cycling and be pro-cycling, but you actually have to make space for bikes and making that space often means taking that space away from cars. 

I’ve managed to find a nice quiet road, still absolutely full of cars though. They’re everywhere. We’ve got a bit of a strange attachment to cars - sure, they’re incredibly useful - but in cities, they make less sense. 

The socio-economic cost of cycling is much lower than that of a car. According to a Danish study it costs society 79 cents for every kilometer driven by a car. Society gains 72 cents per kilometer cycled. That’s because cycling reduces healthcare costs and sick leave and driving comes with all sorts of extras like parking and fuel. 

Top cycling cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, they’ve managed to prioritise people over the car. Those places took a decent amount of time to get there. 

We’re going to look at somewhere that took under two years. That’s Seville in Spain. From under seven thousand trips a day in 2006, there were over 72,000 being made on bikes in Seville by 2011. So that's a 1000 percentage increase in just four years. 

Manuel Calvo, a Spanish socio-ecologist, was one of the people behind Seville’s cycling transformation. It really is the closest thing you can get to overnight success in making a city cycling-friendly. 

One of the main factors was the infrastructure. Around 70 or 80 percent of that space came from cars, actually parking spaces. We took that road space and we elevated it and it's placed on the sidewalk platform. We did that because the perceived safety for the new users would be greater if we did that. 

Separating cars and bikes by a physical barrier like a raised curb is essential campaigners argue, saying it makes cycling accessible to people of all ages and all abilities. Building permanent infrastructure also makes it more likely to last, especially if anti-cycling politicians come to power. 

For them it would be really difficult to get rid of that curb on the whole sidewalk platform. So that was political strategy to get that space for once and forever. 

The result in Seville was a network of cycle lanes that changed the landscape of the city. The two main lessons that we learned in Seville; to have a whole network and to have it fast. 

To create mass infrastructure at lightning speed normally costs a lot of money. Seville's first stage of 80 kilometres of cycle paths cost under twenty million dollars. In comparison, Seville’s metro line cost about 900 million dollars. It serves 44,000 trips every day, far less than that of bikes. 

Where you do one kilometer of highway, you build a hundred kilometers of cycle lanes. The numbers are just stunning. The example of Seville shows it is possible to transform a city if you have the political will. 

Meanwhile big cities like London are often criticized for not being brave enough. 

As part of its response to the coronavirus, the UK government has fast-tracked two hundred and fifty million pounds to invest in emergency infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. Additionally, London’s transport authority has launched a plan which it says can potentially accommodate a ten-fold increase in cycling when lockdown restrictions are eased. 

These are all temporary emergency measures at the moment, we’re creating safe space for many, many millions more people to walk and cycle as part of those journeys instead.

I came from about six, seven miles away. I found it quite hard to find cycle lanes. There's a lot of work that needs to go on. So the first thing we need is that safe infrastructure. But you're right, then we need to make sure people know how to use it. Every city is different. 

While Paris has got its wide boulevards and Berlin has got those big streets, we're working here with narrow medieval lanes so we need a plan that works for London. We've seen three times more cycling in lockdown in some parts of London than outside of lockdown, so there's that demand there. 

Is this something that we can make permanent in London? What happens if we don't take this opportunity? 

We've got no choice. We’ll end up with gridlock, our emergency services will get stuck, all our deliveries will get jammed up, businesses won’t be able to get the supplies they need. But also, I think importantly, we’ll have a toxic air crisis. 

While the coronavirus is driving up the number of bike trips, there’s also a risk it could put more cars on the road too. 

In China, the use of private cars nearly doubled when lockdowns ended. The main reason given for buying a new car was to avoid the chance of infection. 

In London, there are reasons to be hopeful of a more bike-friendly future. Before the pandemic the city had significantly increased protected cycle space, claiming to have tripled the length of routes in four years. And like other major global cities such as New York and Hong Kong, has a population that generally uses public transport more than anything else. 

So the main problem isn’t reducing the number of car journeys, but actually making our cities safer and easier to cycle in. If our urban spaces are to function post-coronavirus, they’ll have to implement actions that are pro-people and make sure it happens fast.

Source: Bloomberg QuickTake Originals

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