by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
Bicycle lanes and paths should be a big part of COVID 19 recovery. Cycling has increased during the pandemic for recreation and exercise as well as alternative mobility for people who prefer social distancing options over public transportation. Furthermore, if elected officials respond to shrinking tax revenues by cutting back on transit service, bicycling will be the socially-just as well as the planet-friendly alternative to private automobiles and the carbon emissions they generate.
Milan, Italy recently announced a plan to limit a resurgence of traffic after the COVID 19 lockdown using cycle lanes, reduced speed limits and the transfer of 35 kilometers of streets from cars to cyclists and pedestrians. Taking a page from the Ecocity Standards, Deputy Mayor Marco Granelli declared: “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. We have to get ready; that’s why it is so important to defend every part of the economy, to support bars, artisans and restaurants. When it’s over, the cities that still have this kind of economy will have an advantage, and Milan wants to be in that category” (Laker 2020).
Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, concurs: “The Milan Plan is so important because it lays out a good playbook for how you can reset your cities now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a fresh look at your streets and to make sure that they are set to achieve the outcomes that we want to achieve: not just moving cars as fast as possible from point A to point B, but making it possible for everyone to get around safely” (Laker 2020).
Comparable car-curbing projects are afoot in other parts of the world. To achieve social distancing, the Mayor of London is urging people to minimize use of subways not by driving but by walking and biking. In support of that goal, London is planning what some call the world’s largest car-free zone. Seattle is also reported to be permanently turning streets over from cars to people (Hanley 2020).
During the pandemic, cycling has surged in places around the world including China, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom as well as US cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, where a major bike trail experienced a 470 percent jump in ridership. To accommodate demand, many cities have increased car-free roadways and installed temporary bicycle lanes that, with luck, might become permanent. For example, Bogota, Columbia is experimenting with closing its 22-mile Ciclovia network to cars not just on Sundays but other days of the week as well. Similarly, pop-up bike lanes have been installed in Philadelphia, Oakland, Minneapolis, Denver, Louisville, Vancouver, Calgary and Berlin, as well as 133 other cities in Germany (Schwedheim et al. 2020).
Unlike economic recovery projects involving roadway construction, the installation of bike lanes and trails achieves climate action goals by providing an alternative to carbon-powered transportation, now the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Bicycling infrastructure also provides options to carless families in the event that public transportation services are hammered by future communicable disease outbreaks or public officials looking for programs to shrink in the face of dwindling tax revenues. Expanding bicycle infrastructure also allows more households to eliminate car ownership entirely. Since the cost of buying, maintaining, fueling, insuring, parking and repairing a single automobile averages almost $10,000 per year, the ability to forego this expense can be a huge financial benefit to family budgets.
As governments fund public projects to get people back to work, officials should be encouraged to build back better with bikes. Rather than invest in roadways catering to polluting, fossil-fueled vehicles, we should make it possible for people to access everyday destinations using bicycle networks that deliver the win-win-win-win outcomes of climate action, ecomobility, and social justice as well as economic recovery.
Hanley, Steve. 2020. London is creating the world’s largest car-free zone. Accessed 5-19-20 at https://cleantechnica.com/2020/05/15/london-is-creating-the-worlds-largest-car-free-zone/.
Laker, Laura. Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown. The Guardian. Accessed 5-19-20 at https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/21/milan-seeks-to-prevent-post-crisis-return-of-traffic-pollution.
Schwedheim, Allejandro et al. 2020. Biking Provides a Critical Lifeline During the Coronavirus Crisis. World Resources Institute. Accessed 5-19. 20 at https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/04/coronavirus-biking-critical-in-cities.