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In the saddle: Has COVID-19 made cities safer for cyclists?

The COVID-19 crisis forced policymakers to expand active travel networks in cities across the world. From Bogota to Berlin, more people than ever are swapping their cars for bikes. If this can be sustained, the potential gains for the world's most polluted cities will be enormous.

Fran Graham, Campaigns Coordinator, London Cycling Campaign
9 November 2020

At the start of 2020, major cities across the world were trying to tackle a series of pressing crises. Lethal levels of air pollution, rising congestion and the climate emergency were forcing them to seek answers that could support thriving and healthy populations. Over-reliance on the car was the thread joining these issues together. Increasingly, it was clear that cities had to become places where walking, cycling and public transport were the first choice for travel, and where private car use was greatly reduced. Such a shift would radically change urban mobility and bring about a cleaner, greener, healthier and happier future.

The good news is that the policies needed to create that future were already being introduced and widely championed. New York, London, Paris and Seville were among the cities investing in walking and cycling networks. There, physically protected cycle lanes and pedestrianised zones were making it easier and safer for people to get about by foot or bike. The concept of the “15-minute city”, whereby all citizens’ needs can be met within a quarter-hour walk or cycle, was gaining ground. It was among the key pledges made by Anne Hidalgo as she campaigned for re-election as Mayor of Paris. For her, the idea would be key to reducing carbon emissions and improving quality of life for Parisians. Clearly, the voters agreed, rewarding her with a landslide victory at the polls in June. In London, plans to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – an area through which motor vehicles that don’t meet low emission standards are charged to drive – were advancing. The newly drawn ULEZ would cover a much wider area as part of a strategy to reduce air pollution in the UK’s capital.

Then COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, the pace of change dropped far below necessary levels. Existing problems were compounded by the crisis. The historic prioritisation of the car had left us vulnerable to respiratory disease. Damage caused by decades of exposure to high levels of air pollution led to severe complications for many already vulnerable patients. The lack of a comprehensive network of protected cycling tracks and quiet streets meant that as public transport systems’ capacities were necessarily reduced, alternative transport options were severely limited. Those with cars opted to drive more, threatening to overwhelm road networks and contribute to the already damaging levels of air pollution. Those without access to cars were left short of choices. In London, only 56% of households have access to a car. With cycling understandably considered unsafe by many, the only viable remaining option was to take the risk on public transport.

When COVID-19 hit, many existing problems were compounded by the pandemic. The historic prioritisation of the car had left us vulnerable to respiratory diseases. Damage caused by decades of exposure to high levels of air pollution led to severe complications for many already vulnerable patients.

These considerations were at the forefront of policymakers’ minds as they plotted their COVID-19 responses. Many have embraced the bicycle in an unprecedented way. Paris set about constructing 65km of emergency cycle lanes, affectionately dubbed la piste corona by locals; similar works were undertaken in Bogota, Mexico City and Berlin. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan, initiated the Streetspace programme, rolling out segregated cycle lanes and widening pathways, while extending the operating hours of bus lanes. With the help of additional funding, London’s borough councils were encouraged to follow suit and avoid a car-based recovery. The UK national government added its support, releasing funds and guidance on emergency active travel schemes.

Over the summer months, as the major western economies began to transition out of extreme lockdown, many began to question what a return to normal would look like. Would we revert back to sluggish delivery of vitally needed schemes or, worse still, see a rollback of all progress made through COVID-19 emergency responses?

Or, could this moment be the time to rapidly to push on towards more sustainable, fairer and healthier cities? The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body advising government on environmental issues, certainly thought so. It called on ministers to “seize the opportunity to turn the COVID-19 crisis into a defining moment in the fight against climate change.” It’s a position that has proved popular with the UK citizens’ assembly: 79% of members agree that the post-pandemic recovery should facilitate decarbonisation of the national economy. And this sense of urgency is shared across the world. In April, Ipsos MORI asked 30,000 people in 14 countries whether they supported the following statement: “In the long-term, climate change is as serious a crisis as COVID-19.” They found majority agreement in all 14 countries.

Road transport is a significant realm of power for London’s mayor and local councils. Together, they have the influence and capacity to work towards a zero-carbon road system. As 20% of London’s emissions are from road transport, action here can help the city take massive steps towards meeting IPCC targets on global warming.

In April, Ipsos MORI asked 30,000 people in 14 countries whether they supported the following statement: ‘In the long-term, climate change is as serious a crisis as COVID-19.’ They found majority agreement in all 14 countries.

In order to decarbonise the roads within ten years, London officials must make many emergency Streetspace schemes permanent and continue the rapid expansion of the city’s cycle networks. They will need to support emerging low-carbon shared mobility options, such as dockless bikes, e-bikes and shared e-cars. And they must implement a next-generation smart road-user charging scheme to create a simpler, fairer system for making the most polluting journeys pay. All of this will need to happen alongside a transition to a clean bus fleet and changes to the planning system that support walking, cycling and public transport. The freight industry will also need to be greened.

All in all, it’s no small undertaking; if successfully and rigorously pursued, the rewards will be handsome. Transport inequality will be reduced through the availability of a greater range of accessible options. These, in turn, will protect our ability to travel during any future pandemic or comparable shock event. Air pollution will be dramatically lowered, improving the health of Londoners and reducing our susceptibility to airborne respiratory disease. Most importantly, it will mean that London can play its part in avoiding the worst impacts of climate breakdown.

Support for walking and cycling, and the decarbonisation of road systems will allow cities to reap these enormous benefits for their residents. Cycling is often called the “miracle pill” due to its positive health impacts. The label is as apt for cities as it is for individuals.