A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 6, 2020

Covid Is Causing Global Rise in Bicycle Commuting

Cities are responding to demand from commuters who no longer feel safe on mass transit but dont want to drive.

The larger question is whether this behavior will persist as warm summer weather turns to cold, rainy fall and winter - and if a vaccine is found. JL

Joshua Robinson reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Cities in the world’s hardest-hit countries, from Oakland to Milan to Mexico City, realized all at once that coronavirus lockdowns had opened a window, unique in the postwar era, for urban cycling to gain new ground.To cram commuters back onto subways now is to turn them into potential vectors for new infection. So with public transport ridership down as much as 80%, metropolises are expanding bike share programs and creating new cycle lanes. In New York, year-over-year usage surged 67% at bike-share service Citi Bike.
Most of Paris was asleep when a team of men in orange overalls fanned out across an avenue in the 11th arrondissement with blowtorches and road paint. They labored for hours to show Parisians a radical new way to use their 400-year-old street. By daybreak, one lane of regular traffic was gone and the asphalt was lined with rows of freshly stenciled yellow bicycles.
Squads like this one have been dispatched almost nightly across the City of Light since France first lifted its coronavirus lockdown on May 11. By order of the mayor, they are claiming territory from cars and giving it to commuters avoiding public transit. The plan is to give citizens more than 400 miles of pop-up bike lanes throughout Greater Paris that didn’t exist before the pandemic.
“The fact that in the space of a few weeks we’re quite radically changing public space to take room away from cars and give it to bikes is quite stunning,” said Christophe Najdovski, the deputy mayor of Paris for transportation and public spaces.
Normally it would be impossible to move so quickly given the controversy often generated by new bike lanes, which opponents argue take away space for car parking, cause more congestion for drivers and present a safety hazard for pedestrians.
But cities in the world’s hardest-hit countries, from Oakland to Milan to Mexico City, realized all at once that coronavirus lockdowns had opened a window, unique in the postwar era, for urban cycling to gain new ground.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually move forward quickly to bring those designs to the streets of their cities in real time,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner of New York City’s Transportation Department. “What might have been a 2030 plan is now a 2020 plan.”
Progressive mayors and activists have long cited bikes as a way to temper pollution, but they met mixed results in pushing through major transformation, with opponents citing cyclist behavior and lost street parking as downsides. Now for the first time, cycling advocates have urgency on their side. With reopening cities desperate to relieve pressure on their transit systems, bikes are a solution to an imminent public health risk.
To cram commuters back onto subways now, experts agree, is to turn them into potential vectors for new infection. So with public transport ridership down as much as 80%, metropolises are aggressively expanding bike share programs and creating new cycle lanes.
The most extreme reaction has come from cities that simply shut down entire blocks, such as Oakland, Calif., which worked to make nearly 10% of its streets car-free for the foreseeable future. Others already prepared to invest in long-term infrastructure have seized the chance—and the lighter traffic—to rapidly transform their layout. Montreal, for instance, is adding an extra 70 miles of pedestrian and cycle paths to the 560 miles it already has.
Beyond North America, there is fresh investment in countries such as Colombia, where Bogotá is planning 47 miles of temporary bike lanes, and the U.K., which has fast-tracked more than $315 million for what it calls a “once-in-a-generation” plan for bike infrastructure.
In New York, new bike lanes are a particularly sensitive subject—one crowded town hall meeting about a lane in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood last year devolved into pushing and shoving between residents on both sides of the issue.
Jack Brown, the spokesman for the Coalition Against Rogue Riding, felt that New York’s rapid bike-lane expansion during the pandemic was driven by “zealots” who had “aggravated an already acute safety issue.” Ninety-eight pedestrians have been injured in collisions with bicycles in 2020, according to New York City data, down from 157 in the year-earlier period.
And in Paris, an automobile lobbying group lashed out at the city in a June filing to France’s highest administrative court, arguing that its anti-car approach “prevented people from using their preferred mode of transport—namely driving, when being in a car is much more sanitary than public transit.”
But city planners point to the spike in demand for bicycle infrastructure from the moment people realized that squeezing next to others in enclosed spaces might expose them to the virus—and that moment came early in the pandemic. Wuhan, the Chinese city with the first explosive outbreak of Covid-19, saw its inhabitants take 2.3 million rides on Meituan BikeShare between Jan. 23 and March 12, according to company data, or nearly 110,000 a day.
In the first 10 days of March, before New York announced shelter-in-place rules but after people had begun shying away from public transit due to the pandemic, year-over-year usage surged 67% at bike-share service Citi Bike.
The ultimate goal for cycling advocates is to enshrine new habits in commuters—and then to make those habits permanent. They worry that failure could create even more congestion than before the pandemic if people revert to car travel because they are still skittish about public transit.

“If people switch only a fraction of these journeys to cars, London risks grinding to a halt, air quality will worsen and road danger will increase,” said the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan.
In cities like Paris, Milan and Berlin, the lanes are officially designated as “pop-up” or “transitional,” because they haven’t been through the full city politics wringer. But not-so-secretly, the paint is there to get city dwellers used to the idea that they are probably here to stay.
“In a normal project, you start to talk with citizens. Then you make the project. Then you make the tender to find who makes the job. Then you make the job,” said Pierfrancesco Maran, a deputy mayor in Milan. “You need three, four years. Maybe five.”
Instead, the city’s guerrilla approach means that by the end of 2020, Milan expects to complete the bike-lane network it hoped to have in place for the city’s next planetary event: the Winter Olympics, in 2026.
Paris is treating its pop-up infrastructure the same way. Mayor Anne Hidalgo, already one of the most bike-friendly big-city mayors on the planet, won re-election in June in part by promising to keep all of the new “Corona-Lanes.” The city has seen a 10% uptick in bike journeys compared with early March, despite many people still working from home.
To keep up with the increase in riders and address concerns over cyclist behavior, Paris authorities have stepped up enforcement of traffic laws. The city’s police prefecture ticketed 2,249 cyclists for traffic infractions in June 2020, up from 337 in June 2019.
In much of the West, the bicycle was written off by city officials in the 1950s, as postwar urban planning revolved around the private car. But following the Mideast oil crisis of the 1970s, two European capitals overrun by traffic found themselves considering drastic solutions.
Copenhagen and Amsterdam started by introducing car-free Sundays to stem demand for gas. Spurred by nationwide pushes for better road safety, they also stepped up investment in bicycle infrastructure. The change was jarring, but by the 1980s it had begun to stick. Today, nine out of 10 people in Denmark own a bike and more than a quarter of journeys in the Netherlands are made by bicycle, according to government statistics.
Elsewhere, urban cycling’s progress has been slow, bogged down by hyperlocal concerns, street-parking advocates, and community boards arguing against any major roadwork. In one high-profile case last year, a group of Manhattan condominium owners sued the city’s Transportation Department over the installation of a bike lane along 60 blocks of Central Park West following the death of a cyclist, arguing that New York had failed to properly consider the environmental impact.
“The push for more bike lanes has stripped the City of prime real estate on stately corridors like Columbus Avenue, caused an explosion of traffic tickets for delivery truck drivers who can’t afford them, ignores that the rise in bicycle accidents is attributable to the Mayor’s office…and favors a tiny minority of citizens by handing over vast swaths of the City’s public space,” said the suit, which was thrown out.
The pandemic only emboldened cities to move faster. As hectic world metropolises ground to a standstill, the likes of Milan’s Corso Venezia and The Strand in London were suddenly empty for weeks on end. Some mayors saw them as the closest thing possible to a clean slate.
In Paris, Ms. Hidalgo immediately teed up work for one of the city’s most recognizable streets, the Rue de Rivoli—a two-mile, east-west artery that runs through the heart of Paris, past the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden, and into the Place de la Concorde. After restricting buses and taxis to a single lane on April 30, she turned over the rest to bikes, which now enjoy two permanent lanes and two temporary ones. The idea was to mirror Paris’s busiest subway line below and draw away riders. For anyone on the fence, the French Government offered a €50 bike-shop voucher to potential riders who needed a tuneup as they became bicycle commuters.
On the last Tuesday in May, automatic counters on the Rue de Rivoli tallied a record 13,678 cyclists, or one every 6 seconds for a 24-hour period. Exactly nine months earlier, on a September Tuesday with similar weather, that number was less than half.
“We’ve never seen this kind of bike use,” Mr. Najdovski said.
New York, where a typical, non-pandemic day sees around half a million bike trips, is moving more slowly.
Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise during the city’s lockdown to open 100 miles of new paths for pedestrians and cyclists, the city had delivered only 74 miles of what it calls Open Streets by late July and was still lagging on 19 miles of specifically protected bike lanes. Cycling advocates have also criticized the city for marking off temporary bike lanes with easily moved traffic barrels as opposed to paint and failing to lay much groundwork for infrastructure beyond the virus emergency.
Milan, on the other hand, was already dealing with an emergency before it had ever heard of coronavirus. Though there are only 1.4 million residents, Milan’s status as the business hub of northern Italy means its population doubles every day with 1.37 million commuters, in all modes of transportation, from around the region. The city was choking.
Despite introducing a congestion charge and an extra subway line to fight pollution over the past decade, Milan still counted 0.57 cars per inhabitant, 30% more than New York and nearly twice as many as London or Paris, according to Mr. Maran, the deputy mayor. Cycling accounted for just 5% of total journeys.
When the lockdown arrived in March, Milan moved purposefully to address two crises at once—the short-term public transit crunch caused by the virus, and the longer-term climate challenge. By April 20, it had formulated a vastly accelerated plan to redraw the busiest streets into the city forever. It took lanes of traffic and gave them to bikes. And for those who still needed a car to reach Milan, it built more parking on the outskirts of the city to encourage commuters to finish their journeys by bike-share. Within days, there was paint on the road and dwindling stock in Milanese bike shops, as people scrambled to use their €500 government subsidies for new bicycles.
“It is quite hard to find a bike to buy today,” Mr. Maran said.
Not every city entered lockdown with the same momentum for building infrastructure. But city planners around the world are finding that fresh paint breeds imitators.
Mexico City, the third-most-congested city in the world in 2019, according to transportation data firm INRIX, unveiled its plan to promote social distancing among commuters in March: It would copy Bogotá, the most-congested city. Despite its snarled and chaotic traffic, the Mexican capital is once again responding to a crisis by hopping on two wheels, just as it did after an earthquake in 2017. This time around, the city is aiming for a fourfold increase in the size of its bike-lane network, starting with a 7.5-mile stretch that runs parallel to a central bus route, with more than 25 miles in progress around the city. Mexico City calls this its “Gradual plan toward a new normal.”
A lingering concern is what happens when a city is suddenly flooded with inexperienced cyclists and drivers unaccustomed to seeing so many bikes. New York saw more accidents involving a motor vehicle and an injured cyclist in June than it has in any June for a decade. But by July, those numbers had fallen back in line with recent summers, despite there being many more bikes on the road. In Paris, the city counted one cyclist death and 280 injuries through June 7, 2020, compared with two deaths and 261 injuries for the same period in 2019.
For the longer term, however, planners hope to address the risks posed by greater volume more meaningfully by making pop-up lanes permanent and separating bike lanes from traffic by moving parking away from the curb or with raised paths or low curbs on the edge of the bike lane. They know that the quickest way to put people on bikes is to make them feel safe.
“That is when it becomes really enjoyable,” Mr. Najdovski said. “Once people have tasted it, they don’t want to stop.”


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