People around the globe are rising up to lead a two-wheel revolution, ditching packed metros and buses or eschewing their cars to lead a pandemic-era cycling renaissance. And city leaders have joined the cause with a slew of new projects—from pop-up bike lanes to dedicated new spaces that allow cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles to safely share the road.
“City planners are modifying the streets to fit the needs of communities during the pandemic,” says Sandra Caballero, a transportation specialist at the World Economic Forum, San Francisco, California, USA.
Europeans were on pace to buy an extra 10 million bikes per year by 2030—taking bike sales to more than twice the number of passenger cars currently registered per year in the European Union.
“During the pandemic, cycling has become the most suitable way to travel and respect social distancing,” says Andy Costa, president and founder of the nonprofit MyDream for Africa, a sustainable development advocacy group in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, working to create more bike path projects across the continent.
Speed of Impact
For the teams delivering bike path projects, it’s about balancing the need for immediate impact while simultaneously creating a transportation template for the future. Since March when many cities went into lockdown, city planners around the world have launched hundreds of projects to support cycling and walking, according to the open-source tracker created by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.
New York City is one of the most recent to respond to the COVID-driven uptick in cycling and the downturn in cars. In January, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to create dedicated two-way bike lanes that traverse the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges, using a single car lane on the roadways and leaving the elevated path for pedestrians to use.
Much of the nascent movement dates back to the early days of the pandemic as city planners saw a way to not only answer citizen demands, but also achieve a double dividend of lower carbon emissions and lower risk of COVID-19 spread. In April 2020, the city of Oakland, California, USA assigned 21 miles (34 kilometers) of its streets to bicyclists and walkers. The Slow-Streets Program included “soft closure” barriers to support the use of streets for physically distant walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging and biking. And in Milan, Italy, government leaders launched an Open Streets adaptation strategy that calls for not only more dedicated lanes for bikes, but also creates more slow zones that cap speeds at 30 kilometers (19 miles) per hour and “play streets” that give space over to kids.
Leaders in France launched the country’s Plan Vélo, tripling the budget to €60 million for a project to facilitate bike use through financial assistance, infrastructure development, and training measures for individuals and communities. And in August, the Philippines announced it was tapping a pandemic-related stimulus fund to build a 400-mile (644-kilometer) bike lane network.
One of the highest-profile efforts is the U.K. government’s £250 million megaproject to reallocate public space to cyclists, widen sidewalks and create more biking lanes. Number 2 on PMI’s top 10 list of Most Influential Projects in mobility, it aims for nothing short of “a travel revolution.” And the Department for Transport team issued a 52-page white paper that outlines what the vision is—and how it will become reality.
For some cities, it was an opportunity to reimagine urban planning patterns that weren’t working. Bogotá, Colombia is known both for having the world’s worst traffic and an exemplary cycling infrastructure. So the city launched one of the world’s first pandemic-era projects to encourage bike travel, using traffic cones to create 84 kilometers (52 miles) of temporary lanes.
For other regions, addressing the surge in cyclists meant changing the traffic culture. Congested streets make Africa the world’s deadliest continent for pedestrians and cyclists, but activist-led projects aim to change that. In September, Abidjan officials gave Costa the green light to help plan bike lanes, for example.
A Race for Change
Before the pandemic, such projects could take years of planning and often faced resistance from stakeholders, based on safety and congestion concerns. Now, project leaders are accelerating these initiatives to meet demand, but they must still commit to measuring their efforts to ensure they’re truly achieving positive social impact and then apply lessons learned to shape plans for future initiatives. Project leaders must also plan routes to ensure such infrastructure is built equitably, so all users—no matter what neighborhood they live in—have access.
Without that due diligence, projects—and the movement—are at risk of failure. Berlin, for example, was forced to remove eight new bike paths after a court ruled in September that the city hadn’t demonstrated the streets would have been dangerous for cyclists without the added infrastructure. The Oakland team put up signs, gathered data, informed neighbors and solicited feedback. The city also partnered with Google so the company’s map and navigation apps included purple dashes to indicate the so-called slow streets.
Such stakeholder engagement has become trickier during the pandemic, Caballero notes. “There’s no easy way to hold big informational meetings or speak directly to communities in person,” she says. That makes it incumbent upon teams to place clear signage around new bike infrastructure for the sake of bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers.
To ensure these projects realize their intended benefits, city and project leaders must drive home the advantages of biking or walking to users—whether it’s lower travel costs or a smaller carbon footprint. The U.K. Department for Transport, for example, enlisted Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who makes a strong case for the infrastructure in the group’s project plan: “The joy of cycling is that doing it doesn’t just benefit you. It doesn’t just make you happier. It doesn’t just make you healthier. It helps millions of others too, whether or not they have any intention of getting on a bike. It means less pollution and less noise for everyone. It means more trade for street-front businesses. It means fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.”
Financial incentives—like the Italian government’s 70 percent subsidy for bicycle purchases—can also help maintain continued use and support for projects.
“One challenge for cities and city planners is how to formalize this infrastructure and keep these achievements in place,” Caballero says.