Seventy fours miles (120 km) of cycleways in London, 90 miles (150 km) in Rome, 72 (117 km) in Bogota — a few weeks after the first phase of lockdowns, authorities around the globe began promising to install temporary cycle lanes, triggering a kind of virtuous knock-on effect among large cities. Some but not all of these promises were kept. While several major cities have succeeded in pushing cycling as a viable means of transport, others have struggled to re-claim the streets, which continue to be dominated by private cars, forcing them to review their strategy.
Widespread shift in gear
“Cities applied the principle of ‘tactical urbanism’,” explains Holger Haubold, Director of Intellectual Property and Data Collection at the European Cycling Federation. “Using traffic cones, protective bollards and posts, they spontaneously made quick and inexpensive changes to their environment.” Tactical urbanism is based on immediate interventions that require little outlay to make public spaces more people-friendly or to bring neighbourhoods more in line with residents’ aspirations.
“This strategy has allowed cities to embark on, and in some cases, step up the transformation of their mobility plan with relative ease,” adds Holger Haubold. “We’ve seen hundreds of initiatives take shape.” The Brussels-based , European Cycling Federation promotes bycicle as a “healthy and sustainable means of transport”. In a recent study, the federation reported that more than 1,400 miles (2,300 km) of temporary infrastructure had been installed across Europe , in the space of a few months. The same trend has been observed in large cities across Europe, as well as further afield, including the Colombian capital Bogotá, and the Brazilian capital São Paulo.
Other reliable and verified indicators support this theory, such as the increase in the number of searches for bicycle routes recorded by Google Maps between February and June 2020 (up 69%), and the widespread rise in bicycle traffic between 2019 and 2020 across cycling routes worldwide corresponded with data gathered by Eco-Counters.
In addition, although 2020 sales figures for new, second-hand, cargo bicycle and electric-assist bicycle aren’t available yet, according to the European Cycling Federation, we can expect to see a hike. “A real dynamic is taking hold, and it ties in perfectly with our goal of seeing 240 million daily trips made by bike by 2030, 50% more than in 2017,” says Holger Haubold.
Cycling and Covid — what’s the connection?
While the coronavirus crisis has fuelled the surge in bicycle, is it really the major factor behind this renewed enthusiasm? Sociology lecturer at Rennes 2 University Eric Le Breton doesn’t think so. “Each time the way we live and work undergoes significant change, cities revamp their traffic plans and the streetspace they allocate to each mode of transport. The crisis we went through in 2020 undoubtedly changed our habits, but most of all it amplified and crystallised an existing phenomenon, which was a need for a change in the way people get around.”
Éric Le Breton believes the cycling boom is part of a very progressive shift, propelled mainly by cycling activists themselves. “Campaigning collectively through action groups, these people — for the large part also very committed environmentalists — fought for cycling to be gradually accepted in public debate.” This is what’s happened in France over the last 40 years, and more recently in Spain. “In Seville, the transformation of the city’s traffic plan to include a network of segregated bicycle lanes was driven in the 1990s by cycling campaigners, who slowly but surely pushed for change and won the support of successive municipal authorities. The bicycle boom is a direct result of these long-term efforts.”
Held up by cars — but not for ever
These insights are a reminder of how reclaiming the city from the car to allow cycling to thrive remains the biggest hurdle to overcome — but it’s not insurmountable. In Copenhagen in the 1970s, private cars were predominant and cycling seemed unlikely to catch on. Yet, thanks to a combination of determination, political will and experiments, the Danish capital is now the most bike-friendly city in the world, with five times more bicycle than cars.
Encouraged by the push for active transport, cities elsewhere are following the Danes’ lead. In Poland, several cities experienced a 50% hike in cycling last year. Out of its 16 regions, 14 have recognised that support for bicycle infrastructures is crucial in boosting the local economy. The government even went as far as to integrate bicycle into its economic recovery and resilience plan launched in September 2020.
In Italy, 2020 also created favourable conditions for the long-term transformation of several other cities including Rome. Prior to the crisis, only 1% of trips were made by bike in the Italian capital, where there are 620 cars for every 1,000 inhabitants and a total of 500,000 motorbikes. The city authorities capitalised on residents’ enthusiastic take-up of bicycle during and after lockdown to make some changes permanent. Rome’s cycleways are ‘transitory’, not temporary – which is more in line with tactical urbanism and implies a transition towards something else. The choice of wording is important. Political will and investments to the tune of €3.2 million did the rest.
Inspiration from what works for long-lasting change
The challenge now is to sustain the cycling boom. “It’s really positive that so many genuine pro-cycling initiatives have emerged in Europe. Now we need to build on this momentum,” says Holger Haubold, enthusiastically. Among them are the hugely successful mobility plans rolled out in the Netherlands and Austria, which encourage cyclists to opt for the bike/train combo. “What’s important is offering multimodal solutions, where no single mode is exclusive. Complementary solutions are the key, rather than making people choose between one or the other.”
This is what lies behind the success of the model adopted in Copenhagen, where most drivers are also regular cyclists.
Other effective approaches include cycle-friendly tax incentives, such as cycle-to-work allowances for people who use their own bike for work, or tax deductions for employers who provide bicycle for their staff. These government-backed incentive schemes are highly popular and have already been implemented by numerous firms in Belgium and Germany. This type of initiative rounds out public measures, like voucher schemes for the purchase of a new bicycle or for repairs and maintenance.
Sharing the road
For cycling to really take off, efforts need to look beyond the city centre. “To ensure a long-term adoption of cycling, we need to win over decision-makers and people in outlying districts and suburban towns — and the middle classes,” emphasises Holger Haubold. “This calls for a combination of unflinching political will, more connected cycle networks, safe, segregated cycle lines and the right equipment.” Today, there’s a highly effective and increasingly affordable solution for getting around: the electric-assist, or e-bicycle. Thanks to progress in technology, users can cover ever greater distances. According to Holger Haubold, “it may well be the main driver for boosting cycling in the years ahead.” If this proves to be true, it will once again raise the issue of how we share public roads — a key issue that’s not just about safety but sharing the road in harmony. Whether they’re walkers, cyclists, drivers or e-scooter riders, all users demand access to more space. Perhaps the key lies in striking a better balance and building mutual respect and understanding so that all needs can be accommodated. Understandably, drivers who cycle occasionally are invariably more aware of cyclists’ behaviour — and vice versa. Seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Now there’s an idea!
Top 20 most bikable cities in the world, according to their modal share
1. Copenhagen: 90,2%
2. Amsterdam: 89,3%
3. Utrecht: 88,4%
4. Antwerp: 73,2%
5. Strasbourg: 70,5%
6. Bordeaux: 68,8%
7. Oslo: 62,5%
8. Paris: 61,6%
9. Vienna: 60,7%
10. Helsinki: 59,8%
11. Bremen: 58,9%
12. Bogotá: 58,1%
13. Barcelona: 57,4%
14. Ljubljana: 57,1%
15. Berlin: 56,3%
16. Tokyo: 55,4%
17. Taipei: 54,5%
18-19. Montreal/Vancouver : 53,6%
20. Hambourg: 52,7%