The Bike Is Back as Europe Looks to Exit Lockdowns Safely


The Bike Is Back as Europe Looks to Exit Lockdowns Safely

As European nations prepare to emerge from lockdowns, authorities from Paris to Milan are looking to bicycles to get city dwellers moving again without inflaming the coronavirus pandemic.

The French ecology ministry asked a group that promotes the use of bikes to help local officials coordinate the creation of temporary cycling paths. In Berlin, authorities have already added several miles of pop-up lanes to encourage social distancing. Milan plans to open up more streets for cycling and walking.

Pedal power has fresh appeal because it can help the population get back to work without forcing everyone onto crowded buses and trains, where the virus would be more likely to spread. In an acknowledgment of the risks, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said that masks could become mandatory on public transport.   

Cycling is ecologically friendly and compatible with social distancing, the French biking group, Club des Villes et Territoires Cyclables, said on its website. That’s especially important “at a time when apprehension over taking public transport is likely to persist well beyond the end of the lockdown,” it said.

Public transport remains open in France, with reduced service, for those who have to commute to work or make other essential trips. An eight-week strike that began last December against President Emmanuel Macron’s flagship pension overhaul had already motivated more people to take up cycling out of necessity.

A proliferation of bike-sharing options and a years-long effort to build cycling lanes across Paris and other French cities have also made it easier for citizens to commute on two wheels.

“At this stage, we are talking about temporary bike lanes, set up by local authorities,” said the ecology ministry’s spokesman. The longer-term plan to develop cycling paths is continuing, he said.

Milan will make 35 kilometers (22 miles) of city streets more accessible to bikers and walkers in the coming months, making it safer and easier for commuters to avoid public transport — and traffic jams — once the lockdown is lifted.    

Germany, one of the more car-centric nations in Europe with its famously free-wheeling Autobahn highways, is also upgrading bike infrastructure because of the coronavirus. The state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, home to car giant Daimler AG, is roughly doubling its funding for bike and walking lanes this year to 58 million euros ($63 million). The Deutsche Umwelthilfe environmental lobby has asked authorities in more than 200 German cities to bolster bike paths to unclog buses and subways.

“Bikers need safe infrastructure in the coming months,” the group said in a statement. “It allows for a safe journey to the office with sufficient distance and fresh air, and helps doctors and hospitals by avoiding unnecessary accidents.”

Paris To Create 650 Kilometers Of Post-Lockdown Cycleways

“Whenever feasible, consider riding bicycles or walking,” recommended the World Health Organisation (WHO) on April 21 in new technical guidance on moving around during the COVID-19 outbreak. Cycling and walking are useful for both social distancing and meeting the minimum requirement for daily physical activity, states the WHO guidance. Cities around the world have been giving over road space to cyclists and pedestrians during the pandemic, providing people with the sort of generous space generally allotted to motorists.

Paris is the latest global city to roll out emergency bike lanes for the use of key workers and others during the lockdown. 650 kilometers of cycleways—including a number of pop-up “corona cycleways”—will be readied for May 11 when lockdown is eased in France.

Before the Coronavirus crisis, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo had promised that every street in the city would become cycle-friendly by 2024, but fears of gridlock caused by increased car traffic once the lockdown is eased are allowing officials to accelerate Hidalgo’s existing “Plan Vélo” transport changes.

On January 29, Hidalgo revealed that the space required to make Paris cyclist-friendly would mostly come at the expense of motoring. Under her plans, Paris was to remove 72% of its on-street car parking spaces.

During France’s 46-day transit strike last year, many strap-hangers switched to cycling, doubling the number of cyclists on the roads of Paris. And some months after the strike the numbers of those who carried on cycling remained high, with a 131% year-on-year rise in the number of cyclists.

On April 21, the Île-de-France region pledged financial support for the preexisting RER Vélo project, a network of nine protected cycleways linking the center of Paris with key suburbs, a concept of the Ile-de-France Bike Collective advocacy network. €300 million will be provided to part-pay for a mix of new infrastructure and temporary “corona cycleways,” or TempoRER vélo.

The cycleways mirror the routes of the RER metro rail lines into Paris. Existing RER Vélo cycleways include an “express” version on Rue de Rivoli, REVe, for use of e-bikes.

The pop-up cycleways will be marked out with traffic wands.

“The current health crisis forces us to rethink our mobility system,” Valérie Pécresse, president of the Île-de-France, told a French newspaper.

“All levers must be pulled so that the easing of lockdown restrictions takes place in the best conditions.”

She added that the pop-up cycleways could help prevent the “complete paralysis of [our] road network, should there be a massive shift towards the private car.”

Elsewhere in France, 116 towns and cities—including Lille, Dijon, Rouen, Le Mans, and St Etienne—plan to build temporary cycleways for the duration of the current lockdown and the next few months.

Meanwhile, the French government is bringing forward the publication of new national cycleway guidelines. The best-practice guide will be published ahead of schedule on May 4.

IN ITALY, the city of Milan has told residents that 35 kilometers of city streets will be made more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists as part of post-lockdown planning. The Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan will reallocate street space from motorists to pedestrians and cyclists.

“‘We cannot think of [lifting lockdown and then seeing] a million more cars on the road,” Milan transport councillor Marco Granelli told Radio Lombardy on April 21.

“To avoid this, we will have to strengthen two-wheeled transport. This is why we're putting in place an extraordinary plan to create new cycle paths,” he added.

Pop-up bike lanes help with coronavirus physical distancing in Germany

German cities are redrawing road markings to create “pop-up” cycle lanes for the duration of the Covid-19 lockdown, as cyclists demand more space to physically distance on their commutes to work.

Local authorities in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin trialled a temporary widening of two cycle lanes on 27 March, arguing it would help cyclists keep the required 1.5-metre distance apart while car traffic was down owing to Germany’s coronavirus restrictions.

On Friday, the council declared the pilot scheme a success because it had improved cycling safety while not hindering traffic. An expansion of the scheme on further roads in Kreuzberg, as well as in the Schöneberg and Tempelhof districts, is planned for the coming weeks.

The council said it had used removable tape and mobile signs to mark out the expanded lanes, which can be removed when the current restrictions on movement are lifted.

Residents in 133 other German cities have formally submitted applications for similar pop-up bike lanes to their local authorities on the back of a campaign by Environmental Action Germany (DUH), an environmental NGO.

The campaign group cites new research linking air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates as an argument for redrawing infrastructure across the country.

“The coronavirus is showing us that clean air is an indispensable asset,” said DUH’s chair, Jürgen Resch. “It is now especially important to temporarily make it more important for people to move safely on their bikes. This will help improve air quality, enables exercise in fresh air while keeping a safe distance and avoids unnecessary accidents.”

Proponents of the scheme cite the Colombian capital, Bogotá, as the example to emulate, where the mayor, Claudia López, opened up nearly 72 miles (117km) of new bike routes in mid-March in the hope of reducing congestion and person-to-person contact.

In Berlin, opposition politicians from the pro-business Free Democratic party have described the pop-up cycle lane plans as an “unnecessary provocation” by the bike lobby, saying they will have little practical use.

German states have encouraged the use of bicycles in spite of the current restrictions, under which gatherings of more than two people are banned, with exceptions for families.

“The use of a bicycle allows citizens to meet the requirements for minimising contact,” a spokesperson for the transport ministry in Thuringia told the German news agency dpa.

In Germany, bike repair shops are currently exempt from state-ordered closures because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Three federal states, Berlin, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, have also allowed bike vendors to stay open.

U.K.’s First Pop-Up Cycleway—A ‘Keyworker Corridor’—Installed In King Richard III’s Leicester

Leicester has installed a 500-meter pop-up cycleway close to the city’s NHS hospital. Marked out with traffic cones, the cycleway has been put in place to help key workers cycling to and from Leicester Royal Infirmary during the coronavirus lockdown.

Leicester—famous for links to King Richard III; he was found underneath a council-owned car park—has now joined Berlin, Brussels, and Paris and other European cities that have installed pop-up cycleways in recent weeks. Other cities around the world that have been reallocating road space from motorists to cyclists and pedestrians during the pandemic include Bogota, New York City, and Oakland, California.

“Currently it’s quite a short stretch, but we’re looking at taking it to one kilometer linking existing infra and using this pop-up road and segregated footway,” Leicester’s deputy city mayor Adam Clarke told me by email.

“Using part of Aylestone Road as a temporary cycle track is only possible due to the huge drop in traffic across the city since the lockdown came into effect,” said a statement from Leicester City Council.

The statement added that Leicester had seen an increase in cycling since the lockdown began and reduction in the use of public transit. The city wants to create a network of cycleways to “enable those who have used the temporary lanes to continue cycling or walking once the lockdown ends.”

As well as green-lighting the pop-up cycleway, the city council has also increased timings at traffic lights on busy roads to give greater priority to pedestrians and cyclists.

“We are seeing more people cycling to get to work in key roles at the moment, including our social care staff, the staff at our hospitals, delivery workers, and volunteers,” said Cllr Clarke, who is responsible for environment and transportation in the Midlands city.

“We want to do all we can to enable key workers to get to where we all need them to be.

“Given the huge reduction in traffic on the roads, the opportunity is there for us to create this route connecting the southern part of the city to Leicester Royal Infirmary.”

He added: “We’re actively looking at extending this to other routes and potential connections to other existing or planned cycle routes."

LEICESTER HAS LONG been in thrall to the motor car, but this is slowly changing, with the pop-up cycleway being yet another manifestation of how the city wants to reimagine itself.

Like other British cities, Leicester was eviscerated in the 1960s by modernist town planners. They scythed through the medieval core of the city with two inner ring-roads, and multi-lane highways were built to provide fast access to the M1 motorway.

The city, like many others, became dominated by cars: congested despite the width of the radial roads and dangerous for anybody not protected by a metal cage.

This changed in 2012, thanks to Leicester’s oldest economically active citizen. Dug up from beneath a council car park, King Richard III is, during normal times, a valuable tourist attraction, known to locals as KRIII.

Leicester has used the remains and the romance of the last Plantagenet king— he ruled England from 1483 until he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485—to push for cycleways and more pedestrianization in the city center, trimming some of the space previously devoted to cars.

Much of the city’s transformation was planned before the timely reappearance of KRIII, but deposing King Car is much easier when you’ve got a real one to put in its place.

Over the last 14 years, Leicester’s new breed of town planners has been slowly reclaiming the city for people by nibbling away at the space dedicated to motorists.

This nibbling—known by transport wonks as the “reallocation of road space”—has been carried out relentlessly in recent years, and not just during the current lockdown. Leicester’s fightback has included narrowing a four-lane gyratory, with the fourth lane converted into wider sidewalks and cycleways.

A flyover close to the city center was demolished in 2014. The elevated highways that long hemmed in a 15th-century gatehouse—the Magazine—were removed some years ago, and have not been mourned.

Nibbler-in-chief is Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s first elected mayor. A former member of Leicester Spokes, a 1980s cycle campaign group, Soulsby started putting the city on a “road diet” soon after he was elected in 2011. He has since been re-elected as mayor in 2015 and 2019.

Many of Leicester’s nationally significant buildings, including the timber-framed Guildhall and the 12th-century church of St Mary de Castro, would have been familiar to King Richard, but were marooned in the 1960s and 70s. The Grade I listed Magazine was originally a gate into Leicester’s medieval fortifications, and King Richard III rode beneath the gateway’s arch when departing for his final battle. It’s likely his mutilated body returned this way, too, before being hastily buried in the Greyfriars Priory, a church demolished in the Reformation, later capped with buildings—and, eventually, the famous car park. (Richard’s grave is now the centerpiece of a visitor’s center, currently closed due to the pandemic.)

Leicester’s medieval core was sliced and diced by the Leicester Transport Plan of 1964, mostly the work of Polish town planner Konrad Smigielski. He claimed his plan was the first to “Say ‘no’ to the motor car scientifically,” but, when it was put into action, it instead resulted in ring roads, underpasses, flyovers and multi-story car parks.

Smigielski’s original plan for Leicester had included a monorail and a labyrinth of aerial walkways for pedestrians. The monorail stayed a black and white line drawing, but there were some motorist-friendly pedestrian skyways erected over high-speed city center gyratories. They were gradually removed.

Now the city wants to become known for its “tactical urbanism,” using the pandemic to install the U.K.’s first pop-up cycleway as a means of expressing the notion that this city is no longer ruled by motorists.

People to Reclaim Streets in Milan in Post Covid-19 Vision of the City

The city of Milan has announced its Strade Aperte plan or “Open streets” plan that favors pedestrians and cyclists over cars. In order to reduce car usage, the Lombardy area will repurpose 35km of roads, over the summer, after the coronavirus lockdown, transforming them into people-friendly streets.

Reallocating street space from fast to slow mobility, the ambitious vision of Milan is set to start at the beginning of May, on one of the city’s main shopping arteries, Corso Buenos Aires. The 8 km stretch will take on a new cycle lane and expanded pavements. Prioritizing cycling and walking, Milan, a relatively small yet dense city, can easily switch to alternative transportation modes, especially that the average commute is less than 4km, which is less than 40 min walking at a moderate pace, and more than half the population already uses public transport to get to work.

During the coronavirus lockdown, both traffic and pollution have dropped significantly. Aiming to keep the streets and the public transport congestion-free, the Strade Aperte plan could be one of Europe’s most ambitious urban design schemes. Including low-cost temporary cycle lanes, 30kph speed limits, pedestrian and cyclist priority streets as well as wider sidewalks, the Milan transportation recovery plan is taking notes from successful street transformation around the globe.

Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation commissioner for New York City, working on the scheme states that Milan could provide a roadmap for others and that it “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 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”.