Europe's bike lane revolution leads the way for cities emerging from Covid-19 lockdown

Long-range commuting made possible by cycle lanes and e-bike innovation

epa08414739 A picture taken in high exposure shows a man with protection mask riding a bike next to The Musee des Arts Decoratifs 'Museum of Decorative Arts' at the Rue de Rivoli street on the first day of the easing of lockdown in Paris, France, 11 May 2020. France begins a gradual easing of lockdow measures and restrictions although the Covid-19 pandemic remains active. In Paris, workers need an attestation from their employer to justify using public transports.  EPA/MOHAMMED BADRA

When the architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann rebuilt the French capital in the middle of the 19th century, the Paris Review commented that Rue de Rivoli was the symbol of his work.

As Parisians emerged this week from one of the strictest isolation regimes enacted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the long, straight avenue was marked out with bicycle lanes to the exclusion of the car.

It was again the symbol of a new era of personal transportation by bicycle and scooter – both foot and electric-powered – that is being established around Europe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Anne Hildago, the mayor of Paris, ordered a dramatic widening of the network of cycle lanes throughout the city ahead of the restart of daily life. Dedicated routes almost doubled to 650 kilometres. In an eye-catching demonstration that cycle use was the city's future, she ordered new lanes to shadow the entire length of the Metro network’s lines 1,4 and 13.

David Miller, the former mayor of Toronto, who represents the 96 global city alliance C40, said the shutdown was driving mayors to make permanent and far-reaching changes in urban systems, most notably transportation.

"People are making clear they value healthy air and are questioning the polluted environment," he told The National.

“The cities are forced to innovate and our members are innovating around climate action and changing transport networks to produce healthier and safer cities.”

With more people working from home there is a greater focus on movement within neighbourhoods. Major commuting routes can be opened up to cyclists or devoted to public transportation. According to Mr Miller the mayoral discussions in recent weeks have seen a broad consensus on how to change cities amid a pandemic that is likely to reoccur in waves.

Kevin Mayne, chief executive of Cycling Industries Europe, said the sea change across Europe was remarkable. Not only Rue de Rivoli but the notorious traffic blackspot outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels had been taken over by cyclists.

Less likely places like Tirana in Albania and Valletta in Malta have also brought in new commuting zone in places where the car was very firmly king.

The pandemic has catalysed a trend seen after terror incidents and strikes of more and more workers turning to bicycles.

“In the short-term there are two irresistible forces. There is some health and some safety value to making the switch and governments can reinflate the economy by getting people moving again,” he said.

The move is underpinned by technological developments. E-scooters and e-bikes make longer range commuting feasible for millions as office life and educational institutions resume operations. “The e-bike technology makes it doable,” Mr Mayne added.

Last week Grant Shapps, the British transport minister, devoted £2 billion to back the establishment of pop-up cycle lanes, pedestrianised spaces and the closure of roads to private vehicles.

Since the pandemic London’s underground and bus network has ran at 15 per cent capacity. Across the country, Mr Shapps said the two metre social distancing rule would mean public transport operating at an average of 10 per cent capacity.

Meanwhile, he said, there had been a 70 per cent rise in people using bicycles and scooter. The law treating scooters as vehicles needing insurance and licences has been fast-tracked for abolition.

Nicholas Boys Smith, the director of the Create Streets consultancy, predicts far reaching changes for the landscape of towns and cities based on changing transit patterns. "Two changes seem certain," he wrote this week. "For the foreseeable future, public transport (particularly commuting) is not going to be as efficient as it used to be. Secondly, we have all learnt what work does not need to be done in physical proximity to our fellow humans. Commuting into city centres may reduce to two or three days a week."

The thinking is echoed around Europe. The Ile-de-France region that surrounds Paris is building its own 750km of cycling networks to supplement the city plan.

Valerie Pecresse, its president, said the system could help prevent the spread of the disease. "The bicycle is one of the tools for social distancing," she said. "The current health crisis forces us to rethink our mobility system."

The troubles that engulfed Milan have not stopped its mayor, Giuseppe Sala, emerging as a driving force behind global cities plans for rebuilding out of the crisis. Nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen by a quarter since the start of the year and his Aperte Strada (Open Streets) strategy aims to keep it that way.

"We can bring back cities without bringing back the traffic, the congestion, the pollution, and the 1.3 million people who die in traffic crashes every year. We can reclaim and reset our streets to move people by foot, bike, or public transportation," said Janette Sadik-Khan, an expert who advises Mr Sala. "This challenge we’re faced with isn’t whether cities will survive as we know them. The question is whether we will have the imagination and vision to transform streets and bring about the safer, more accessible, and more resilient cities we’ve needed all along.”

To Mr Miller the transportation trends of the pandemic are not confined to Europe but being applied globally as the municipal leaders get together to discuss the future. "Big city mayors don't really have peers in their own country and this is a crisis they want to discuss peer-to-peer," he said.
"At this moment while we see the national level policy responses, the day-to-day challenges with getting back lies with the mayors."