After slowly shifting in some cities to a more bicycle-centric model, the pandemic has accelerated the shift from cars to bikes in cities around the world. Here are some prime examples
In the two centuries since they were invented, bicycles have tended to be much more about recreation than transportation. Sure, there's the occasional Dutch commuter biking through a small city or a poor person in the developing world who can't afford a car or an American kid delivering newspapers. But, otherwise, the bicycle has been meant for fun and exercise, and competitive sport, rather than as an integral part of the system of transport.
That may be about to change for good. After a gradual shift over the past decade to accommodate bicycle use, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift from cars to bikes in cities around the world. Beyond the long-term environmental and health benefits, the change of attitude is also linked to the lack of street traffic and pollution during lockdowns, and the social distancing that bicycles provide compared to crowded public transportation.
To give an idea: In Europe alone, cities spanning the continent spent an accumulated €1 billion on Covid-related cycling measures in 2020 — building some 1,000 kilometers of cycle lanes and car-free streets.
From Milan to Tokyo, here's what cities around the world are doing to support the two-wheeled world of transport:
In Latin America's leading biking city, Bogotá, the daily number of cyclists increased from 635,000 in 2016 to 878,000 in 2020. Today, with the city authorities having added another 84 kilometers of bicycle lane during the pandemic, that number is set to increase even faster. In fact, the government has already announced the planned allocation of one billion pesos to extend the network by an additional 289 kilometers in the coming three years.
In addition, the extension of bicycle lane infrastructure has led to a 33% reduction in cyclist fatalities in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to a government report. This is good news, as safety has been given as a leading reason for why fewer women than men are riding bikes in the eight-million strong Colombian capital. While currently only one out of four riders is a female, the city looks to achieve two-wheeled gender parity by 2039 — with actions including increased personal and road security as well as the broadening of bike lanes to better allow women to travel in the company of children, daily El Tiempo reports.
Love of two wheels in Milan
In Milan, the city government launched its Strade Aperte ("open streets") program in 2020, which includes the construction of 35 kilometers of new bicycle lanes. While the northern Italian city was one of the hardest-hit early in the pandemic, the lockdown also cut motor traffic congestion by 30-75% — and air pollution with it. The regional government is now hoping that the bike boom will work to change Milan's status as one of the country's most polluted cities.
In April 2021— one year after Strade Aperte was launched — the cycle route on the major street Corso Buenos Aires had already become the busiest in town, used by as many as 10,000 cyclists a day — an increase of 122% in the first few months of the year. What's more, in a city where sidewalks were routinely used as parking spaces, Milano Corriere reports there are now fewer than 600 cars per 1,000 inhabitants — a new low in Milan's recent history.
According to the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry, Italy is also one of the European countries that experienced the sharpest increase in bike retail last year — with more than two million sales nationwide.
Two-wheeled transportation has increased in Paris for some time — with bicycling lanes increasing five-fold between 2015 and 2020 — and the city expects the trend to continue in full force in the years ahead. The first "de-confinement" led to the creation of coronapistes, or bike lanes — typically following metro routes — that the city's mayor recently promised to make permanent through an €80-million investment, French business monthly Capital reports.
Already in the year following the city's first springtime lockdown in 2020, cycling increased 70%, as the combined length of bike lanes reached 1,000 kilometers.
Other initiatives aimed at boosting bicycling culture include government-funded cycling lessons, a €50 subsidy towards the cost of bike repairs, as well as an ongoing project to make the notoriously busy Rue de Rivoli car-free.
Bike lanes in Paris
In the city of Barcelona, the pandemic prompted a huge drop in the use of public transport (down 50%), yet only a small decline in private car use (down 10%) in the first year after the outbreak. Starting in the summer of 2020, 20 kilometers of pop-up cycle lanes have been installed to fill the gap in the bicycle network, while city officials are currently accelerating the construction of 160 kilometers of new or improved routes — with the goal to increase the network to 300 kilometers by 2024.
In June this year, bike use had shot up with 20% compared to pre-pandemic values, Spanish daily El País reports, while car traffic is 7.5% lower. The increase in cyclists has also had an impact on the number of subscribers to Bicing, a city-wide bicycle-sharing service launched in 2007. From May 2020 to July 2021, the app gained 17,000 new subscribers — an increase of 16%.
The growing interest in safer, more sustainable transportation has also given rise to a communal project dubbed Bicibús – or Bike Bus. It started in the Eixample district of Barcelona in September, when a group of parents organized a bike ride to school for a handful of kids. Today, more than 100 children gather each day at 8 a.m. with their parents for a 25-minute ride down Entença Street, where three schools are located. The parents are also hoping that their project will prompt authorities to build a school-friendly route that shields the children from the 20,000 vehicles driving down Entença Street every day.
The Japanese capital has been no exception to the global bike boom. With the government launching its "new lifestyle" campaign in May 2020 to promote more pandemic-adapted ways of transport, shopping and socializing, cycling became a way to avoid Tokyo's infamously packed subway trains.
A survey in June 2020 found that 23% of businesspeople had started cycling to work since the pandemic spread, according to the Japan Times. During the same month, national sales produced the largest year-on-year jump at 43.3% — that's despite nationwide bike prices having increased throughout the pandemic, Nikkei Asia reported last week.
Still, biking advocates argue that the increased number of cyclists demands new dedicated lanes rather than "vehicular cycling" — where geared-up road bike riders share the road with cars — that is typical of Tokyo. Some of the proponents are pointing to Beijing, which opened its first cycling highway in 2019 in the form of a six-kilometer bike lane designed to connect multiple cities.
From Toronto to Calgary and Halifax, bike shops in Canadian cities are slammed from a sales surge that started in March 2020, with popular shops receiving hundreds of purchase inquiries every day. In an interview with national broadcaster CBC, bike parts and accessories distributor HLC Canada predicted the industry will be dealing with the turmoil caused by the pandemic for years to come, as store backlogs show no sign of letting up.
Through the public initiative ActiveTO — a program aimed at limiting vehicle traffic and expanding the cycling network in Toronto — 40 kilometers of new lanes were added in 2020, with surveys showing that 29% of people rode a bike for the first time or rediscovered cycling throughout the year. It has also led to a membership spike for Toronto Bike Share, with the city-wide service counting half a million more trips in 2020 than in 2019. Trying to keep up with booming demand, the city added 160 stations and 1,850 bikes last year, bringing its fleet to 6,850 bikes docked at 625 stations.
However, as a large portion of the new infrastructure was built on existing networks, socio-economically disadvantaged areas are yet to enjoy the same benefits of the bike boom. The city now aims to focus on further extension of new lanes to poorer areas — using cycling as a tool to increase equality in society.