Scaling Up Cycling As Resilient Urban Transport Post Covid-19 Pandemic

May 04, 2020

Post COVID-19 sustainable urban planning depends on how cycling as an urban mobility component is being prioritised.

Public transport in cities around the globe won't be the same after lifting of COVID-19 lockdown. Nearly 3.9 billion people were under full or partial lockdown in April as the world tried to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown and physical distancing are the only solutions implemented so far by most of the city authorities to arrest the spread of the virus. Transportations within city limits have drastically been curbed. It is indeed necessary to control various mode of transportation. However, unprecedented challenges have cropped up for many who still need to get around cities for essential tasks like buying food or providing essential services or caring for loved ones mostly older people and above and overall, mobility of health care providers. Can cycling in urban centres be a solution during this unprecedented time of ours and beyond?

Albert Einstein once wrote: ‘Life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving.’ During and after COVID-19, societies need to move ahead but with a balancing act.  Cycling and dedicated cycle paths have massive potential in bringing about this balance both, during and after lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. Cycling provides a critical lifeline during this crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends walking or cycling to help physical distancing. Cyclists can move around the city amid the suspension of mass transportation under the lockdown or community quarantine.

Since March, cities or metropolises around the world have been providing more considerable attention to creating cycle lanes for smooth movement of people, health workers and other essential service providers. With strict adherence to physical distancing; Milan and Brussels are increasing the number of cycle lanes to give people alternatives to using public transport. An emergency bike lane has been demarcated in Bogota (Colombia) for smooth transit of people. In Manila (Philippines), bicycle use is set to be promoted with mandatory face masks for commuters, while motorcycle taxis will be disallowed when the lockdown lifts. Cycling, as a flexible and reliable option, according to the World Resource Institute (WRI), has increased substantially in many cities around the world during this crisis. Many towns are ready with guidelines that encourage cycling and personal mobility devices after the community quarantine ends. Subsequently, city governments are supported by the low levels of pollution due to lockdown. To cut pollution and keep people healthy, France is introducing a $20 million scheme to get more people to cycling.

Both cycle and cyclists usually maintain a physical distance. The three-meter width dedicated cycle lane won’t technically allow the cyclist to plying together (the antithesis of physical distancing) or over-taking. One should not be worried about pillion rider in cycling. While appreciating the public transport is an essential mode of transportation for everyday life, everyone should avail a cycle for short trips and commuting. Cycling allows us to respect physical distancing by avoiding overcrowded public transport, lowering our risk of getting the virus, and of spreading it.

Additionally, physical activity significantly contributes to maintaining a robust immune system. Thus, cycling enhances the immunity and helps to ward off mental stagnation- anxiety and depression- under such a lockdown. Cycling also contributes to improving mental health and reducing stress. There are multiple studies which show that those who cycle are happier than those who use others mode of transport.

It is estimated that by 2030, which is the target year for meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), cycling will overtake car usage in the world’s biggest cities. Similarly, the number of bike commuters in many cities around the world will double in a few years from now. Six decades of public bike-sharing (PBS) across the globe have potentially strengthened learning lessons to guide emerging urban centres to adhere to cycling under their priority micro-mobility plans. At the same time, this pandemic has also put a grim future of PBS. Despite the uncertainty around the world of the virus impact which compelled to postponements of activation of bike-sharing in Australia; functioning of scooter start-up Lime across the world except for South Korea, the PBS market is holding its breath for post-COVID-19.

The COVID-19 has already transformed the way we live. Lifestyle changes, which we are passing through, provide immense opportunity and potential to switch over to cycling in towns and cities during and after the lockdown. India is on its 3rd lockdown phase. Many 'Smart Cities' initiatives in India have introduced PBS on a pilot basis, and most of these cities are under red zones of COVID-19 spread. Therefore, PBS has been suspended along with other modes of transport. PBS could be activated cautiously to help people buy essential goods as well as allowing health workers to commute easily to their destination as long as public transport is suspended. PBS is always a great alternative and option for people without owning a cycle. If the PBS needs to be resumed, it is crucial to respect strict hygiene rules to wash or sanitise your hands and after using a shared bicycle and not touch your face on the way and so on.  

However, small as their contribution to overall urban transportation in India may be, reviving and re-emerging biking/cycling is the right solution for cities. Mandatory cycle lanes in cities, which are not that easy to elbow out from the rapid bus, metro and private vehicles lanes, admirably address the present and future pandemonium.  Here is the right time to provide temporary dedicated cycle lanes in every city for commuters. Integration of cycling and walking should, therefore, be part of the public health strategy at all times. Instead of closing down roads for mobility, city governments may work to mitigate those risks of cycling by allowing cycling as an exclusive option during the present crisis. Post COVID-19, city governments must discourage motorised transportation to give space for cycling. Maximise the COVID-19 crisis to raise the cycling culture in all cities.

Cities or urban centres are highly vulnerable to natural and human-induced disasters, including climate change and disease outbreaks like the one we are facing today. For easy access to essential goods and reaching out to people in distress, cycles are the perfect mode of transport in difficult and congested neighbourhoods of cities. Hopefully, last-mile connectivity through the cycle will be more attractive to a more germ-phobic general public in the post-COVID-19 world. A city which advocates cycling as a priority is a city with healthier people, safer streets, cleaner air and better connectivity.

Author Note
Dr Avilash Roul, Indo-German Center For Sustainability (IGCS), teaches at IIT Madras. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Society for the Peace and Conflict (SSPC), New Delhi.