It’s an increasingly urgent question for those who still have to travel into work, or to collect supplies or visit vulnerable people – how can you get around without contracting – or spreading – the coronavirus? One answer could be cycling.
The immediate caveat to mention is that this is not a call for every trip to be made by bike. If you’re going 25 miles at night to collect 50kg of supplies for a food bank … well, you could do it with a cargo bike, but for most people it’s a non-starter.
But with more than a third of trips in the UK under two miles, and more than 60% of them less than five miles, the scope is there, particularly in urban areas, for many more one person trips to be made by bike (or, indeed, on foot for shorter trips).
So why cycle? The coronavirus-specific paradox of a bike is that it simultaneously gets you out onto the streets, in touch with fresh air, the changing springtime climate, and other people, but it’s very rare to be in over-close proximity to others. Even at a rush-hour traffic light in a city, you can almost always stake out a metre or two of your own, away from other riders and drivers.
Cycling for everyday transport has not so far been restricted outside places which have imposed hugely draconian containment measures, like China. While Italy and Spain have placed temporary bans on leisure cycling, riding a bike for permitted everyday travel is officially allowed, albeit with reports of some over-zealous police enforcement.
On Thursday, the chief executive of British Cycling, Julie Harrington, wrote to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, urging ministers to add cycling to their list of recommended activities during the outbreak.
Earlier this week, a group of nearly 50 academics and experts on public health and transport wrote an open letter to the government, urging ministers to not discourage walking and cycling amid the pandemic, noting their vital importance in the wider public health issue of combating inactivity.
During any lockdown, “all of our existing social and health risks do not simply go away”, they wrote.
The letter added: “In a rapidly escalating situation, policy could be adopted that largely confines the general asymptomatic population to their homes, potentially for some time. Confinement, sometimes in overcrowded accommodation with little or no private green space, and particularly during times of anxiety has health risks.”
This makes perfect sense. Coronavirus is a very obvious health crisis, and could – at the best-case predictions – kill quite a few thousand Britons.
But the longer-term, more normalised health consequences of people living excessively inactive and sedentary lives – everything from type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular disease and several types of cancer – is one of the leading causes of early death around the world, every year.
Precise figures are hard to estimate, but one often-quoted statistic suggests that in England alone, 80,000-plus people die early every year due to the health consequences of inactivity.
Rather than impeding cycle use, governments should use the coronavirus crisis to make it easier, particularly in cities, so people can avoid public transport. It would take a matter of hours to cone-off lanes to create temporary bike routes so more people could ride safely. The Colombian capital, Bogota, has already begun to do this.
I’d also strongly argue against any bans on recreational and leisure cycling, which is so good for both physical and mental health. The rationale for these appears to be to take the strain off health services, in case a cyclist is injured and needs treatment.
This approaches the issue from the wrong way. Cycling is an inherently safe form of transport where the danger is almost all external – that is, from drivers and other motor vehicle users. If the intention really is to prevent road casualties, then the best way, surely, would be to reduce speed limits, and urge careful driving.
This could be made into a coherent approach. So, for example, big cities could impose blanket 20mph speed limits – I’d personally go for 15mph – with space set aside on major roads for cycle use. With so many people working from or confined to home, in many cities traffic levels are falling, even with public transport off limits. This would also make walking more appealing.
One of the many effects of the pandemic has been falls in emission levels in many cities, as cars stay at home. Some have even speculated that in some countries, the death toll from coronavirus could be significantly offset by fewer people dying as a result of air pollution.
Around the world, governments are taking actions which, even a few weeks ago, they would have dismissed as fantasy. Boris Johnson’s government is currently not dismissing the idea of introducing a universal basic income, an idea which, when raised by the Greens in 2017, was viewed by the Conservatives with derision.
So why not make cycling easier, not more difficult? At one stroke, you have people kept distanced during transport, and making them healthier in the long term – not to mention more likely to be able to see off respiratory infections like Covid-19.
It could be time for action.