When the coronavirus pandemic led to lockdowns a year ago, hundreds of cities reconfigured their streets to make walking and cycling easier to aid social distancing and reduce air pollution. Now, with an end to the lockdowns in sight, the measures have proved so successful that cities across
Europe are betting on the bicycle to lead the recovery.
According to the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), the continent’s cities spent EUR1bn on Covid-related cycling measures in 2020, creating at least 600 miles (1,000km) of cycle lanes, traffic-calming measures and car-free streets.
What’s more, it was not just the usual suspects in Denmark and the Netherlands taking action, but places with inadequate infrastructure. The pandemic revealed a latent demand for cycling and walking infrastructure and offered a chance to “build back better”, as politicians are fond of saying. Now many cities are busy accelerating existing plans to do just that.
The ECF’s Aleksander Buczynski said: “I think to a large degree the pandemic only accelerated some processes … The cities that made good provisional cycle paths were generally positively accepted by the inhabitants, if not uniformly.”
Barcelona during the pandemic, public transport use fell by 50% and private car use by just 10%. In a city where many people own cars they previously used only at weekends, this was a congestion disaster waiting to happen.
An initial 13 miles of pop-up cycle lanes were installed in summer 2020 to plug holes in the cycle network and encourage people avoiding public transport to cycle, and four more miles are being added. Cycle use has now risen to 10% above pre-pandemic levels.
Barcelona officials are accelerating the construction of 100 miles of new or improved cycle routes, increasing the network to 190 miles by 2024. This also prepares the ground for
the Superblocks programme, of which cycle routes are an essential element and part of targets to cut car use by 25% by 2024.
Milan’s Strade Aperte programme
was launched in April 2020 with a proposed 22 miles of new protected cycle lanes and pedestrian priority areas. The cycle route on Corso Buenos Aires is now the busiest in town, used by as many as 10,000 cyclists a day, an increase of 122% in a few months. Milan has now expanded Strade Aperte to 42 miles and is aiming for 62 miles by this summer.
Paris, streets once dominated by cars are filled with cycles. Since spring 2020, cycling is estimated to have grown by 70%, and 31 miles of temporary coronapistes installed early in the crisis are to be made permanent, with more added. The proportion of women cycling has grown, and a recent survey found 62% of residents wanted the lanes made permanent.
re-election last year, the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is accelerating cycleway plans further. According to ECF, Paris has delivered 100 miles of a planned 200 miles of new routes.
Lisbon is in the process of almost doubling its 65-mile cycle network to 124 miles this year, starting with pop-up lanes to create new protected routes. In common with Barcelona, this is part of longer-term plans to increase walking and cycling, tackle air pollution and reduce the impact of heatwaves, with accompanying measures to increase street shade. Expanded 30km/h zones, pedestrianised zones, cycle parking and greenery are also part of the picture. In a year, cycling has
grown by 25% and the proportion of women cycling has also increased.
survey spanning 21 European cities, 64% of respondents said they did not want to return to pre-Covid air pollution levels, which are illegally high in many cities. Three-quarters were willing to reallocate public space from cars to active travel to achieve this, while 21% said they planned to cycle more after lockdown, and 35% planned to walk more.
London has installed or started work on 62 miles of cycle routes since the start of the pandemic, and Transport for London data from January shows cycling has increased by 22% in outer London since 2019. Almost half of all journeys in London were made by cycling and walking from April to June 2020, up from 29% before the pandemic.
Will Norman, London’s walking and cycling commissioner, said: “It’s vital we continue to build on this positive legacy from the pandemic rather than experiencing a car-led recovery, which would risk replacing one public health crisis with another air-quality-based one.”
Brussels trialled 37 miles of pop-up cycle routes in 2020,
increasing “active cyclists” by 87%, and Belgium is now looking to extend its cycle highway plans between towns and cities. The Flemish government upped the ante in March 2021 by announcing a EUR150m cycling package, taking its per head spend to EUR22 (GBP19) a year – for comparison, the UK spends about GBP7 per person.
Across Europe cycle tourism boomed, not least as travel restrictions limited further outings, and as part of its recovery Italy
plans to invest in 630 miles of new urban and metropolitan cycle paths for transport and leisure, and 1,000 miles of tourist cycle paths.
Krakow installed a handful of cycle paths that
doubled cycling levels last summer, with many people switching from public transport to bikes. The city has now developed a five-year plan to expand the cycle network further.
“People say it took the Dutch or the Danish cities 30 or 50 years to build their cycle infrastructure, but we don’t have this kind of time,” said Buczynski. “We have the climate emergency, which we cannot deal with in 50 years. We need to change the transport system pretty quickly, and it will be very difficult without making cycling a viable option for everyone.
“We need to do it fast, maybe not in two months but in a few years.”