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Apr
2020
9

In a Global Health Emergency, the Bicycle Shines

As the coronavirus crisis forces changes in transportation, some cities are building bike lanes and protecting cycling shops. Here’s why that makes sense.

Speaking in Parliament in London earlier this year, Chris Boardman, the former Olympian cyclist and the walking and cycling commissioner of Manchester, said: “Pick a crisis, and you’ll probably find cycling is a solution.”


He was talking about climate, health and air pollution, but he also might as well have been talking about coronavirus.


As Covid-19 rages, almost half of the world’s population is under some form of restricted movement. In a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus, people must stay home, aside from strictly limited essential trips for food and medicine and a daily outing for exercise. We all need to comply with restrictions to bring this life-threatening virus under control. I believe the best way to keep a safe distance from others when we do move is by walking, and cycling.


Many experts view cycling as a safe way to avoid crowded public transportation systems — and the citizens in a number of world cities appear to agree. In New York, cycling spiked by 52% over the city’s bridges after social-distancing protocols were put in place. In Chicago, bikeshare use doubled in early March. In Dublin and London, advocates are offering support to new riders who are taking to the streets in droves.


Cycling can help communities in “food deserts” access shops that are farther than a walk away. It speeds the delivery of food and medicine for households without a car, or those who are quarantined at home. And it helps people avoid car trips, cutting air pollution and freeing up public transit for those who absolutely need it.


To protect people doing essential trips — including medical staff, who need to get to work — networks of emergency cycleways could be built quickly and cheaply, using easy-to-install temporary bollards and wands, as the city of Seville once did. Low-traffic neighborhoods can connect those routes, stopping shortcutting drivers using residential streets with low-tech planters and bollards, while allowing residents in and out by bike. During the crisis, and as society recovers, this network could keep residents active and healthy, where local restrictions permit. It would also be free to use — more valuable than ever amid a global economic disruption. Once we reach the other side, communities could decide whether to keep the new infrastructure or not.


This is hardly the first time that cities have used cycling as an emergency transportation solution. The usefulness of bicycles in disaster recovery was demonstrated anew after severe earthquakes in Mexico City in 2017 and Tokyo in 2011. A broader global crisis — the 1973 OPEC oil embargo — offered another opportunity for bicycles to step up. That shock to the gasoline supply dealt a severe blow to daily life in the U.S. and many car-dependent Western European nations. But in