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Cycling merits the status of public transportation in our post-COVID-19 reality

Cyclists riding in a bike lane in a city.
Copyrights: Leszek Sibilski

Cycling merits the status of public transportation in our post-COVID-19 reality

Leszek Sibilski writes on the future of cycling.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told parliament that the near future “should be a new golden age for cycling.”

The inclusion of cycling into public transport is not only a matter of semantics. In the upcoming new post-COVID-19 social global contract, transportation should be included as it has been overlooked by insufficient lobbying in the 17 Global Sustainable Goals (SDG) with cycling to follow as an integral and equal part of mass transportation. Transport is the second biggest global contributor of carbon dioxide emissions at 15%. Active mobility has the potential to mitigate it, and even be a solution to this pressing problem.

Perhaps a United Nations resolution or amendment to the SDG supported by all the stakeholders would make a difference in sealing the future status for cycling as a legitimate part of public transport in the post-COVID-19 era? After all, cycling is everyone’s business everywhere.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, the world must bet on the bicycle. In cities like Bogota, Paris, Budapest, Montreal, Barcelona, Lima, Vancouver, Berlin, Mexico City, Austin, and Oakland, just to mention a few, lockdowns have revealed that life and our cities are better with fewer cars and with altered streets. Streets are being repurposed by creating pop up bike lanes making them healthier for all. In many communities, bike shops have been upgraded to essential status and kept open to serve bicycle commuters during this unprecedented time. In Australia, bicycles have become as essential as toilet paper!

Unfortunately, however, due to a lack of trust in public transportation and very low gasoline prices, the Chinese and many others have turned to private cars. There are some disturbing facts coming from the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis, Wuhan, justifying growing concerns that carbon emissions will bounce back with a vengeance after the COVID crisis is over. We need to change the narrative as big cities may lose appeal to city dwellers who may not want a return to their urban neighborhoods as they knew it. Rebooting functional mobility via the bicycle may change their minds.

The bicycle, invented over 200 years ago, has been a mainstay of human mobility and transport for over 140 years. Why then has it been treated so marginally by city planners and most importantly by the financial sector? Could it be that the well-endowed automobile and oil lobbies have an upper hand with influencing urban development decisions? In 1999, a former Bogotá Mayor, Enrique Pañalosa, signaled a cultural shift: “A citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as one in a $30,000 car.” Let’s be mindful of the fact that the bicycle does not vote, but cyclists do!

Current estimates are that there are over one billion bicycles worldwide and over fifty percent of the global population knows how to ride them. Every second four bikes are being produced and every two seconds someone buys a bicycle. Since its inception, the bicycle has played a major role in providing functional, local mobility. In times of a crisis, disaster, catastrophe, or conflict or just a malfunction of modern technology the bicycle has been there to faithfully serve the human need. It’s always good to have a spare bike in the garage, basement, or on the balcony, just in case something unprecedented will happen to traditional public transportation. However, a bicycle does not have to be used only as an emergency vehicle but with proper infrastructure, it can be used as a functional and clean means of daily commute and transport.  

But the social stigma of the bicycle as the chief vehicle of the poor in developing countries has not been helpful in expanding the regular use of bicycles. Since the early 1990s, several studies have focused on the integration of bicycles into public transit. One of the obstacles has been a label that cycling is still perceived as a sport and not as legitimate transport. A report published by the UK National Infrastructure Commission in 2018 boldly states that: “Cycling is now mass transport and must be treated as such,”  The article perfectly justifies such a long-awaited cultural transformation. It suggests that cyclists and pedestrians usher life in the streets, whereas cars tend to diminish vibrancy in the streets. Research has shown that bicyclists spend on average three times more than automobile drivers on local business enterprises and that cycling infrastructure is intertwined with higher retail purchasing. Cyclists create cities with healthier people, safer streets, cleaner air, and better connectivity.

Currently, there is a lack of cycling infrastructure in many major urban centers. In the 21st Century there is an urgent need to mindfully consider developing safe and connected bike lanes; bike-carrying capacity on rail and bus; superhighway under and overpasses; indoor parking; traffic lights; modal solutions; repair stations; public bike shares; cargo bikes; and e-bikes in order to attract investors. Such consideration would increase the number of cyclists worldwide, and be especially beneficial to families. There is a saying: “if you build it, they will come.” Excellent examples of places with such infrastructure are the City of Copenhagen is one city that has more bikes than cars. The Netherlands has more bikes than citizens. Nowadays, the bicycle has become a vibrant part of modal transport where it plays an active role in the first and last-mile approaches. The urban transit capacity for cycling is endless.

In recent weeks cycling for all was headlined in every corner of the world as a safe means of transport during physical distancing. Ironically, elite professional cycling has been at a standstill. Host countries of the grand tours, Italy, France, and Spain, were, due to lockdowns, forced to postpone legendary races. The lower speed limits and pop-up temporary COVID bike lanes with bollards, cones, and pylons are a good start and demonstrate the potential of increasing the prominent status of cycling for all in urban and rural settings. Let us not forget that the World Health Organization encourages both travel and physical activity by bike.

Observing the seeming rivers of bicycle traffic in Copenhagen, and Amsterdam clearly justifies a call for cycling to be considered in a serious discussion as a means of public transportation. This is not a call for integrating, rather this is a call to fully include everyday cycling as part of mass transportation.

There have been previous, but sadly temporary love affairs with the bicycle. In the 1973 oil crisis, the world was fascinated with the bicycle for a moment but then returned to the previous order of the combustion engine alternative. We have lived through moments like this in the past where the bicycle was a mere backup vehicle. It doesn’t have to be that way again. Let’s work together with investors, urban planners and everyday citizens to make the benefits of cycling that are before us a more lasting and permanent solution for cleaner and more sustainable urban environments.


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Leszek J. Sibilski


Thursday, May 7, 2020 - 17:15