Rebuilding Cities for Bikes Words: Paul Maunder /// Illustrations: Matthew Burton

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” — Socrates

Back in February, which now seems a very long time ago, I was invited to a cycling showcase at the Houses of Parliament in central London. It was organized by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking, which has members from across the political spectrum and aims to use its position in the British parliament to promote cycling and walking. Its annual showcase, held at Portcullis House, a 21st century office building next to Big Ben, brings together many bicycle industry luminaries for speeches, presentations and networking. This year there was an extra energy in the conference room, because the government had just announced that an extra £350 million (about $440 million) for cycling infrastructure would be included in the forthcoming budget. Chris Boardman, 1992 Olympic gold medalist and now Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner, made a speech welcoming the extra investment but cautioning that what really mattered was ongoing investment. The government needs to think to the long-term, he advised.

Now, just over three months later, the world feels like a very different place. The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. The act of staying 2 meters away from every human being except those you live with sounds simple but proves to be damnably difficult. In towns and cities across the globe all our previously held assumptions about how we work and travel have been upended. You can ride into London over Westminster Bridge to the Houses of Parliament on empty roads. But you can’t get on a bus or an Underground train and be confident of maintaining that 2-meter rule.

Faced with the challenges of getting around, and the need for physical and mental exercise during the lockdown, millions of people have been pulling old bikes from their garages or buying new ones. U.S retailers have seen such demand for new bikes that supply chains are becoming stretched. Bikesharing schemes have seen a strong uptick, particularly in New York. And in a recent survey of 1,000 Americans, Trek found that more than half the respondents were planning to cycle more after the pandemic. In this age of coronavirus, some 83 percent feel that cycling is a safer way to travel than public transport. With deserted roads (in Britain the traffic levels during April were back to 1950s’ levels) and the blessing of sunny weather, the widespread rediscovery of cycling has been a joy to watch. Parts of the U.K. have reported the number of bike trips up by 70 percent.

If some of the factors that will protect you from Covid-19 are being slim, having a robust immune system, strong lungs and a decent dose of Vitamin D, cycling seems the perfect tool in our fight. And with fewer cars and airplanes, and industry partially halted, carbon-emission levels have fallen by 17 percent. This year’s carbon emissions could be as much as 7 percent down for the whole of 2020, the biggest drop since World War II. Here is a glimpse into a greener future, though of course this temporary scenario has seen an enormous cost in terms of jobs and financial security. The challenge is to learn from this experience to make society economically as well as environmentally sustainable.

As I write this, governments around Europe have begun to ease the lockdown rules…unsteadily, warily. For all the usual bombast and rhetoric, the uncertainty among politicians is clear. No one has dealt with anything like this before. A second surge of Covid-19 hangs over us like a sword of Damocles. And in puzzling out a safe way to ease the lockdown, transport is a particularly painful headache. Social distancing means that a double-decker London bus, which usually seats 85, can only hold 15. Commuter trains similarly are operating at less than 20 percent of their capacity. Even if a large chunk of the commuting population opted to remain at home, that would still leave many workers struggling to get into town. With typical opportunism, politicians are jumping on cycling as part of the solution.

Of course, the campaign to design cycling into city life was a movement gathering pace before the new coronavirus. In late 2019 Deloitte published a fascinating report that outlined how technology could support a significant expansion of commuting by bike. Before the pandemic, approximately 1 percent of commuting journeys in North America were made by bike. Deloitte forecast that this would double by 2022, creating tens of billions of additional bike trips around the world. And that was before the pandemic, which has brought cycling squarely onto the political agenda and into the mainstream news.

The change has been stunningly quick. From a marginal interest group, cycling has now become a necessity for re-establishing our way of life. Before the crisis, campaigners looked to cities in Denmark and the Netherlands for their models. Rightly, cycling lobbyists around the world wanted to learn from those successes. As Chris Boardman is beginning to deliver in Greater Manchester, this means long-term investment to change infrastructure. Safer streets encourage more people to cycle and a virtuous circle can be created.

The coronavirus has accelerated the timescales of these changes from years to months and weeks. With no time to plan and build infrastructure projects, cities such as London, New York, Paris and Rome have simply closed residential streets to cars and built temporary bike lanes on other roads. The UK government has now promised £2 billion ($2.5 billion) for cycling and given local authorities the instruction to create more space for cycling and walking. In London the mayor has unveiled ambitious plans to close a significant network of central London roads to cars.

But how do we translate the need for more bike journeys into a practical reality? Good design is critical. Fortunately, much work was completed pre-coronavirus to make cycling safer and more accessible.

The rapid growth of e-bikes, driven by better and cheaper lithium-battery technology, is fundamental to encouraging more people to commute by bike. By 2023 the industry is forecasting that e-bike sales will top 40 million units worldwide. That’s compared with a forecast of 12 million electric vehicles (cars and trucks) by 2025. Sales growth in Europe and the United States has been stellar during 2018 and 2019. More than half the bikes sold in the Netherlands last year were e-bikes.

For commuters, e-bikes offer two big benefits: convenience and speed. With the aid of the battery, e-bike users don’t have to work as hard to accomplish a journey, and so they can arrive at the office without being drenched in sweat. This means they can travel in their work clothes and not have the hassle of packing a bag and having to shower at work. Moreover, many e-bike models now have lights and a lock integrated into their design—so there’s no need to worry about charging up your lights and remembering your lock.

In cities like London and New York, where traffic usually chokes the streets, riding an e-bike would actually be faster than driving a car or taking the bus. Whatever your level of fitness, an e-bike motor gives confidence that an average speed of around 15 mph can be attained, without the effort that would usually entail. (This compare with the average speed of 7 mph for vehicles on the streets of New York City.) Knowing for certain how long a journey will take is an attractive proposition for city-dwellers used to the vagaries of public transport. Bikesharing schemes illustrate the attractiveness of e-bikes to the casual user. In Madison, Wisconsin, the bikesharing scheme has recently been converted entirely to e-bikes after the scheme’s managers found that e-bikes were five times more popular than regular bikes.

Technology is also helping to make cycling an easier and safer experience. Riders can now find apps that give them route options through the city, predict the carbon emissions saved by switching between modes of transport, and show the locations of bikesharing stations. Town planners and cycling advocates can use data from these apps and a host of other rapidly developing analytical tools to better understand how city transport networks are being used.

In urban planning, the aims of the green movement align well with our new need to suppress virus-infection rates. The idea of the 15-minute city is gaining traction; this means enabling homeworking through fast broadband and decentralizing services so that people have what they need in their neighborhood. Long, stressful journeys into the city become the exception rather than the rule.

And when journeys must be made, let’s encourage people to make them by bike. That means dedicated bike lanes on all main roads and networks of “slow” streets—roads that are partly or fully pedestrianized. In Hackney, East London, work is underway to build the modal filters that signify a shared use between cars, pedestrians and cyclists. To achieve lasting change, the new systems must work for the majority of people, whatever their mode of transport. If those who continue to drive end up sitting in horrible traffic jams, the schemes will be under threat of withdrawal. And crucially, any new infrastructure must be democratic. If it is focused only in affluent neighborhoods the whole project will fail, because it is those who live in the more deprived areas of our cities who are being forced to travel by bus and train into the city to work.

Already, there are signs that closing roads to cars is radically changing the way people live. When you restrict cars and open a street to cyclists and walkers you slow the pace, increase social interaction and encourage a sense of community. It’s not only about commuting. On safer roads, families can enjoy a weekend bike ride without having to pack the bikes into the car and drive out of town. And more local errands can be done by bike.

Will it stick? When the threat of the pandemic eventually recedes, will things return to normal? There are many who simply wish to return to how life was before Covid-19, but this change to our lifestyles has been so profound and so widespread. Before the coronavirus the green movement was gathering pace. Now there is an opportunity for a lasting shift that will benefit generations to come…and us, here and now. When the air is cleaner and you can hear birdsong while you cycle to your local shops, wouldn’t you want to hold on to that?

Our role as experienced cyclists is to lead by example. We must offer help to friends and neighbors who may be keen but are unsure about cycling. We need to de-mystify the technology and educate others about road safety. In our own riding we have to continue to ride responsibly and demonstrate that cycling is transport first, sport second.

The pandemic is a global tragedy. History will judge us not only on how we coped with its threat, but also how we built a better society afterward.