Of the five best-selling bike models that would usually be in store at New York’s Brooklyn Bicycle Company, four were out of stock in mid-June. Sales were up by more than 600 per cent on the same period last year, Ryan Zagata, president of the company told the New York Times, adding that he had “never seen anything remotely approaching this”.
From New York to London, a rise in cycling is one positive aspect to come out of the coronavirus pandemic. It had already started pre-lockdown with bicycle repair shops reporting an increase in business as people sought to dust off their old wheels to avoid public transport. Then – in countries that actually allowed cycling during the lockdown period – getting out on a bike turned out to be a key way to take exercise and escape the pressure-cooker atmosphere of being cooped up at home.
Getting out on a bike turned out to be a key way to escape the pressure-cooker atmosphere of being cooped up at home
As with so many things linked to the Covid-19 crisis, the next question is: does this herald a permanent change in how people live and behave? Could it be the impetus for cycling to finally take off in major cities?
Making it easier to cycle
Certainly many authorities that had been backing a shift to cycling anyway have been quick to step in with some serious money – with the added impetus of needing to find alternative travel options in the face of the pandemic.
One of the first movers has been the Italian city of Milan, long known for its pollution. The city’s Open Roads plan is an ambitious attempt to draw something positive from the Covid-19 crisis by building new cycle lanes and wider pavements, as well as restricting the number of roads that motorised transport can use. The plan initially scheduled for 2030 was brought forward to 2020.
Milan is taking a plan originally intended for the year 2030 and making it a present-day reality in 2020
Other world cities are taking such examples and adapting them, while the UK government has announced an immediate £250 million of funding to help local authorities build new infrastructure such as dedicated cycle lanes and walking spaces, with a new ‘rule book’ on how road space should be reallocated. Although the government has been advising local authorities to support more cycling for a long time, now it is going further by making it a statutory duty.
The authorities in Bogotá, Colombia, have also been busy adding miles of cycle routes to the city’s road network. Having scooped the title of “most congested city in the world” (followed by Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, according to the INRIX global congestion scorecard), they are keen to give workers an alternative way of commuting in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. Other congested cities – and the INRIX top 10 includes Rome, Paris, Boston and Chicago – are also ripe for a permanent cycling revolution.
Reaching critical mass
Some of these changes may not be permanent. “Pop up infrastructure” and “tactical urbanism” are the phrases of the moment, and countries such as Germany and France are recommending that local authorities create temporary new cycle-ways and walking routes during the Covid-19 crisis, and in the case of New Zealand pouring new funds into the plan.
Meanwhile, there have been surges of interest in cycling before without it really taking hold – such as during the oil crisis of the 1970s, and right through the 1990s when cycling went hi-tech with bikes made of advanced hybrid materials, complete with accessories and components to match. More recently, the introduction of electric bikes promised another shift, although regulations on their use in some countries have limited their uptake.
But the hope is that this time could be different if the flurry of initiatives seen during the Covid-19 crisis turn into something more planned and co-ordinated. Joined up policies on infrastructure, electric bike legislation, and more trial and rental programmes like Pirelli’s CYCL-e Around e-bike initiative are required. Workplaces need to provide safe parking spaces for their cycling employees – and showers for them to change their clothes on arrival. Most of all, the number of cyclists needs to reach a critical mass so they can claim their space on the roads and feel safe.
This time could be different if the flurry of initiatives seen during the Covid-19 crisis turn into something more planned and co-ordinated
Cyclists of the world – actual and potential, present and future – are waiting. And so too is the planet