Cities look to cycling as the safe, socially-distanced way to travel

Cities in several countries are embarking on a rearrangement of urban streets in the hope of encouraging cyclists and pedestrians to travel while respecting social distancing. The most ambitious so far is Milan, which plans to transform 35km of streets this summer, and the French environment minister has commissioned a strategy for urban rearrangement of Paris to help both during the coronavirus lockdown and in the post-lockdown relaxation.

One of the big casualties of people’s and governments’ responses to Covid-19 has been public transport, because of the difficulty of social distancing and the risk of the virus spreading. While car transport remains low due to current restrictions on movement, there are fears that car use will rise after lockdown, whereas public transport will take a long time to recover even after restrictions are lifted.

Milan is introducing temporary experimental cycle lanes on some of the main routes into the centre of the city along with wider pavements for pedestrians, 30 km/h zones and priority for pedestrians and cyclists in certain streets. In recent years, the northern Italian city has been one of Europe’s most polluted, and research has shown a strong link between areas of high air pollution and a large number of coronavirus deaths. The mayor’s office says the measure is to protect human health, as well as to make the city centre more attractive for businesses like cafes, artisans and restaurants.

Meanwhile, France’s environment minister Elisabeth Borne has appointed an experienced transport ecologist, Pierre Serne, to develop a plan for ‘urbanisme tactique’, or urban rearrangement, to prevent a resurgence of driving once lockdown restrictions are relaxed. Serne’s role is to coordinate the introduction of mobility solutions in which cycling is the main means of transport allowing for social distancing, with testing to start during the current confinement period.

A number of cities around the world have taken temporary measures to encourage cycling. Brussels says it will declare the inner city centre (known as the Pentagon) a pedestrian and cyclist priority zone, with cars, trams and buses limited to 20 km/h. Berlin has created new cycle routes, in some cases by stopping car traffic, and the British government has said it is lifting restrictions on car-free streets to allow key workers to cycle to work more safely.

Outside Europe, the American cities of Boston, Minneapolis and Oakland have banned car traffic from certain streets in order to give cyclists extra elbow room, although there is no indication that this will be continued once the virus is under control. And in Colombia’s capital Bogotá, an additional 76km of cycle lanes have been created to help social distancing, taking the city’s cycle network over 600km.

T&E’s clean air campaigner Pierre Dornier said: ‘People want to go back to normal, but nobody wants a return to business as usual when it comes to pollution and congestion. Mayors understand the need to reimagine our cities. The measures in Milan, Brussels and cities across Europe could be the beginning of a radically improved quality of life in Europe’s cities.’