Cycling and COVID-19: Why investments to boost cycling are important for a sustainable recovery

Around the world, the number of people walking and cycling has risen to unprecedented levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the number of kilometres travelled by bike in Switzerland doubled during the country’s partial lockdown, while counting stations in Philadelphia saw the number of cyclists increase by an average of 150%. Government leaders are now taking steps to encourage this development through new infrastructure projects and funding, such as the UK government’s new GBP 2 billion [USD 2.5 billion] plan to improve and expand pedestrian and cycling infrastructure domestically.

Why is that good news for a sustainable recovery, and what more should be done? Biking infrastructure provides a range of environmental, social, and economic benefits and avoided costs. Along with the health benefits of increased physical activity, cycling is also a beneficial mode of transport in the current pandemic, as it enables physical distancing, provides a safe mobility alternative to public transport, and helps keep air pollution levels down.

Biking contributes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions as well as air and noise pollution, while also being a practical and cost-effective mode of transport. In Germany, biking costs approximately EUR 10 cents per person per km compared to EUR 40–140 cents for using a mid-range car. The infrastructure costs per passenger per kilometre are estimated at EUR 6.6 cents for cars, but only EUR 0.5 cents for bicycles (including costs for infrastructure, land use, and maintenance). Better conditions for walking and cycling provide particular benefits for poorer communities and minorities by offering mobility alternatives that are less costly and better for the environment.

Why Now?

Governments around the world are struggling to respond to and recover from the current health and economic crisis. Investments in cycling infrastructure are an opportunity to create much-needed jobs. Bike paths and other infrastructure need to be constructed and maintained, while increased bike use implies more jobs in retail, manufacturing, tourism, and services, all of which have been hard hit by the pandemic. For example, investments in cycling tourism can create jobs and provide attractive regional holiday options, especially while travel restrictions remain in place in most countries.

In comparison to other sectors, cycling could create more local jobs and more jobs for workers with lower qualification levels. Compared to highway projects, investments in cycling infrastructure create more jobs per dollar spent.

Promoting active transportation is also an opportunity to boost property values and retail revenues, fostering an economic recovery from the crisis and helping develop livable, equitable, and healthier communities.

What Can Local Governments Do?

Around the globe, mayors are committing to a green and just recovery of their cities, accepting their crucial role in building back better after the crisis. Improving the conditions for active mobility is a valuable investment for communities, though the starting conditions for cycling are different across communities and regions. For example, existing infrastructure and regulations may be a benefit or hindrance, while cycling may be less established in some communities relative to others. Nonetheless, the following ideas could be considered for promoting biking in stimulus plans for a sustainable recovery.

1. Implement quick, temporary measures and cycling projects from existing mobility plans

There are several options that local authorities can consider to make cycling safer and more attractive with temporary, low-cost measures, such as pop-up bike lanes and car-free zones. The focus should be on key routes for commuters and into community centres, helping residents to meet most of their needs with a short walk or bike ride. Temporary infrastructure measures offer a rare opportunity for people to experience the benefits of such changes, which are otherwise difficult to visualize in the abstract.

The implementation and expansion of public bicycle sharing systems could also be a priority, as these can be an important element of sustainable transport systems and yield a positive net value for cities. As more people will spend their free time close to their homes in the time to come, measures related to touristic and recreational cycleways can also be of high economic and individual value.

Many municipalities and regions already have mobility strategies, including well-planned cycling infrastructure projects. Often, the implementation of larger infrastructure improvements, like regional cycling highways or extensive bike parking facilities, is limited by budget constraints. Therefore, national governments should consider providing local authorities with the funds they need to quickly implement such projects.

2. Make successful measures permanent and consolidate good cycling networks

Governments also need to give local authorities the legal and financial freedom to turn successful temporary measures into permanent infrastructure improvements. Often, this might require changing regulations, as well as durable commitment in policy-making and administration.

3. Push for sustainable transport as a whole

Mobility systems are complex, and sustainable mobility cannot be based on bikes alone. To be effective in creating the desired benefits, stimulus money should be spent on well-designed projects from integrated mobility plans wherever possible, for instance, on projects improving intermodal mobility options by linking attractive cycling lanes with railway stations. It can also be worthwhile to offer funding to prepare sustainable mobility plans in the first place.

4. Create targeted incentives for cycling

Introducing incentives to buy e-bikes and cargo bikes can make biking more attractive for a broader target group and daily life. However, those are not the only measures that could help people to bike more: for instance, governments can offer vouchers for bike repairs, introduce and expand bike to work and bike to school schemes, or give financial support to low-income households to purchase bikes.

Stimulus spending to recover from the crisis can be an opportunity to make our transport systems more sustainable and our communities healthier and more livable. When laying the groundwork for a sustainable recovery, policy-makers need to collaborate with urban planners to design stimulus measures that boost biking as a preferred mode of transport for short distances.