This article was written by and for the C40 Knowledge Hub, which delivers cutting-edge insights and practical resources from leading climate cities for others working in city government. It was originally published here in May 2020. We’re featuring the article with kind permission by the C40 Knowledge Hub.
With all but essential travel restricted, walking and cycling have emerged as vital forms of mobility during the COVID-19 crisis. These physically distant, active, equitable and low-carbon modes of transport are helping to facilitate safe essential shopping and exercise and to alleviate pressure on public transport. There has also been an uptick in food and other deliveries by bike, cargo, e-bike and e-cargo. As cities plan how to live sustainably with the virus in the medium to longer term, more walking and cycling is critical to enabling more people to travel safely and efficiently around their cities. Investment in walking and cycling now, while streets are quiet and traffic is reduced, will also quickly help to revive high streets and deliver a raft of other benefits for local economies, as well as improvements in air pollution, equity and more.
‘Whenever feasible, consider riding bicycles or walking.’This is the advice of the World Health Organisation on moving around during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Around the globe, cities have responded with astounding speed to the need and opportunity to expand cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Trailblazing projects include Bogotá and Berlin’s temporary bike lanes, Seattle and San Francisco’s open streets, and Milan and Barcelona’s ambitious plans for road-space reallocation. From Lisbon to Mexico City, public and private shared bike schemes are helping essential workers to travel safely, with many offering free or subsidised rides. This article outlines cities’ innovative ideas and best practices to inform others looking to boost active travel as a means of living safely and sustainably with COVID-19.
Walking and Cycling Provide Important Physical and Mental Health Benefits for Facing COVID-19
COVID-19 disproportionately affects those with underlying health conditions. Active travel can help prevent some of the most serious of these conditions, which are linked to a lack of physical activity, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers.1 In addition, outdoor physical activity strengthens the body’s immune system and improves quality of sleep.2 It supports mental and emotional wellbeing and can reduce risks of depression, helping to counter the negative impacts of physical-distancing restrictions.3 COVID-19 also has a disproportionate effect on those who suffer poor air quality.4 Replacing vehicle traffic with more walking and cycling reduces air pollution and makes streets more pleasant to be in. It also lessens traffic noise, which has been found to lead to stress, hearing loss, heart disease, learning problems in children, and insomnia.
Permanent Changes and Comprehensive Planning Will Maximise Benefits
While quick, temporary measures have been invaluable during the initial response period, cities will need to put in place permanent infrastructure that reallocates road space to cyclists and pedestrians to reap the full rewards of job creation, physical distancing, cleaner air and more. For maximum success, cities should set out comprehensive plans that see public spaces reclaimed from vehicles, streets adapted to active and sustainable modes of transport, and prioritised movement for freight and service-related activities. Cities including Milan have already published ambitious plans for better, more equitable road-space reallocation as they build back from lockdown measures.
Enabling Safe Travel Within Cities
To facilitate physical distancing on public transport while we live with the virus, public transport will need to operate at lower capacity. Cities can offset some of the consequences by prioritising and increasing the number of buses on roads and implementing other measures to increase the overall capacity of public transport systems. However, many public transport users will need to take fewer trips or travel by foot, bike or car. Without investment in walking and cycling, cities are likely to see a rise in vehicle traffic, leading to greater congestion, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, worse air and noise pollution and more road casualties, among other things.
Walking and cycling are cheap travel options with relatively low upfront and maintenance costs, for both the traveller and for transport authorities. Cities can ensure that citizens have access to high-quality walking and cycling networks, parks and green spaces, and design incentive schemes to ensure that all citizens can undertake daily physical activity by walking or cycling. This includes the elderly, people living with disabilities, marginalised groups and lower-income communities.
- Install temporary cycle lanes and wider walkways using paint, traffic cones, planters or other movable objects and through tactical urbanism measures. This is a quick way to increase space for people travelling on foot and by bike while more permanent infrastructure is built.
- Bogotá rapidly opened 76km of temporary cycle lanes, using traffic cones, to reduce crowding on public transport and improve air quality.5 Read more about Bogotá’s COVID-19 response, including its cycling facilities, in the case study.
- Mexico City has proposed 130km of temporary cycle lanes. This is a fourfold increase in the number of dedicated cycling lanes, designed to support physical distancing on public transport networks.6 Construction on the first 54km of segregated lanes has already begun, starting with a lane running from 8am to 7pm on Insurgentes, a major thoroughfare, which recorded as many as 3,500 cyclists in 6 hours.
- Berlin created pop-up bike paths in just three days, finding little resistance in a city where turning over road space to cyclists and pedestrians had previously been difficult. Other German cities, such as Stuttgart and Essen, are already going down the same route.7
- Improve the quality of permanent walking and cycling infrastructure, plug gaps in existing networks and expand cycle routes to city periphery and underserved areas. This will give more people better access to jobs, services and opportunities, and encourage the use of pedestrian and cycling facilities. Consider coupling expansive cycling networks with incentives for e-bikes.
- Paris’ new cycling infrastructure extends out to the periphery. The city created 650km of cycleways, including a number of pop-up cycleways, to help citizens move around their city when lockdown measures began to ease.8
- Auckland has almost 22km of cycle lanes, with additional work now underway on a major pedestrian corridor in the city centre, which will reallocate space to active and sustainable modes of transport only.
- Madrid is building 100km of permanent cycling infrastructure in 2020–2021.9
- Expand cycle-share systems, including to underserved areas and priority groups. This can include providing free or subsidised access to bike-share schemes for essential workers. Bike-sharing companies and cities need to ensure that units are sanitised regularly at stations.
- In cities including London, Bogotá, Mexico City and Dublin, public and private bike-share schemes have supported medical and essential workers in getting to and from work safely, with many cities and operators providing free or subsidised trips.10, 11, 12
- Increase and improve subsidies for bikes and e-bikes. Already, cities around the world are seeing a boom in bike sales.13 Cities can provide support and incentives to nudge more people onto bikes, for example, by expanding cycle-to-work schemes, providing direct subsidies and supporting the use of e-bikes to overcome issues of distance and topography. Cities can also incentivise e-cargo bikes for last-mile deliveries to help meet the rise in demand for delivery services.
- In cities across France, all citizens are eligible for bike repairs of up to €50. People simply take their bike to a registered bike mechanic, who is then reimbursed by the state for the first €50 of costs.14
- Rome and London are supporting the loan or purchase of e-bikes, particularly for medical workers.15, 16
- Introduce lower local speed limits to ensure that all vehicles are travelling at a safe speed for pedestrians and cyclists.17 Many cities are reporting that although there are fewer vehicles on the roads, more of them are speeding. Ideally, cities should design streets for slower speeds, but in the short term, lower local speed limits are a good option.18 Milan, for example, is among the cities instituting 30km per hour (20 mph) speed limits on many city streets as part of reopening plans.19
- Support jobs and businesses associated with walking and cycling. For example, cities can upskill communities in cycle repair and maintenance, cycle proficiency and confidence training, tour guiding and the manufacture and marketing of bikes and e-bikes.
- In Lima, to offset new capacity constraints on public transport, the city is installing 301km (188 miles) of emergency bicycle lanes – doubling and integrating the current disjointed network to improve connections. The city government is also working with local partners to develop a prototype for an inexpensive Peruvian bicycle, which can be purchased for the cost of two months’ travel on public transport. It will be manufactured locally as part of the city’s economic recovery plan. Read more about these plans here.
European COVID-19 Cycling Measures Tracker
The European Cyclists’ Federation is tracking the announcement and implementation of cycling lanes, traffic reduction measures, car-free streets and wider walkways in the region. Visit the COVID-19 Cycling Measures Tracker.
Streets for Pandemic Response & Recovery
The highly visual guide, Streets for Pandemic Response & Recovery, summarises evolving practices in transportation and street design in response to COVID-19. It highlights cities’ efforts and options for re-organising streets to best manage the crisis and to support economic recovery. It includes advice on how to implement various street-space reallocation options, four of which are outlined in the images below. The report, produced by the US National Association of City Transport Officials (NACTO) in partnership with Bloomberg Associates and Street Plans, will be updated and expanded based on evolving practices.
Investment In Walking and Cycling Now Will Stimulate Local Economies Through the Recovery
While streets are quiet and traffic is reduced, cities have an opportunity to expand walking and cycling infrastructure with minimal disruption while creating jobs to deliver those projects. Expanding walking and cycling can create additional jobs in bike maintenance, training, bike manufacture, tour guiding and more. Investment will also support local economic recovery by providing better access to jobs and services and by creating higher-quality, more liveable local places that can attract greater foot traffic now and in the longer term.
As well as providing space for pedestrians, cities can turn road space and parking spaces over to shops, restaurants and other businesses to help them to safely operate at near-normal capacity during the pandemic. Streets for Pandemic Response & Recovery also includes advice on these alternative road space uses.
Providing Space for Street Life
Physical-distancing recommendations are placing more pressure on streets, parks and other shared public spaces. Pedestrianisation and wider footways, particularly on high streets, coupled with other measures to reduce traffic, will not only help people to comply with the recommendations, but also support local economic recovery by making streets more pleasant and safe for visitors. Improved streets and other shared spaces are also needed so people can safely exercise and play outdoors and meet daily physical-activity recommendations while mobility and access to sport and other recreational activities are limited.
The actions set out below will also benefit those travelling through city streets on foot or by bike.
- Widen footways, convert parking bays, or pedestrianise streets, high streets and other busy streets. This will enable physical distancing when shopping and support local economies by providing more space for people to shop, dine at local restaurants and more.
- Barcelona is adding 30,000m2 to its pedestrian network and 21km to its cycling network. The city is also implementing priority bus lanes and will levy new parking taxes on polluting vehicles.
- Buenos Aires has pedestrianised around 100 streets to help people to avoid crowds and encourage commercial interaction within neighbourhoods. Pavements with substantial pedestrian traffic now also have physical-distancing markers, while the city’s public bike-share and electric scooter schemes have been reactivated with new protocols. Read more about Buenos Aires’ COVID-19 response here.
- In May, Tel Aviv converted 11 popular streets into pedestrian zones to encourage local trade and to make the city more friendly to those on foot, building on the success of two recently pedestrianised streets. Street furniture will be added to some of the streets, and restaurants and food stalls will be allowed to place tables and chairs outside.20
- Dublin is removing city loading bays and parking spaces to create additional space for pedestrians.21
- The UK city of Brighton closed Madeira Drive, a short but busy street on the seafront, to vehicle traffic and opened it up to residents for walking and cycling. More streets are expected to follow.22
- Philadelphia has closed a riverside boulevard to motor traffic after a popular petition, while Minneapolis has closed parts of its riverfront parkway to vehicles.
- Rotterdam has allowed all business-owners to convert parking space in front of their business into space for the business and its customers, using wooden decks loaned by the municipality free of charge, until November 2020. No permit is required.23
- Some cities are closing streets to traffic for limited periods. For instance, in Winnipeg, some streets are now open only to cyclists and pedestrians between 8am and 8pm.
- Increase safe spaces for exercise and play. Ensure parks and green spaces are open and managed safely. Implement more ambitious green-space strategies to improve the quality of walking and cycling space. Many cities are pedestrianising quieter residential streets to prioritise the space for the people who live there, rather than drivers passing through; now, only residents, delivery vehicles and emergency vehicles are granted access.
- Seattle closed just over 4km of road to traffic (except for residents or deliveries) as part of its ‘Stay Healthy Streets’ initiative and the city government is planning to increase this to almost 20km in the coming weeks.
- New York opened up 160km of streets for socially responsible recreation during the COVID-19 crisis, with a focus on areas with the most need.
- Oakland, California has restricted access to vehicles on nearly 74 miles of city streets – about 10% of the city’s street network – to create more outdoor space for exercise and play, as well as safe corridors for essential travel on foot or by bike. These ‘slow streets’ come in response to residents’ concerns about overcrowding in parks and on sidewalks, and are ‘closed’ to through traffic using traffic cones and signs blocking one lane.25
- The London Borough of Hackney will add to its existing network of filtered streets for walking and cycling to ease pressure on parks and open spaces.26
Weather- and Future-Proofing Walking and Cycling Infrastructure
Increasing active and sustainable travel can help cities to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events. It is important that walking and cycling remain viable and reliable throughout the seasons and in a changing climate, through high-quality green infrastructure and other adaptation measures, such as shading, shelter and permeable surfaces. Preparing for autumn and winter walking and cycling requires the coordination of multiple city departments, including street maintenance, traffic control and road-safety teams. Read more in Reducing climate change impacts on walking and cycling.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019) Physical Activity Prevents Chronic Disease. Atlanta, GA.
 The New York Times (2020) Let the sunshine in, 28 April.
 The Trust for Public Land (2020) Public health experts answer your questions about getting outside during COVID-19, 29 April. San Francisco, CA.
 The Guardian (2020) Coronavirus detected on particles of air pollution, 24 April.
 Smart Cities World (2020) Bogotá expands bike lanes to curb coronavirus spread, 18 March. London.
 Roadshow (2020) How might Mexico City fight coronavirus? Bike paths, 24 March.
 Deutsche Welle (2020) Coronavirus pandemic gives cyclists more road in Berlin, 18 April.
 Forbes (2020) Paris to create 650 kilometers of post-lockdown cycleways, 22 April.
 Pedalibre (2020) Diversas asociaciones celebran el anuncio del Ayuntamiento de Madrid de construir los 100 km de carriles bici permanentes que estaban proyectados para 2020 y 2021, 1 May.
 The Independent (2020) How bike rental companies are helping NHS staff get to work and avoid public transport, 29 March.
 The City Fix (2020) Bogotá Company Deploys 400 Free E-Bikes to Help Health Workers Respond to COVID-19, 30 March. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute Ross Center.
 The Irish Times (2020) Healthcare workers get a lift with free ebikes ahead of scheme launch, 31 March.
 The Guardian (2020) ‘Bicycles are the new toilet paper’: bike sales boom as coronavirus lockdown residents crave exercise, 22 April.
 BBC News (2020) Coronavirus: France offers subsidy to tempt lockdown cyclists, 30 April.
 La Stampa Cronaca (2020) Coronavirus: per la fase 2 a Roma la sindaca Raggi riparte da bici, monopattini e “scuole estive”, 20 April.
 The Verge (2020) London health workers to receive free e-bike loaners to avoid public transport, 30 March.
 Vox (2020) How to make a city livable during lockdown, 22 April.
 The Guardian (2020) Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown, 21 April.
 The Jerusalem Post (2020) Tel Aviv to convert 11 city centre streets into pedestrian zones, 18 May.
 The Irish Times (2020) Coronavirus: Dublin City Council to implement ‘emergency’ social distancing measures, 17 April.
 Brighton & Hove City Council (2020) Madeira Drive first road to be allocated for walkers and cyclists, 17 April. Brighton, UK.
 Ondernemen010 (2020) Vraag een circulaire vlonder aan.
 Citylab (2020) Drivers not wanted on Oakland’s ‘slow streets’, 17 April.
 Road.cc (2020) East London council to block cars to protect cyclists and pedestrians from speeding drivers during pandemic, 11 April.