Times of crisis are shaking society and also offer a chance for transformation. Familiar norms are being questioned, routines are changing and previously unimaginable leeways for interventions are opening up. In our current harrowing situation this is also true for cycle traffic: Everything is possible from restrictions to more flexibility. We have taken a look – from Bogotá via Berlin to Budapest, from Paris via Rome to New York: Which measures are being taken facing the COVID-19 pandemic?

Currently cycling is either classified as dangerous leisure activity that has to be prohibited or as crisis-proof means of transport getting people from A to B while keeping the necessary minimum distance. Where is cycling seen as part of the solution for traffic problems in times of a pandemic and where is it restricted? Bogotá, Berlin and – most recently – also Budapest – are taking the lead in this peloton having converted car lanes into cycle lanes. Vienna caught up last minute on 9 April with officially opening so-called “Corona-Wohnstraßen”, i.e. banning cars from certain streets.

Bogotá cycling ahead

One of the first cities in the world to see cycling as part of the solution in slowing the spreading of the COVID19 virus was the Colombian capital Bogotá. Already in mid-March when only a dozen cases of the infection had been confirmed in Colombia cyclists were granted more space: 76km of temporary cycling lanes were created to relieve the usually overcrowded public transport and thus reduce the risk of infection.

The mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, described cycling as “one of the most hygienic alternatives for the prevention of the virus” spreading, SmartCitiesWorld reported. Partly over night, car lanes were re-purposed as cycle lanes mostly by placing traffic cones. On some crossings guards were posted to ensure cyclists and pedestrians could cross safely. Meanwhile over 117km of temporary cycle lanes have been created to widen the existing cycling network spanning 550km. At time of writing other cities in South and Latin America, including Mexiko City, were considering similar steps.

Bogotá was quick to create additional cycle lanes. Photo: @nico_estupinan

Mainly two factors leading to these decisions aimed at relieving the overcrowded public bus system in Bogotá: Switching to private cars is mostly impossible because only very few people own a car – in contrast to Western Europe where many people currently do just that. Additionally, the weekly Sunday bike rides on streets freed of cars, the so-called “Ciclovias” have already prepared the ground for the switch to bicycles. The first Ciclovia in Bogotá was held in 1974!

New York City among the pioneers

Also in New York City car lanes were temporarily turned into bike lanes and some in some streets motorised traffic was completely banned. Further – bevor restrictions on outdoor activities were put in place – the public bike share systems were made available for free. In mid-March this almost doubled the number of users compared to the same time last year. Similar figures were reported from Chicago where the same measure had been taken.

The corona pandemic has also led to a long-awaited change in the approval of e-bikes in New York: Until recently the US-state had banned all electronically supported bikes which could be moved without pedalling. Other e-bikes were in a legal grey area. To support deliveries all bans on any type of e-bikes have been temporarily lifted.

All these cities argue that cycling as a means of transport allows to keep sufficient distance to other people in the streets. Further, less car traffic means an improvement in air quality. This helps reduce the number of people having to be treated with breathing problems while medical staff and resources are needed to help Corona patients.

Hot spots within the EU: Italy, Spain and France

Also citing health arguments – but from a completely different point of view – an increase in the number of Corona cases led to a ban on almost all kinds of cycling in France, Spain and Italy – mainly focussing on cycling as a sport.

On 20 March, France limited people’s radius of movement to 2km from their residences, narrowing to 1km at the end of march. For leaving this radius you need a permit. This also includes cycling trips. This step was taken to prevent the spread of the virus, the authorities said. Any kind of outdoor sports activity was limited to an hour. Cycling to work is allowed when you have a confirmation that you need to leave the house for this purpose.

Riding a bike is currently banned in Italy and Spain as a sport, even if it is a solo ride. Cycling to work is allowed but in many heads this does not yet register as a common means of commute and is therefore seldom seen as an alternative. Italians reported via social media that they have been verbally abused by car drivers when commuting to work on a bike.

Germany: Berlin creates temporary bike lanes

German health minister Jens Spahn explicitly stated that “walking or cycling prevents infection”. Berlin followed Bogotá’s example and created first temporary measures to improve the cycling infrastructure from 25 March: On multi-lane streets, lanes were delimited to create temporary bike lanes. This way a “separate bike lane was created along the Hallesche Ufer” in Berlin Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the Berlin Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate protection noted in a press release (in German). Additionally, a crossing intersection where cyclists have to wait before crossing was widened. These measures are to be evaluated and might be extended to the whole city.

Pop-Up cycle lane, Berlin-Kreuzberg, Hallesche Ufer, 31.3.2020

The press release also states: “Particularly in the Corona crisis cycling helps to avoid infection, run necessary errands and to get some outdoor exercise. These measures also contribute to relieve public transport and to allow people to keep the decreed distance on the underground and on trains.” Berlin also made bikes from public bike shares available for free for up to 30 minutes multiple times a day.

Very different approaches can be seen in Germany’s 16 provinces when it comes to the question of how relevant bike shops are for the system. While bike repair services can be open in all provinces only Berlin, Thüringen and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern also allowed bikes stores in general to remain open after closing all non-systemically relevant shops as part of the Corona measures. In Bavaria the ban was only lifted after a few days.

Budapest increases cycling traffic

After usage of public transport dropped by 90% and the public bike share system MOL Bubi was made available for free cycling traffic increased in Budapest compared to the time before the pandemic. To adjust to these new circumstances the city government said on 7 April that it will create temporary cycle lanes on key routes. This was explicitly mentioned as an opportunity to sustainably improve cycle traffic in Budapest. (Source)

Austria cycles under restrictions

In Austria even bike repair services were only exempted from the general closure after bike repair shops, the economic chamber and cycle competence member Radlobby had intervened. After a week of uncertainty these services were declared to be systemically relevant. Bike shops had to remain closed but can be re-opened from 14 April under strict conditions.

The Covid19 decree issued by health minister Rudi Anschober (Greens) allows cycling under certain conditions. Among them is commuting to work or to do necessary shopping, to get physical exercise outside. He noted, exercising – while adhering to the security restrictions – can be an important factor for physical health and psychological welfare. In its online FAQ-list (in German) the health ministry notes: “All outdoor activities are allowed as long as they are done with families living in the same household and while keeping a distance of at least one meter to other people … There is no time limit for these activities.

Sports minister Werner Kogler (Greens) issued a recommendation to curtail cycling as a sports activity to avoid overwhelming the health systems. Solo rides of several hours, group rides and mountain bikes should be avoided. The initiative “Österreich radelt” has compiled the restrictions (in German).

For a long time, the local government of the city of Vienna remained uncertain how to treat cycling within the measures taken to prevent a further spread of the Covid19 virus. Initially, the Social Democrats rejected a package proposed by their coalition partner the Greens to close certain roads in order to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists. On 9 April this changed and several roads were declared as new “Corona-Wohnstraßen”, i.e. residential streets with limited or no car traffic.

Global Overview

This maps offers a snapshot of measures taken up to mid-March:

Corona measures in city traffic systems as per Mid-March 2020 Map: Marie Patino/CityLab

Recommendations issued by the European Cyclists’ Federation

At the Chapel Hill University in North Carolina, Tabitha Combs, researcher in sustainable transport, has compiled a list of all (planned) Corona-related traffic measures in cities around the world – and is asking for further input.

Text: editors, BO & AH

Posted on April 13, 2020