Like many cities around the world, Wuhan’s air pollution significantly improved when it became the first global city to lock down and the roads emptied of cars. That positive impact is set to be reversed now that lockdown has lifted; car usage has soared from 24 to 66 per cent as people abandon public transport for fear of infection. This could be self-defeating: research this week linked Covid-19 deaths with air pollution, meaning the upswing in car usage could contribute to a second peak.
This trend is not inevitable. Indeed, cities like Paris and Milan are learning lessons from Wuhan and embracing the bicycle as a serious mode of transport in an effort to keep air pollution from returning to pre-lockdown levels. Paris is building 650km of pop-up “corona bike lanes” from 11 May when lockdown starts to lift; Milan is expanding its cycling provision over the summer. Bogota and New York City have also rapidly expanded their cycling networks during the crisis, and may well look to make them permanent once it has passed.
The UK disastrously failed to heed the lessons from other countries at the start of this crisis; it is now time we do so. Like Paris and Milan, local authorities must swiftly expand cycleways; as of last week, they have the power to do so. Positive noises came last week from mayors in the north of England, who cited cycling as key to our post-lockdown economic rethink.
Before the coronavirus, cities around the world were already moving away from driving and towards cycling. Of course, countries like the Netherlands and Denmark began to prioritise cycling decades ago; in Amsterdam, 72,000 commute each morning by bike, double the number who travel by car. Yet increasingly, car-free days, car-free streets, and restrictions on diesel vehicles are becoming staples in cities all over the world.
Oslo is practically car-free, while Paris announced its ambition earlier this year to become a “15-minute city”, in which everything you need is a 15-minute bike ride away. Here in the UK, London plans to close half its streets to cars and Edinburgh has a monthly car-free day. In February Brighton, Bristol, York and Birmingham all announced car-free ambitions.
Since lockdown began, cycling has boomed. Many who normally don’t feel safe cycling on busy roads have taken it up. Cycling has also enabled key workers to safely get to work without taking public transport.
Wuhan has shown us that car use will explode after lockdown is lifted, unless we make cycling a more central part of our transport infrastructure. We are well placed to do so: for not only is there a growing appetite among the population and politicians for expansive cycle networks, the UK also has a blueprint for how to get it done. Three years of hard work and expert thinking have gone into Greater Manchester’s Bee Network.
The plan, spearheaded by Manchester’s cycling commissioner and former Olympian Chris Boardman, is for an 1,800-mile cycle networks across Greater Manchester that will, it is hoped, increase journeys by foot or bike by 2.5 million a day, and save the NHS £6.73 billion by improving public health. Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, says the network could be a national blueprint – after lockdown, we must make it one.
For if the UK fails to learn from other countries and adopt the bicycle as critical infrastructure for life after lockdown, it will have learned little from this crisis.
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