Environment & Health in Transport
Cycling in a State of Emergency: propelling cities out of the crisis? Thinking Cities presents a perspective from DIFU, the German Institute of Urban Affairs
The coronavirus has abruptly disrupted mobility in German communities, much as it has across the world. The sudden lack of car traffic has made it clear just how unequally public space is distributed between people and vehicles.
Doctors, scientists, politicians and the World Health Organisation are calling on people to choose walking and bicycling if they have to travel in order to safeguard their health on essential trips, as well as to ensure they are continuing to get the psychological and social benefits that come with physical activity during the lockdowns. In this exceptional time, the bicycle is showing all its strengths: it saves space, allows individual mobility over long distances, it promotes health and well-being, it is inexpensive, inclusive and climate-friendly.
The bicycle as a crisis-proof means of transport
The bicycle has proven a resilient mode of transportation in past crises. After major earthquakes in Mexico City in 2017 and Tokyo in 2011, bicycles proved to be one of the safest modes of transportation. The oil crisis of the 1970s led to restrictions on motorized traffic, car-free Sundays, and walking and biking on highways. In the Netherlands, the oil crisis along with broader ecological and road safety concerns resulted in social movements and government action that catapulted cycling and cycling-specific infrastructure into a permanent position of importance. The coronavirus crisis restrictions have significantly changed how we move. A study by the Technical University of Dresden found that 40% of the German residents surveyed have been biking more than before the Coronavirus crisis. Automated bike counters in Germany are recording all-time highs. In Switzerland, bike kilometers traveled is up 200% since before the lockdown. Bike share providers are part of the solution as well, offering a free half-hour to riders in several German cities. Cargo bike programs are also shifting their focus during the lockdowns and finding new partnerships with small businesses and community groups doing home deliveries. Still, some challenges that cyclists typically face have intensified. Initial studies have found more drivers are speeding on the now empty roads, adding additional risks of serious crashes that could further burden hospitals. Authorities have stepped up monitoring and advocates have called for a standard 30 km/h speed in built-up areas. While authorities in Brussels and Milan are introducing city-wide speed limits of 20km/h and 30km/h respectively, German federal law currently prevents local authorities to lower speeds at the city-wide scale.
Local authorities rising in the crisis
Local authorities are acting, learning, and exchanging with each other to promote cycling as a mode of transport and make most out of the current crisis-induced window of opportunity. Perhaps nowhere is collaboration more prevalent than in the pop-up bike lane and open street programs sweeping across the globe. Berlin, Bogota, Budapest, Montpelier, Paris, and others have created new cycling infrastructure in record time. In Germany, Berlin is the standard bearer: just a few weeks into the crisis, about 10 kilometers of driving and parking lanes were converted into temporary cycling lanes. With the cycling lane network viewed as “pandemic-resilient infrastructure”, Berlin has used temporary infrastructure to close gaps in the network, widen lanes in popular areas to allow for greater distances between riders, and installed lane protection bollards to make cycling safer in the context of additional speeding. The Berlin “Corona Pop-Up Bike Lanes” have been well received in Germany and are attracting international attention. A guidance document on Berlin’s process titled Making Safe Space for Cycling in 10 Days is now also available in English and French.
“Road safety is a permanent crisis. With over 3000 deaths in 2019 resulting from crashes on German roadways, road safety represents a consistent source of strain for healthcare systems”
Two Berlin city officials, Felix Weisbrich and Peter Broytman, recently joined Difu for a look behind the scenes at the pop-up lanes. They explained that the work of three years was reduced to two-weeks: “one week to think and one week to implement”. Berlin had prepared for agile action by adopting a set of standard bike lane specifications. To make the pop-up lanes happen, potential routes were discussed between the Berlin Senate (Berlin-wide planning level) and the districts (local implementation level) and implemented on short notice after coordinating with the police. Berlin sees huge potential in the planning methods used in the pop-up bike lanes, finding that it saved on planning costs and could speed up future projects: “It is much easier to move temporary yellow marking stickers and bollards than to change fixed construction”, says Weisbrich. In the next phase, Berlin aims to maintain and convert its temporary pop-up lanes into permanent infrastructure, adjusting final designs based on the real-life trials during the corona crisis lockdowns.
Transitioning to the new normal: cycling after the crisis
It’s said that it takes 30 days to form a habit. Much of Europe has been reforming habits for over 70 days at the time of writing. Cycling has become a new routine for many in Germany, with favourable spring weather combining with less car traffic on local roads and more flexibility to make cycling conditions ideal for casual and cautious cyclists. The question is, to what extent this will carry forward. The pandemic has created a window of opportunity for cycling not only to build on the habits formed during lockdowns but also for cycling to be part of a travel routine reset. At the same time there is a huge risk that such a reset could lead to higher levels of private car use and threaten the shift towards more sustainable mobility In the transition to a new normal, cycling is an even more important complement to public transport in order to relieve overcrowding and make safe physical distancing possible on trains and buses without adding new car traffic. If many public transport users switch to driving, the conditions in which “corona cyclists” are trying to establish regular cycling habits will not be favourable. More broadly, targets for improved air quality, climate mitigation, and pedestrian and cyclist safety are all at risk if the private car is seen as the default means of getting back to normal.
“Cycling has become a new routine for many in Germany, with favourable spring weather combining with less car traffic on local roads and more flexibility to make cycling conditions ideal for casual and cautious cyclists”
Now is the time to set the course
As cities come out of lockdowns, people are reorganizing their travel behavior. It is not too late to be thinking about short-term actions like those taken in Berlin and it is not too early to be thinking about structural changes with long-term impacts. Road safety is a permanent crisis. With over 3000 deaths in 2019 resulting from crashes on German roadways, road safety represents a consistent source of strain for healthcare systems and directly results in the premature loss of people of all ages. Pedestrians and cyclists are disproportionately at risk and their safety needs to be prioritized in mobility planning. As can be seen in any of the cities with pop-up corona bike lanes and walkways, good infrastructure goes a long way to give cyclists and pedestrians the confidence that they can safely move about the city.
“Respiratory health is a second long-term crisis that the coronavirus has only built upon. In 2015 an estimated 13,000 premature deaths in Germany were attributed to tailpipe emissions”
Respiratory health is a second long-term crisis that the coronavirus has only built upon. In 2015 an estimated 13,000 premature deaths in Germany were attributed to tailpipe emissions. Tailpipe emission related illnesses were also estimated to have cost German society an estimated €97 billion in 2015 alone. Studies from Europe and the United States have connected long-term exposure to air pollution with a higher risk of COVID-19 deaths. It is important that air quality continues to be prioritized, and that emissions free transportation modes like walking and biking receive further support. Economic stimulus measures and public sector budgets are now being set. The EU and national governments’ municipal rescue packages should build on the success of cycling seen in the crisis so far. Bicycle transport, both privately owned and shared services, has long proven to be a sustainable and equitable mode, and has now proven to be crisis resilient as well. Supporting cycling is a comparatively inexpensive way for the public sector to reconnect society. Local authorities also need extended regulatory powers to act nimbly in the future. The legal authority to create temporary road infrastructure and temporarily adjust speed limits should be held by local authorities. Road space allocation and speed limits can best be decided at the local level where on the ground knowledge is highest.
“Local authorities also need extended regulatory powers to act nimbly in the future. The legal authority to create temporary road infrastructure and temporarily adjust speed limits should be held by local authorities”
As Europe moves into the next phase of COVID-19 containment, it will see a new normal rather than a return to old patterns. Be it working from home, fewer business trips, or fewer evening events, there will be travel changes that every household carries into the next months. Now more than ever is the time for governments at all levels to commit themselves to clear targets for sustainable mobility. All cities, towns, and rural districts are well advised to make walking and cycling a central part of their pandemic exit strategies and longer-term development plans.
“Now more than ever is the time for governments at all levels to commit themselves to clear targets for sustainable mobility”
Berlin proves it is possible to build cycle infrastructure in 10 days! The current news cycle is filled with stories of communities around the world searching for solutions to providing safe mobility options in a 1.5-meter society. The district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg in Berlin stepped up to the challenge, building several temporary facilities in just 10 days and ensuring citizens could travel safely by bike while maintain recommended distances. We are proud to have supported Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg in the development of these measures and were asked by the district to produce this guidebook: Making Safe Space for Cycling in 10 Day - A guide to temporary bike lanes from Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin. This guide (originally published in German) provides a good foundation for planning safe, temporary infrastructure that can be implemented almost immediately in towns and cities that do not currently offer enough space for cyclists. It serves as inspiration to cities worldwide that want to do something, but don’t know how to start. For more info, please contact Bernhard Ensink, Strategic Advisor and Manager International Strategy German speaking Countries of Mobycon (email@example.com) Download the guide: https://mobycon.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/FrKr-Berlin_Guide-EN.pdf
FYI Tobias Klein is Mobility Researcher at DIFU Dagmar Köhler is Team Leader for mobility at DIFU Rachel Nadkarni is German Chancellor Fellow at DIFU Thomas Stein is Mobility Researcher at DIFU Edwin Süselbeck, CEO AGFK Niedersachsen For contact: firstname.lastname@example.org All photos for this article were provided by Peter Broytman