European leaders recently met virtually with European Commission executive vice-president Frans Timmermans to discuss how cycling can enable a green recovery in Europe. Rebecca Morley reports
The COVID-19 pandemic has been widespread in Europe in 2020. Our cities and countries have gone from lockdown to recovery and back to lockdown, with all aspects of our daily lives changed in one way or another. And many people have changed their transport habits, taking a fresh look at how sustainable their mobility is.
“For quite some weeks during lockdown, motorised mobility came to a near standstill,” says Jill Warren, co-CEO of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), at a round table discussion with European leaders in October.
“Quiet and empty streets ruled the day and gave us new perspectives as well as attracted old and new cyclists. When lockdown eased, cities had to ensure that people could move about safely and respect social distancing, and that we didn’t go from lockdown to traffic gridlock if more people turn to their cars to achieve social distancing – not an easy challenge for our cities and countries to face.”
In fact, transport experts in the UK recently warned of traffic gridlock in Britain in the wake of the pandemic, as workers shun public transport. Transport secretary Grant Shapps unveiled a £250 million emergency active travel fund back in May, and just last month released £175 million to councils across England to create safe space for cycling and walking. But what impact will this, and other active travel schemes across the continent, have?
“More cycling must be at the heart of all European plans,” says Christophe Najdovski, City of Paris deputy mayor and ECF president. “First, we need to invest in infrastructure, to ensure accessible places for all citizens of all ages to cycle safety, for the whole length of their journey. Across the whole EU, we predict that a minimum of €10 billion is needed to enable more EU cities to catch up with the measures implemented since March of this year in cities like Paris.”
How has the pandemic influenced mobility throughout our cities?
Many cities across the world have noted an increase in the demand for cycling, as people enjoyed quieter streets and cleaner spaces during lockdown. And there is also a demand for lessening our emissions, says Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission. “If a third of our emissions are in cities, a lot can be achieved by decarbonising public transport in combination with a more modular way of getting around in cities.
“Cycling is, by definition, the best way of solving this problem. We would like to enter into strategic partnerships with cities across the European Union, to exchange experience, to give support to this development, because it is part of creating greener and healthier cities. Bike lanes are a no-regret investment.
“In the past, cycling was something for younger people and in the flatter areas of Europe. But electric bikes have made it more accessible to all ages. That should help introduce this idea of cycling as a fundamental part of the solution of our mobility challenge, especially in urban areas. The other revolution we’ve seen is that in most European countries, where cycling was seen as a sport and recreation, the image of people in their suits riding in the city has now become more common.”
The pandemic has also seen an increase in the number of people working from home, meaning there have been fewer commuters in and around our cities. “I think our urgency is to take the road space we have as quickly as we can,” says Eamon Ryan, minister for climate action, communication networks and transport in Ireland, “so when the pandemic starts to ease and people start to return to work, they get back on bikes.” But Ryan points out another issue the industry has faced this year; the popularity of cycling has risen so much that some have faced a supply shortage. “In Europe, we need to think of how to strengthen our local manufacturing industries to supply local bikes.”
The reason for this shortage, says Timmermans, is that most bike components are made in China and then assembled in Europe. “It’s emblematic for one of the challenges we have as Europeans with our economy, there is a need to build up more resilience in Europe. Part of that is to look at our supply chains. I’m not saying you should become protectionist, but we should be able to build our own bikes, e-bikes, batteries or electric buses.”
Timmermans also highlights how peoples’ mentalities have been deeply influenced by the COVID crisis. “They have taken a different look at how they get around, but also at the value of having a clean city and fewer cars on the streets. We should use this momentum to get us into a cleaner environment and more onto bikes.
“It should be accessible to all generations and economic circumstances. It shouldn’t be a luxury; it should be part of our transport mix and I encourage mayors to keep in dialogue with us to see where we could facilitate this.”
But when lockdown restrictions do eventually ease fully and life returns to ‘normal’, will people continue to work from home – and how might these decisions impact the demand for cycling? “The whole transport system is changing – this idea that everyone comes from the far distant suburbs into the centre and then in the evening goes back out again,” says Ryan. “Even after COVID hopefully is resolved, I don’t think we will go back to that. I think the distant networking will stay.”
We also need to disincentivise cars, says Timmermans. “It’s not just about introducing a bicycle, it’s also about introducing a model of transport that would make it easier for people to leave their cars outside the city.
“System integration is something that I would like to put on the table. If I look at my oldest kids’ generation, they don’t think in terms of owning a car anymore. They own a car if they have no alternative, but they want their transport needs to be addressed. They want to get from one place to the other and the easier we can make it on public transport, the less they feel the need to have or use their own car.”