It’s cycling, but not as we know it

9 June 2020
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Cycling has played a significant role during the COVID-19 lockdown. Professor Stephen Greaves and PhD candidate Tony Arnold discuss how we can capitalise on this to get more people cycling for transport in the future.

With the phased lifting of restrictions under the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia, it is timely to reflect on what we have learned about ourselves when it comes to getting around. Fundamentally, we’ve recognised that many day-to-day activities can be done at home, ranging from work, study, exercising, or socialising over Zoom with family and friends, obviating the need for around 50% of pre-Covid travel. Those of us still having to travel for work or dash down to the store to grab the last pack of toilet paper, have welcomed empty roads, cheaper petrol and fewer parking restrictions, while those sticking with public transport have faced 80% fewer passengers, guaranteeing not just a seat, but often a whole carriage to themselves.

Amid all this change, and fuelled by the glorious autumnal weather, many have (re)discovered that the bicycle gathering dust in the garage provides an enjoyable and legal way to get some exercise as well as a chance to connect with families in a quiet neighbourhood street or on a well-worn cycleway. Others, more attune to enjoying early morning Sunday group rides have turned to cycling alone or using stationary bike technology coupled with apps such as Zwift or Peloton to try to recreate some of the thrill. The bicycle has played a vital role in keeping the night-time economy afloat with backpackers, students and other willing workers coming laden-up on e-bikes with food from our favourite restaurants, forced to close to eat-in diners. These front-line workers receive fewer accolades than the nurses and doctors keeping the health system functioning, but they too have risked their lives, often for sub-award remuneration and conditions. Underpinning all this, the bicycle economy has seen a renaissance, with bicycle shops reportedly overwhelmed with demand for new bicycles, repairs, and stationary bicycles.

With public transport capacity a fraction of pre-Covid levels (In NSW trains are set to run at 24% capacity, buses 14%), people are predicted to return en masse to their cars - in Wuhan for instance, usage of private cars nearly doubled when their lockdown ended. True, more flexible work practices may offset some of this growth, with fewer days spent at the office, or travel conducted outside of peak hours. However, with children returning to school on a full-time basis and less use of school buses, the routines of parents may be dictated by the school timetable, forcing travel to be made during traditional peak periods.  If this is the case, and we also see a strong shift away from public transport, then we may see a sort of “carmageddon” that makes driving even more unbearable than usual.

Given that cycling has played such an important role during the lockdown, we may ask whether we can build on the current momentum and get more people cycling for transport, instead of getting back in their cars. Many nations are thinking along these lines – for instance, on May 9th the UK announced a £2 Billion Post-Pandemic Plan, that provided a significant boost for cycling and walking. Germany and New Zealand have instituted fast-tracked projects to increase footpath widening and install ‘pop-up’ bicycle lanes. Encouragingly, the NSW government has provided a $15 million fund in which councils can apply for grants up to $100,000 for immediate pilot projects and up to $1 million for longer term projects.  Transport for NSW and the City of Sydney have also announced a series of popup cycleways.

Of course, there will be challenges to overcome before the bicycle tyre can hit the road on these investments.  The checks and balances that are set up to ensure that our road network adequately serves our community become (somewhat necessary) barriers when rapid change is desired.  Before any change is made, we must ask whether the changes will affect emergency services vehicle access, whether bus routes are affected, whether property access is maintained, and whether rapidly-deployed pilot treatments are safe for all road users.  We must also consider and engage with a range of stakeholders such as residents and local councils. Then designs need to be generated and audited, before the actual work begins.  Even if no concrete is poured, traffic signals may need to be reprogrammed and regulatory signs installed.  With the complexity involved in even minor changes, the challenge will be to look for ‘quick wins’, otherwise this could be a lost opportunity.

Even with these infrastructure changes, a strong uptake in transport cycling is not guaranteed. On the positive side, those who dusted off their bicycles during lockdown have already overcome rudimentary barriers such as owning a working bicycle and building confidence in low-risk settings.  Admittedly, there are still several barriers to overcome before many will be ready to ride in traffic or adjust lifestyles to accommodate bicycle commuting. However, with transport systems in a state of flux, this may present an opportunity to shape future mobility behaviour that might build on some of the healthier lifestyle components coming out of the crisis, instead of contributing to our sedentary lifestyle. The humble bicycle has proven time and again it is resilient to major crises, congestion, transport strikes, power outages and social distancing impacts and it may be accessible to people who cannot afford to own and run a car.

With car traffic already building, it is critical that we take this opportunity to strike now while the bicycle is hot.