How COVID-19 is making urban transport greener

Support rises for cycling during the pandemic, but can it last?

June 11, 2020

While creating greener transportation options has been increasingly part of government and corporate planning in recent years, the coronavirus pandemic is helping push the agenda.

The UK government recently announced it will provide £2 billion, or US$2.46 billion, to create pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors as part of new funding available to support safe transport.

Other cities like Milan and Bogota have also put new cycling measures in place, while during lockdowns the mode of transport generally has seen a boost in usage in major cities like New York and London.

“People who ordinarily used public transport to get to work have now been thinking about using new methods, which is benefiting the environment and allowing them to view their cities differently as they discover new routes to get to their destinations,” says Claire Racine, an associate in JLL’s Upstream Sustainability Services team.

Despite cycling’s popularity as a sport in England, only around 4% of commuting trips are cycled, a figure that has changed very little over the last few years, according to the Government’s UK National Travel Survey. Cycling made up only 1% of the mileage accumulated by all vehicular road traffic. In comparison, cars and taxis accounted for 77%.

“It’s excellent to see that the UK is investing in cycling and walking infrastructure, which will in turn make our cities greener and remove a lot of unwanted air pollution,” says Jeremy Kelly, the lead director of global research programmes at JLL.

For companies now preparing to welcome employees back to their workplaces, this has meant looking into their end-of-trip facilities such as bike storage and showers.

“If it’s raining, or even very warm, it deters people from cycling to work,” Racine says. “Simply having more showers and changing facilities is a good way for companies to entice people into cycling into work.”

A worldwide shift

In Milan, home to 1.4 million people, before lockdown around 55% of people used public transport to get to work, according to Forbes. But following the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s government has pledged to make the roads much more cyclist and pedestrian-friendly by introducing new temporary cycle lanes and widened pavements. Lockdown has already meant that car traffic dropped by as much as 75% in some areas.

Bogota has created 76 kilometres of emergency bike lanes to provide an alternative to public transport. Budapest, too, has decided to establish temporary bike lanes for several key routes around the city.

New York City has seen a 70% spike in use of their Citibikes during lockdown. The demand for bikes during this period was so strong that many cities such as London, San Francisco and Berlin have allowed bike shops to remain open as an essential service.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that countries around the globe are learning from others,” Kelly says. “We can see that major cities have started investing in additional cycling infrastructure and services to allow people to get around without using public transport, where infection can spread more easily and socially distancing is too difficult.”

Confidence is key

As countries look to ease lockdown policies, the number of people who cycle to work will likely see an increase, says Kelly.

But for it to stick, companies need to play a role as well. End-of-trip facilities are only part of it.

“What holds commuters back from hopping on a bicycle every day to get to and from work is their confidence,” Racine. “There not only needs to be an increase in cycling infrastructure and showering facilities in offices, but there needs to be more support for staff, such as road cycling classes, to enable first-time commuters to feel confident in traffic. This will help enable this shift, as well as see more companies actively promoting cycle-to-work schemes for their staff.”

In the UK, cycle-to-work schemes have been in place for over two decades to enable give companies to give incentives to their employees if they cycle to work. To date, the scheme has involved over 40,000 employers across the country, and has contributed to help more than 1.6 million commuters to cycle to work.

With the latest £2 billion injection into providing safer transport, and with people using this is the time to re-evaluate their use of public transport, “this is the time for businesses, and employees alike to look at new ways of travelling that are healthy, safe and have a positive impact on the environment,” Kelly says.