World Bicycle Day, 3 June, may only come around once a year, but this decade could see the bicycle reclaim a central place in our societies – and mitigate the worst crisis of our times.
History books will kick off the story of the 2020s with the devastation of COVID-19. The global pandemic has claimed over 3.5 million lives to date, and it has influenced every aspect of our lives, from our social relations and physical and mental health to the way we work and move about.
As tragic and challenging as it has been, the pandemic has also made more people all over Europe adopt cycling as their way of getting around. New and old cyclists alike flooded our previously car-dominated cities and towns during lockdown, and bike shops have struggled to keep up with demand.
Across the continent, politicians acted quickly. Many either accelerated existing plans for cycling or introduced cycle-friendly measures for the first time, often by introducing quick, temporary measures such as “pop-up” cycle lanes – also known as tactical urbanism.
A recent study using data from the European Cyclists’ Federation showed that pop-up cycle lanes increased cycling levels by up to 48% in European cities. Perceptive authorities in many places are now making those pop-up lanes permanent. In many countries, there is renewed political momentum for investing in cycling, not least in national economic recovery plans.
Meeting Europe’s climate goals
But if we are to overcome the most urgent crisis of our times, much more cycling investment and commitment is needed. Put bluntly, Europe’s climate goals will never be met without significant emission reductions in the transport sector, which in turn cannot be realised without significantly more cycling. Transport is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for almost a quarter of global CO2 emissions, and a major shift from private car travel to truly sustainable transport modes like cycling will be key to meeting the climate goals we have set ourselves.
Governments are placing a lot of hope in technology such as electric and/or autonomous vehicles, but they will at best only be part of the solution. Electrification will take a long time and will not help solve other problems such as traffic congestion and lack of physical activity.
We must prioritise and invest in solutions that are available now. Once produced, the bicycle is a net-zero emitter, and more cycling delivers a range of positive societal impacts in addition to cleaner air: reduced congestion, improved health and well-being, more attractive and liveable cities for all, better rural connectivity and greener leisure and tourism options.
Cycling is an equaliser. It offers people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds access to jobs and places of social and cultural exchange. It helps create more inclusive societies and contributes to vibrant local economies through higher patronage of local business and more local jobs.
Seize the momentum
So what should policy- and decisionmakers do? How can they enable more cycling in their countries, cities and towns?
First, they should openly commit to prioritising cycling as a sustainable and healthy mode of transport, as Ireland did in the government’s coalition agreement in 2020: “Cycling and electric cycling have enormous potential to facilitate a high proportion of daily trips if we provide an environment which protects and prioritises this mode of transport.”
Second, they must allocate budgets and re-allocate public space for the provision of safe, connected and direct cycling infrastructure. Perceived lack of safety is the biggest barrier for people to choose cycling for their daily trips. Hence, high-quality, protected cycle paths are a must. To become truly cycling-friendly, cities must follow the lead of cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and, more recently, London and Paris.
Third, cycling should be supported and incentivised through measures such as purchase premiums, tax breaks and cycle-to-work schemes. France’s recent announcement to give e-bike purchase premiums of up to €2,500 when scrapping a polluting car is an example to follow.
We must seize the momentum of the current crisis and European countries’ green recovery plans to create the more liveable, sustainable and healthy Europe that we want to live in. As European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans said last autumn, investment in cycling is a “no-brainer and no-regret.” That’s why we must invest heavily in cycling, which is a good deal as cycling measures have a high return on investment.
If we succeed, the 2020s will certainly be remembered for COVID-19 and the climate emergency, but also as the decade when the way we transport ourselves stopped being the problem and became part of the solution.
The European Cyclists’ Federation works for more and better cycling for all, because we strongly believe that cycling is the best solution we already have. It’s worth remembering that we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Happy World Bicycle Day to you all!
Henk Swarttouw is President of the European Cyclists’ Federation.