The bicycle can propel us towards a more sustainable future post-pandemic

Posted on: June 11, 2020

Urban and transport planner

Consultant, Climate Change Division, Inter-American Development Bank

Manager of Active Mobility, Cities Program, WRI Mexico


A row of bicycles from EcoBici in the Reforma Avenue in Mexico City
Photo: erlucho/Shutterstock

During the coronavirus pandemic, the bicycle is an unmatched rival to permit a more hygienic way to move around, contribute to a sustainable recovery of the economy, and support the transformation of urban transport towards decarbonization.

It is necessary to continue reclaiming the streets and public spaces, as we move forward in solving the climate crisis.

Before and during the COVID-19 pandemic

In Latin America and the Caribbean, cities are not characterized by efficient or equitable distribution of public space. Streets are congested and gasoline continues to be generously subsidized. Although some cities have attempted to reclaim space for pedestrians and cyclists, there is still work to do.

The measures implemented to curb the spread of the new coronavirus have caused the closure of businesses and the cancellation of social events. With the current 'physical distancing' measures, the use of public transport decreased to very low levels, the operations of some micromobility (small, lightweight, low-speed electric means of transport used for short distances) providers has been interrupted, and ridesharing trips plummeted. Private vehicular traffic dropped to historic lows and parking lots stand empty – the perfect recipe for reclaiming urban spaces.

The following points detail some determining factors to take advantage of the current context, empower the bicycle as an agent of change and contribute to the solution of some of the most urgent challenges of this decade.

Accelerate the construction of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure

In the current context, pedestrian sidewalks are insufficient to maintain minimum physical distance, while there is a lot of space on the roadways due to the drop in vehicular traffic. Solutions such as the introduction of temporary bicycle lanes, the expansion of pedestrian paths or streets with calm and shared traffic, which have been tried in cities before, are emerging as some of the possible measures cities can implement quickly and obtain numerous benefits.

For example, in the Latin America and Caribbean region, the dedication of 80 km of bicycle lanes was announced in Bogotá, while Mexico City is adapting 66 km on important avenues in the city. The key here is to ensure that most of this infrastructure remains long-term.

Bike sales have soared: promote cycling during and after the pandemic

Although total demand for travel fell sharply, workers in essential sectors continued to travel, many of them by bicycle. In the United StatesEngland, and Germany, bicycle stores reported an increase in sales of up to 700%, compared to the previous year.

In Paris, the bikeshare system reported that in the second week of May over 400,000 trips were made, almost 120,000 of them in a single day. In London, electric bikeshare trips doubled in less than three weeks. Across the Atlantic, public bicycle trips in New York increased almost 70% compared to 2019. And in Latin America there is no going back.

Undoubtedly, during the crisis there has been an increased use of the bicycle as a more hygienic alternative for transportation and in response to the demand for the provision of basic goods at home. However, in order for its use to continue to be promoted, greater road safety is required, since although in most cities the number of car trips has decreased, the speed and consequences of traffic incidents have also increased.

Falling oil prices and the disappearance of gasoline subsidies

In early 2020, the price of a barrel of oil plummeted to $-4.47 due to near-non-existent travel demand during the pandemic. In recent years, many countries have eliminated gasoline subsidies, creating fiscal space to finance more sustainable projects.

These resources can be used to create “funds to promote active mobility.” Furthermore, the adoption of carbon taxes can also contribute significantly to the goals of the Paris Agreement, and thus work to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

Micro mobility and the explosion of the e-bike

The goals of micromobility companies and their regulators need to be aligned. In this sector there is an over-regulation that does not encourage innovation and competition, and the collection of operating permit fees increases the final cost to the user. The resources for an eventual elimination of gasoline subsidies could be invested in micromobility so that services are more equitable and companies can prosper.

Likewise, electric bicycles have enormous potential in areas where public transport systems are inadequate and where income is not enough to purchase a car. Encouraging the use of the e-bike can be decisive to reactivate the economy, as the recovery of public transport demand will happen gradually.

A company in Colombia recently announced monthly e-bike memberships with support and maintenance for just over $50. These affordable plans provide the consumer with a realistic alternative to the automobile and a reduction in polluting emissions.

In Latin America, the benefits of bikeshare systems are becoming mainstream. It is necessary to increase the adoption of such systems in large cities and strongly promote it in intermediate cities, guaranteeing the integration of their operation with the city’s mobility plans.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have designed the Guide for the Structuring Bikeshare Systems (currently in Spanish only). This tool seeks to guide decision-makers in defining the elements of optimal investment in these systems, identifying resources to finance, the distribution of risks and responsibilities of the different actors involved, and mobilizing the investment capital.

It's time to hop on your bike

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a realistic opportunity to create a virtuous circle of promotion and investment in environmentally-friendly infrastructure and mobility, leveraging the bicycle as an engine of this change.

It is time for citizens to demand and city authorities to demonstrate the political will to prioritize health, air quality, and harmony in urban life; to make the timely decision to face the pandemic by promoting bicycle use and different associated technologies and permanently transform mobility for the benefit of society.

This piece was originally published by the Inter-American Development Bank.

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