The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world as nations are forced to juggle self-isolation, testing and prevention against employment and economic well-being. In midst of this, everyday people have retreated to their own four walls. Although technology (such as web-conferences and facetime) can fill the some of gaps, the dramatic increase in solo-sport, particularly walking, jogging and cycling, have provided people with ‘self-isolation compatible’ outlets for physical well-being and mental space.
Herein lies a major problem, the current infrastructure for walking and cycling is already inadequate, more so with the growing necessity for physical activity during the crisis.
Australian health and transport experts have formally called on decision makers to enact urgent measures to support safe walking and cycling and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Ben Beck, from the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, has led the call with over 100 health and transport experts co-signing an open letter to government decision makers to create space for safer walking and cycling.
In a media release, Dr. Beck says, “In order to provide safe physical activity and social distancing for adults and children to exercise and move about their neighbourhoods, we need decision makers to enable rapid roll-out of social distancing infrastructure to support walking and cycling.
“We have seen numerous examples across the world of governments introducing reduced speed limits, widened footpaths, emergency cycle lanes and the closure of roads. As yet, we have not seen a similar response in Australia, and we need to act now.”
The letter was sent to all Australian State and Territory Government transport ministers and co-signed by
the experts which includes a host of academics from Universities across Australia along with professionals from the Heart Foundation, Public Health Association of Australia, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, the Australasian College of Road Safety, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Trauma Committee, Kidsafe, the Australasian Injury Prevention Network, The Committee for Sydney and The Committee for Adelaide.
It will be no surprise that leading cycling nations such as Germany have already taken steps, although it is far from nationally coordinated and relies on the initiative of regions and cities. In Berlin for example, the reduction of motor traffic by 40% along with avoidance of public transport along brought a sharp increase in the numbers of bike riders. This has prompted councils to introduce pop-up bike space and, for example, repurposing lanes on roads into additional bicycle lanes.
Progress usually takes years but necessity has fast-tracked the traffic changes and it has just taken days to approved these temporary lanes and cycling spaces. The Berlin initiative prompted 133 other German cities to submit applications for pop-up bike lanes. Other cities and regions across the globe such as Bogotá, New York, Mexico City, Minneapolis, Denver and Vancouver, to name just a few, have also made traffic changes to allow more space for pedestrians and bike riders to travel safely. New Zealand also leads the way and under their Tactical Urbanism approach are providing 90% funding for cities who widen walkways and create temporary cycleways.
A danger of temporary cycling spaces is that once the risks from Covid-19 pandemic have been overcome, cars will again flood the streets and temporary walking and cycling spaces will be removed. Even when more people get a taste for walking and cycling, removing safeguards will signal a return to the previous modus operandi.
In this respect, the current shift in transport is also an opportunity for Governments to implement permanent improvements and allow people to return to towns and cities where walking and cycling are efficient, convenient and safer. The return of society to normalcy will be a gradual and staggered approach allowing an easier adaption to improved transportation and infrastructure. This is in contrast to usual approach of making significant transportation changes when traffic is already at peak capacity – installing a safe bicycle lane traditionally attracts vehement opposition in Australia.
Australian Cycling Industry and Advocacy Support
Bike Advocacy groups across Australia have been vocal in communicating their cycling related Covid-19 information and strategies to members as well as seeking active responses and engagement from their state ministers and transportation departments.
We Ride Australia is the national cycling industry supported body which represents both the economic interested of Australian bike shops and wholesalers but also actively promotes bike riding to the Federal Government. They have driven the call by health experts and transport experts for government action and are expected to ramp up activity for more engagement of both the cycling trade as well state and local cycling groups for government action across all levels; federal, state and municipal.
We Ride Spokesperson, Stephen Hodge says “Through the COVID-19 pandemic cycling has been a vital option for people to maintain physical activity and get around their communities in a way that avoids some of the perceived risks associated with mass transit.
The result has been increases in people riding bikes and significant sales of bicycles and repair services. The measures that are being taken by local governments to provide additional space for people riding are a great opportunity to build greater awareness of the resilience of cycling as a transport mode, its utility and amazing cost-effectiveness when circumstances impact on other forms of transport.”
“Most importantly,” continues Hodge, “we are working to build greater public support for those temporary measures and investment in bike infrastructure that is currently allowing populations to move actively and safely during the crisis. We are also working to ensure this continues in the future. With economic value of investment in bicycle infrastructure generally far greater than roads, this is one argument we hope all our decision makers will embrace.”
Timing is favourable to rapidly open up safer walking and cycling spaces, not only temporary options but also permanent improvements that will deliver lasting benefits for society.
Resource: We ride Australia Website