If You Build It, They Will Bike: Pop-Up Lanes Increased Cycling During Pandemic

A study of European cities adds to a growing body of evidence that investments in cycling infrastructure can encourage bike commuting, which helps cut greenhouse gas emissions.​

If You Build It, They Will Bike: Pop-Up Lanes Increased Cycling During Pandemic

by Veronica Penney | April 1, 2021 | The New York Times

A study of European cities adds to a growing body of evidence that investments in cycling infrastructure can encourage bike commuting, which helps cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Adding bike lanes to urban streets can increase the number of cyclists across an entire city, not just on the streets with new bike lanes, according to a new study. The finding adds to a growing body of research indicating that investments in cycling infrastructure can encourage more people to commute by bike, which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve health.

“It’s the first piece of evidence we have trying to, at a larger scale, link the bikeway infrastructure — these pop-up bike lanes and things that were built — to cycling levels during Covid,” said Ralph Buehler, chairman of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, who was not involved in the study.

The research, published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that in cities where bike infrastructure was added, cycling had increased up to 48 percent more than in cities that did not add bike lanes.

Dense cities where public transit was already popular generally saw the largest increases. In cities with lower density, more cars per capita and higher traffic speeds, the increase in cycling was more modest. Paris, which implemented its bike lane program early and had the largest pop-up bike lane program of any of the cities in the study, had one of the largest increases in riders.

“It almost seems like a natural law that the more infrastructure you have, the more cycling you will have,” said Sebastian Kraus, the study’s lead author.

But in public transit research, the effect of adding bike lanes is a matter of debate.

“It’s like a chicken and egg problem,” said Mr. Kraus, a doctoral candidate in economics at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin. “There can be this reverse causality that, actually, if you have a lot of cyclists, they will demand better infrastructure, and it’s not really the infrastructure that creates more cycling.”

The researchers collected data, including the lengths of new bike lanes and data from bike counters, from 106 cities across Europe. The bike counters allowed the researchers to measure the number of cyclists citywide, not just on the new bike paths. They analyzed the number of cyclists from March through July and found that in cities that had added bike lanes, cycling increased 11 percent to 48 percent more than in cities that had not added bike lanes.

The researchers found that the increase held when controlling for weather and changes in public transit supply and demand.

Bicycles, unlike cars, do not emit greenhouse gases. Matthew Raifman, a doctoral student in environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, found in a separate study that investments in infrastructure for cycling and walking more than paid for themselves once the health benefits were taken into account.

“They increase our physical activity and reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality, which all have impacts on health,” Mr. Raifman said.

Mr. Kraus cautioned that his study’s findings were unique to the pandemic, as public health officials encouraged cycling to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission and cities across the world added bike infrastructure to their streets. But it may not be a stretch to imagine that more people could keep riding bikes once the pandemic ends.

Research on transit strikes has shown that forcing people to experiment with new routes and modes of transit can lead to new routines.

“There’s indications from mobility behavior research that as soon as you find another way of getting around, then you might actually stick to it,” Mr. Kraus said. “So I’m confident that if you keep the infrastructure, that people will continue cycling.”

Veronica Penney is a reporter covering climate change and a member of the 2020 Times Fellowship class. @veronica_penney

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Cover Photo: The Rue de Rivoli in central Paris in December. (Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times)

N.Y.C. Mayor to Furlough 495 Staff Members for a Week, Including Himself
The symbolic move, which would yield $860,000 in anticipated savings, could be a precursor to similar maneuvers to slash the budget.

On Wednesday, September 16, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was furloughing his own staff at City Hall, himself included.

The policy will cover 495 mayoral staff members, who will have to take an unpaid, weeklong furlough at some point between October and March 2021. The furloughs will apply to everyone from administrative assistants to Mr. de Blasio and the office of his wife, Chirlane McCray.

The mayor intends to work during his furlough without pay, his spokesman said.

Facing a $9 billion, two-year revenue shortfall because of the coronavirus’s impact on the economy, Mr. de Blasio this year closed the city’s budget with $1 billion in unspecified labor savings.

He warned that he would have to lay off 22,000 employees, a number that could be reduced depending on three factors: negotiated union givebacks, state approval for New York City to finance its operations with up to $5 billion in long-term debt and more federal assistance.

So far, his efforts to convince Albany to act have fallen on deaf ears. So, too, have his pleas for aid from the federal government.

And so at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday, Emma Wolfe, a deputy mayor for administration and the mayor’s chief of staff, sent out an email detailing the furloughs.

“We know this is hard to hear,” she wrote. “It is hard for us to deliver the news.”

The furloughs would yield $860,000 in anticipated savings, but the move has symbolic implications and could be a precursor to similar maneuvers to slash the budget.

Furloughing roughly 95,000 civilian full-time employees — less than a third of the city’s workforce — for one week would save the city about $100 million, according to Ana Champeny, the director of city studies at the Citizens Budget Commission. The estimate excludes employees, like uniformed workers and teachers, whose absence might drive up overtime costs and offset some of the savings.

In public remarks on Wednesday, the mayor said the furloughs were “the right thing to do at this moment in history,” and an unfortunate but inevitable result of the state and federal government’s unwillingness to act.

“I thought it was an article of faith that there would be a federal stimulus,” Mr. de Blasio said. “There hasn’t been. And I see no indication there will be for the remainder of this year. I truly believed that our colleagues in Albany would have acted by now on long-term borrowing.”

In addition to the nearly 24,000 New York City residents the coronavirus has killed, the pandemic has delivered a profound blow to the city’s economy, and the tax revenue on which its budget relies. By July, the city had lost at least 1 million jobs. New York’s Independent Budget Office anticipates that with subsequent job gains tied to New York’s gradual reopening, the city will still have lost 564,200 jobs by year’s end.

The furloughs, which apply to non-unionized mayoral staff, seemed designed to convey Mr. de Blasio’s earnestness about belt-tightening to both his government and labor partners. But furloughs for unionized workers would require negotiations, and union leaders seemed dubious that such a move would solve the city’s problems.

In an interview, Harry Nespoli, who leads the Municipal Labor Committee, a coalition of about 110 city unions, said he was unsure there was $1 billion in labor savings to be found by any means.

“Can’t do it,” he said. “There’s not $1 billion there.”

He said he wanted the mayor to hold off on layoffs until later this year.

“After the election, who knows, there might be a whole new different atmosphere in Washington,” he said.

Henry Garrido, who runs the city’s largest municipal employee union, District Council 37, said many of his members could not afford a five-day furlough.

“My members live paycheck to paycheck,” said Mr. Garrido, who wants Albany to instead authorize an early retirement package as a cost-saving measure.

Budget hawks also greeted Mr. de Blasio’s latest endeavor with some skepticism.

Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, argued that six months into this crisis, the mayor should have already produced an efficiency plan and workforce reduction plan based on attrition and that labor and management should have already come together to find significant savings.

“It would be great if this helps dislodge that inertia,” Mr. Rein said. “It’s hard to say if it will.”

Scott Stringer, the city comptroller who is running for mayor on a platform of “bringing leadership back to City Hall,” called Mr. de Blasio’s furloughs “a lazy substitute for real work.”

“Every mayor before this one regularly tasked city agencies with reviewing their budgets for recurring savings without endangering essential services and public workers,” Mr. Stringer said. “We must reinstate that practice.”

Originally, Mr. de Blasio warned that layoffs would start in October, but he backed away from that timeline last month. He has yet to institute a new deadline by which the unions will have to deliver savings and avert layoffs.

Even if the city achieves $1 billion in labor savings, its budgetary problems are far from over.

The budget faces the possibility of $2.3 billion in state education cuts — and an attendant loss of possibly 9,000 education jobs — on top of the likelihood that it will bear much of the brunt of the state’s monumental budget shortfalls. It also includes what experts describe as possibly illusory New York Police Department savings.

Adding fuel to the economic fire, the subway system that underpins the city’s economy is facing a fiscal catastrophe of its own.

Under Mr. de Blasio, the size of the city’s government and its budget have grown dramatically, as have the services the city provides. He often notes that some of that growth is tied to his universal pre-K program, which is widely considered his biggest mayoral accomplishment.

“We do not want to take away jobs from public employees,” Mr. de Blasio said on Wednesday. “We do not want to take away services from communities that need it.”


Image of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio by Gage Skidmore.

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