17 May 2020 - With all but essential travel restricted, walking and cycling have emerged as vital forms of mobility during the COVID-19 crisis. 

These are physically-distant, active, equitable, and low-carbon transport modes which are helping to facilitate safe essential shopping and exercise, and alleviate pressure on public transport for essential workers. There has also been an uptick in food and other deliveries by bike, cargo, e-bike and e-cargo modes. As cities plan how to sustainably live with the virus in the medium-longer term, increased walking and cycling will be critical to enable more people to travel safely and efficiently around their cities. Investment in walking and cycling now, while streets are quiet and traffic is reduced, will also quickly deliver a raft of other benefits for local economies as well as improvements in air pollution, equity, and more.

Across the globe, cities have responded to the need and opportunity to expand cycling and pedestrian infrastructure with astounding speed. Trailblazers include Bogotá and Berlin’s temporary bike lanes, Seattle and San Francisco’s open streets, and Milan and Barcelona’s ambitious plans for road space reallocation. In cities including Lisbon and Mexico City, public and private shared bike schemes are also supporting essential workers to travel safely, with many offering free or subsidised rides. This article outlines ideas and best practices emerging from cities, to inform others looking to increase active travel as a means to safely and sustainably live with COVID-19.

Permanent changes and comprehensive planning will maximise benefits

While temporary measures which are quick to install have been valuable during the initial response period, cities will need to put in place permanent infrastructure that reallocates road space to cyclists and pedestrians to reap the full rewards of job creation, physical distancing, cleaner air and more. For the greatest success, cities should set out a comprehensive plan that sees public spaces reclaimed from vehicles, and streets reallocated to active and sustainable modes of transport, alongside prioritised movement for freight and servicing activities. Cities including Milan have already released ambitious plans for better, more equitable road space reallocation as they build back from lockdown measures.

Enabling safe travel within the city

To facilitate physical distancing on public transport while we live with the virus, public transport will need to operate at lower capacity. Cities can mitigate this to a degree by giving greater priority to buses on the roads, allowing more buses to run per route and other measures to increase overall capacity of public transport systems, but many public transport users will need to either take fewer trips, or travel by foot, bike or car. Without investment in walking and cycling cities are likely to see increased vehicle traffic – leading to increased congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise pollution, road casualties and more.

Walking and cycling are cheap travel options with relatively low upfront and maintenance costs, for both the individual travelling and for transport authorities. Cities can ensure that citizens have access to high-quality walking and cycling networks, to parks and green spaces, and design incentive schemes to ensure that people from all walks of life can undertake daily physical activity through walking and cycling. This includes the elderly, people living with disabilities, marginalised groups, and lower-income communities.

  • Install temporary cycle lanes and wider walkways using paint, traffic cones, planters or other movable objects and through tactical urbanism measures. This is a quick way to increase space for people on foot and travelling by bike while more permanent infrastructure is built.
    • Bogotá rapidly opened 76km of temporary cycle lanes using traffic cones, to reduce crowding on public transport and improve air quality. Read more about Bogotá’s COVID-19 response, including cycling facilities, in the case study.
    • Mexico City has proposed 130km of temporary cycle lanes, starting with a temporary lane running 8am-7am installed on a major thoroughfare. This is a fourfold increase in dedicated cycling lanes, designed to support physical distancing on public transport networks.
    • Berlin created new pop-up bike paths in just three days, finding little resistance in a city where turning over road space to cyclists and pedestrians had previously been difficult. Other German cities such as Stuttgart and Essen are already taking the same route.
  • Improve the quality of permanent walking and cycling infrastructure, fill gaps within existing networks, and expand cycle routes out to the wider city periphery and underserved areas. This will provide more people with better access to jobs, services, and opportunities by bike or on foot, and encourage more people to use these facilities. Consider coupling expansive cycling networks with incentives for e-bikes.
    • Paris’ new cycling infrastructure extends out to the periphery. The city created 650km of cycleways, including a number of pop-up cycleways, to help citizens move around their city when lockdown measures began to ease.
    • Auckland has almost 22kms of cycle lanes with additional work now underway on an important pedestrian corridor in the city centre which will reallocate space to active and sustainable modes only.
    • Madrid is building 100km of permanent cycling infrastructure across 2020 and 2021.
  • Expand cycle share systems, including to underserved areas and priority groups. This can include providing free or subsidised access to bike share schemes for essential workers. Bike-sharing companies and cities need to ensure that units are sanitised regularly at stations.
    • In cities including London, Bogotá, Mexico City and Dublin, public and private share bike schemes have supported medical and essential workers to get to and from work safely, with many cities and operators providing free or subsidised trips.
  • Increase and improve subsidies for bikes and e-bikes. Already, cities around the world are seeing a boom in bike sales.13 Cities can provide support and incentives to help nudge more people onto bikes, including by expanding cycle-to-work schemes, providing direct subsidies, and supporting use of e-bikes which can help to overcome issues with distance and topography. Cities can also incentivise e-cargo bikes for last mile deliveries, to help meet the increased demand for delivery services.
    • In cities across France, all citizens are eligible for bike repairs of up to €50 – people simply take their bike to a registered bike mechanic, who is then reimbursed by the state for the first €50 of costs.
    • Rome and London are supporting the loan or purchase of e-bikes, particularly for medical workers.


Image: Madrid, Spain – Photo by Jose Ruales via Unsplash

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C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group