Sooner or later, we will all go back to work and we are going to need to make a decision: how are we going to commute? The answer to this question has health implications, not only at the individual level, but also at the community level. Safety is surely a factor of concern, but there are others.
During the lockdown, we have seen considerable decline in air pollution and noise levels in cities due to a large reduction in motorized traffic, but also unfortunately areduction in physical activity and an increase in poor mental health. The lower levels of air pollution and noise are being welcomed by many citizens. Physical activity is essential for good mental and physical health.
In a city like Barcelona, 60% of public spaces is taken up by cars.
Public transportation was an important mode of transport before the COVID-19 pandemic, but has suffered a loss of confidence due to the perceived higher risk of transmission of COVID-19. Many measures need to be taken to bring back confidence, including the prevention of overcrowding so as not to return to public transport packed like sardines. Walking is a popular and good alternative, but generally only possible for short distances (up to a few kilometres).
So, the car appears to be a good option to get around, but is it?
The car is the perfect physical distancing measure. It provides comfort and is generally the fastest transport mode to get somewhere, partly due to the large investments in infrastructure needed for it like roads and parking. However, it is also expensive. Driving is a sedentary activity that reduces overall physical activity and needs a lot of public space that can be used in better ways. In a city like Barcelona, 60% of public spaces is taken up by cars.
Outdoor air pollution alone kills nine million people annually.
Likewise, if everyone were to use cars, there would be tremendous congestion problems in many places. Furthermore, cars largely contribute to air pollution, noise, and carbon emissions in cities, with similar concerns for motorbikes.
Outdoor air pollution alone kills nine million people annually, and levels of air pollution could be significantly reduced as the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown. A recent health impact assessment study in Barcelona found that around 20% of premature mortality was due to factors related to suboptimal urban and transport planning. Cities are also large emitters of CO2, one of the main factors behind the climate crisis.
Is cycling the solution?
A large number of car trips go less than 5 kilometers (as high as 50%) and these could easily be replaced by other more sustainable and healthier modes of transport such as cycling. Cycling has many benefits as it increases physical activity and reduces premature mortality . It combines transport with gym (as many people don’t have time to go to the gym), it does not cause air and noise pollution, it emits zero CO2 (except through the manufacturing and what the rider eats), it uses much less space than cars, and cyclists tend to be happier than users of other transport systems.
Cities urgently need to create safe cycling networks throughout the city or free up some streets altogether solely for cycling and walking.
Additionally, as many people have gained weight during confinement, the bicycle is an excellent way to lose weight. A number of studies have shown that cyclists weigh less than car drivers, and that car drivers who switch to cycling lose weight.
Electric bikes have become more popular over the past few years as the prices have gone down. Electric bikes also allow older people to cycle and is also good for cycling in hilly areas as they require less effort. Yet electric bikes still provide physical activity. In the Netherlands and Belgium, electric bikes have become popular for long distance commuting with distances up to 30 kilometers.
And what do driving a car and cycling do to our wallet?
The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting us hard economically. Cost benefit analyses show that costs of cycling are generally much lower than car use. For example, the cost of car driving is more than six times higher (Euro 0.50/km) than cycling (Euro 0.08/km) in Copenhagen.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a great opportunity to make changes that allow for more sustainable, livable, and healthier cities.
What do we need to do to get people to start cycling?
What discourages many people from cycling is safety. Accident rates for cyclists are still considerably higher than cars (although accident rates for motor bikes are even worse). Therefore, an important prerequisite for cycling is the availability of safe cycling infrastructure, including segregated cycling lanes. Cities urgently need to create safe cycling networks throughout the city or free up some streets altogether solely for cycling and walking. Putting a safe segregated cycling lane in each street could save 250 premature deaths annually in a city like Barcelona. Furthermore, reducing car speeds to a maximum of 30 kilometers per hour will help reduce accidents in the remaining roads.
A great opportunity to be taken
The COVID-19 pandemic is a great opportunity to make changes that allow for more sustainable, livable, and healthier cities, but we need to make the changes rapidly. Cycling is a great sustainable and healthy alternative for many car trips, but safe cycling networks are urgently needed, not only within cities, but also between cities, towns, and villages to allow sustainable and healthy mobility with long term benefits.