Which Will Dominate Our Cities After the Coronavirus, Bikes or Cars?

©. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

A lot of cities are making room for people who walk and cycle now that nobody wants to take the subway.

I got in trouble again with the post What do we do about cars, climate and coronavirus?, with a commenter noting (my emphasis):

Proposing environmental solutions that the general public finds unacceptable assures the election of right wing anti-science climate deniers. Which assures the complete destruction of our environment. Any talk about taking away personal vehicles assures failure JUST STOP IT.

Nobody mentioned taking away anything, but things do have to change; we don't have a choice, and we don't have time. As cities come out of lockdown, more people are choosing to drive than ever before. According to Bloomberg News, "As lockdowns ease and parts of the world reopen for business, driving has emerged as the socially distant transportation mode of choice." In Wuhan, China, private car use doubled compared to before the lockdown. "It’s a phenomenon that may begin to reverse the dramatic reductions in air pollution the world’s busiest cities have seen in recent months as travel and industrial operations ground to a halt."

It's worse than that, as engineer Shoshanna Saxe explains:

Some cities and countries are pushing back and providing alternatives; the UK is investing £2 billion in a "once in a generation" plan to boost walking and biking. They estimate that the capacity of the Underground (subway system) will be reduced by 90 percent. The worry is that everyone is going to try to drive; according to one survey, "over half (56%) of UK driving license holders surveyed (1,059) who currently don’t own a vehicle said COVID-19 has made them consider purchasing a car when it’s safe to do so."

Encouraging walking and cycling

Encouraging walking and cycling/ Her Majesty's Government/Public Domain

The problem is that there is not enough room on the roads. The Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, worries that “more cars could be drawn to the road and our towns and cities could become gridlocked.” He is pushing cities all over the UK to make life easier for cyclists and pedestrians and harder for drivers, to cope with the crowds now avoiding transit. But there is an upside to all of this. Carlton Reid quotes the minister:

Boosting cycling and walking would be an “opportunity to make lasting changes that could not only make us fitter but also better-off—both mentally and physically—in the long run.” The transport secretary said that “millions of people have discovered the benefits of active travel” and he revealed, “there’s been a 70% rise in the number of people on bikes whether it’s for exercise, or necessary journeys, such as stocking up on food.” Shapps continued: “We need those people to carry on cycling and walking, and to be joined by many more.”

  • "Pop-up" instant bike lanes;
  • Encouraging walking and cycling to school with motor traffic restricted in school zones;
  • 20 MPH speed limits in cities;
  • Introducing pedestrian and cycle zones: restricting access for motor vehicles at certain times (or at all times) to specific streets, or networks of streets, particularly town centres and high streets;
  • Modal filters (also known as filtered permeability); closing roads to motor traffic, for example by using planters or large barriers. Often used in residential areas, this can create neighbourhoods that are low-traffic or traffic free, creating a more pleasant environment that encourages people to walk and cycle, and improving safety.

In London, Mayor Khan also explains why this is needed.

To help mitigate the impact of a greatly reduced capacity on public transport, due to social distancing, we will need millions of journeys a day to be made by other means. If people switch only a fraction of these journeys to cars, London risks grinding to a halt, air quality will worsen, and road danger will increase.

This is something that will happen everywhere, and as Shoshanna Saxe notes, the bike lanes will be blamed.

A lot of people think this is a terrible idea. "No bird brain ideas of a greener new normal. We want our old normal lives back. The lockdown has not protected anyone, esp the elderly. The country wants to go back to work/normal life."

But there is no going back to normal life for a while. To circle back to my original commenter, the world has changed. In every city that is reliant on public transit, there is going to be a loss of parking and driving space. Nobody wants to take away your car, but its usefulness decreases if the roads are clogged and the parking is unaffordable. Bikes and e-bikes start to look very attractive in such circumstances. And as one tweeter put it after reading this post: