June 3 is World Bicycle Day, a nearly 200-year-old invention that has added inestimable value to the world. In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the bicycle presents an unprecedented opportunity as it allows greater and more hygienic mobility, contributes to the sustainable recovery of the economy and supports the transformation of urban transport towards decarbonisation.
It is necessary to continue rescuing the streets and public space, while we advance in the solution of the climate crisis through a just transition.
Before and during the COVID-19 pandemic
In Latin America and the Caribbean, cities are not characterized by having an efficient or equitable distribution of public space. The streets are congested and gasoline continues to be generously subsidized. Even though some cities have tried to reclaim space for pedestrians and cyclists, work remains to be done.
The measures to contain the advance of the new coronavirus have caused the closure of establishments and the cancellation of social events. With physical distancing, the use of public transport fell to extremely low levels, some micro-mobility providers (small, light and low-speed electric transport means used for short distances) interrupted their operations and ridesharing trips plummeted. Private vehicular traffic fell precipitously and the sought-after parking lots are empty, the perfect recipe for reclaiming spaces in our cities.
We tell you some determining factors to take advantage of the current context, promote the bicycle as an agent of change and tackle some of the most urgent challenges of this decade.
Accelerate the construction of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure
In the current context, pedestrian sidewalks are insufficient to maintain the minimum physical distance of two meters, while there is a lot of space on the streets due to the decrease in vehicular traffic. Solutions such as the introduction of emerging bicycle lanes, the expansion of pedestrian paths or streets of calm and shared traffic, which had already been tested in cities previously, are emerging as some of the possible measures that several cities can implement quickly and with benefits.
For example, in Bogotá, the dedication of 80 km of bicycle lanes was announced, while Mexico City is adapting 66 km of important avenues in the city. The key, then, is to ensure that most of this infrastructure remains long-term.
Encourage the use of bicycles during and after the pandemic
While overall travel demand fell dramatically, workers in essential sectors continued to travel, many of them by bicycle. In the United States, England and Germany, bicycle shops reported an increase in their sales of up to 700%, compared to the previous year.
In Paris, the public bicycle system claimed that more than 400,000 trips were made in the second week of May, nearly 120,000 of them in a single day. In London, e-bike trips doubled in less than three weeks. On the other side of the world, bike share trips in New York City increased nearly 70% compared to 2019. And in Latin America, there is no going back either.
Undoubtedly, during the crisis, there has been an increase in the use of bicycles as a more hygienic transport alternative and in response to the demand for the provision of basic goods at home. However, for its use to continue to be promoted, greater road safety is required, since although in most cities the number of trips by car has decreased, the speed and consequences of traffic incidents have also increased.
Oil price drop: the disappearance of gasoline subsidies
At the beginning of 2020, the price of a barrel of oil plummeted to the US $ -4.47 due to the almost non-existent demand for travel during the pandemic. In recent years, many countries have eliminated gasoline subsidies by creating fiscal space to finance more sustainable projects.
These resources can be used to create “ funds to promote active mobility ”. In addition, the adoption of “ carbon taxes ” can contribute significantly to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, and thus limit global warming to less than 1.5 ° C, with respect to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide emissions.
Micro mobility and the e-bike explosion
The goals of micro-mobility companies like shared bikes and electric scooters and their regulators need to be aligned. In this sector, there is over-regulation that does not encourage innovation and competition, and the collection of operating permits increases the final cost to the user. The resources for the eventual elimination of gasoline subsidies could be invested in micro-mobility so that services are more equitable and companies can prosper.
Likewise, electric bicycles have enormous potential in areas where public transport systems are poor and where the income of the inhabitants is not enough to buy a car. Encouraging the use of e-bike can be decisive to reactivate the economy since the recovery of public transport will happen gradually.
In Amsterdam, there is already a company that, provides monthly e-bike memberships that include support and maintenance. In this way, the need to purchase a car can be discouraged and thus also reduce polluting emissions from the sector.
In Latin America, the benefits of Shared Bicycle Systems have begun to show. It is necessary to increase the adoption of these systems in large cities and strongly promote it in intermediate cities, guaranteeing the integration of their operation with the mobility plans of the city.
The IDB, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have designed the Guide for Structuring Bike-Sharing Systems. This tool seeks to guide decision-makers in the definition of the elements of optimal investment in these systems, the identification of the sources of resources to finance said investment, the distribution of risks and responsibilities of the different actors involved, and the mobilization of the investment capital.
Time to get on the bike
There is an opportunity to create a virtuous circle of promotion and investment in environmentally friendly infrastructure and mobility, leveraging the bicycle as the engine of this change.
It is time for citizens to demand and governments to demonstrate the political will to prioritize health, air quality and harmony in urban life; to make the timely decision to face the pandemic by promoting the use of bicycles and permanently transform mobility for the benefit of society.