Post-Covid 19 – The Politics of Space: Walking and Cycling

Covid-19 has resulted in illness, bereavement, anxiety, unemployment and economic hardship. Naturally, everyone is focused on getting through and flattening the curve, but there is talk too about how our society will have changed when it is all over.

Authorities worldwide have responded to the marked reduction in motor traffic and the relative increase in the numbers walking and cycling by re-purposing space for active travel.  We outline in this article some of the measures taken worldwide and ask can they be made permanent?

In Europe, the Americas and Australia authorities in charge of transport have taken various initiatives to make walking and cycling safer and more attractive. Philip Oltermann, Berlin bureau chief for The Guardian, reports that authorities in the German capital have widened a bike lane by incorporating some of the carriageway space for general motorised traffic

In New York, Mayor de Blasio has installed emergency bike lanes to ensure the safety of the increased numbers of people who are cycling in order to maintain physical distancing. This measure is especially beneficial for the many health workers who are cycling

In an article for City Lab titled, “In a Global Health Emergency the Bicycle Shines”, journalist and cycling advocate, Laura Laker, describes the various initiatives underway to prioritise and safeguard people cycling.  Bogota in Columbia, for example, is installing tens of kilometres of emergency cycleways.

In London, the public Santander bike-share scheme operated by Transport for London (TfL) is being made available free of charge to NHS staff and other bike companies including Buzzbike, Brompton Bicycle Ltd and Beryl Bikes have also come on board.

In Sydney’s Central Business District of Sydney, in Calgary in Canada, and in Auckland in New Zealand, pedestrian signal buttons have been automated thus avoiding the necessity of touching possibly (or even likely) contaminated surfaces. Brussels has adapted more than 100 traffic lights to favour cyclists and reduced pedestrian waiting times by between 20 and 40 seconds (@dimitristrobbe). In Monchengladbach, Germany, the local ADFC cycling campaign (the German equivalent of – the Irish Cycling Advocacy Network) has persuaded the authorities to convert two lanes of Bismarkstrasse to cycling.

So, what about positive initiatives here at home? Yes, there have been some, but first a negative. While empty streets have meant that people have been obeying guidelines and staying at home, active travel groups have been deeply concerned by countrywide reports of people using the freed-up space to drive faster and ignore speed limits.

What about the positives?! Bleeper Bikes have taken a similar initiative to London and made bicycles available to heath care workers in the Mater, St James’ and St Vincent’s hospitals. Meanwhile Moby, who were due to launch their e-bike sharing scheme in Dublin in April, are instead lending their bikes to hospital staff. In Galway, Brite Mobility is also providing e-bikes to health-care workers. Some Local Authority Road Safety Committees, notably Mayo, Donegal, Wexford, Monaghan and Cork County Councils, have made social media posting urging motorists to slow down. In Wicklow, the Greystones Municipal District of the Council has automated its pedestrian crossing buttons, thus avoiding the need for touching them. We really hope that other councils follow suit.   

There may be less traffic about but the two kilometre restriction on outings for exercise means that people, including children using buggies, bikes, and scooters, are walking and cycling close to their homes. And of course, many people are walking or cycling to work or to the shops. In order to observe physical distancing, all these people need space. We urge Irish authorities to do as has been done in other countries and reallocate space not needed by motorised vehicles to pedestrians and cyclists. They can do this on a temporary basis using bollards, wands and signage. is calling on local authorities to use their powers under Section 38 of the Road Traffic Act to do so and on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to introduce default emergency 30 kph speed limits in residential areas.

Note that on Wednesday morning April 8th , Vice-Chair of Dublin Cycling Campaign, Louise Williams spoke to Newstalk Breakfast about how, when things return to “normal”, we need to ensure that people continue to be able to walk and cycle – and therefore we must only phase cars back into the traffic equation, rather than returning immediately to the pre-status quo. You can listen back here.

Finally, note that the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), of which is the member for Ireland, issued a special newsletter in the last few days gathering ideas themed around ‘Cycling Beyond the Crisis’. It is well worth checking out. You can read it here.

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