DUE TO CORONA? BIKE TRAFFIC ON THE INCREASE ACROSS EUROPE

The Corona crisis still holds Europe in chains. The lockdown affects the whole continent, although regulations differ from country to country. One thing that the nations of Europe have in common is the return to the bike as a practical mode of transport. We provide an overview of the different measures and take a look at the situation around Europe.

Corona has brought change right to the heart of Europe. In Brussels, the city authorities are talking about a new way of life – a new term “vélorution” is going the rounds and reshaping the transport landscape. The plan is to give greater priority to and make more space for bicycles and pedestrians in the inner city. Cars, buses and trams will all be governed by a new 20 km/h maximum speed limit. Furthermore, pedestrians and cyclists will have the right to use the whole width of the road as equally-entitled road users. So, there’s no back to “business as usual” post-corona. Instead a new era of modern transport concepts with additional cycle paths is dawning with the Belgian capital serving as role model for other European metropoles. 

“Cycling in Britain used to be for sport only. Now, attitudes are changing when it comes to commuting and transport. The infrastructure system needs to catch up though.”

The transport network has effectively verged on the brink of collapse in certain cities, including London among others. Its internationally-renowned underground public transport system used to be seen as a blessing; now it has become a curse. Some 325,000 passengers used to travel on the Tube every fifteen minutes. Bikes and e-scooters were already being discussed as an alternative to the overfilled Underground before the crisis. There were even special bikes lanes for commuters following the same path as the underground lines, so-called Bike Tubes. And the British parliament had announced plans to invest two billion pounds nationwide to make cycling more accessible. Corona has now given the whole issue new momentum. For example, 250 million pounds have been made available to build pop-up bike lanes. Cyclists are being offered vouchers worth 50 pounds to get their bikes repaired. Tanguy Scorpati from the biggest British bike manufacturer Brompton is delighted about the new measures: “Cycling in Britain used to be for sport only. Now, attitudes are changing when it comes to commuting and transport. The infrastructure system needs to catch up though.” Bike shops were actually allowed to remain open during the lockdown. However, many decided to remain closed to protect their employees. “A big percentage of bike sales takes place online. This is reflected in the often low bike prices. High-quality markets, such as e-bikes, still find it hard going in the UK,” explains Tanguy Scorpati. “England is effectively a developing country when it comes to bikes, but the implemented measures are all good for cycling.”

In France too, the government seems to be opening up in favour of bikes. Bike riding was banned from 17 March until 11 May. Now though, more and more is being done to establish bicycles as a mode of transport. The French government has expressly introduced a 20-million-euro package of support measures. It intends to benefit all cyclists by offering 50 euros towards bike repairs. In addition, there are plans to build more bike parking and new cycle paths. The French Environment Minister Élisabeth Borne responsible for the programme explained the move: “As the ban to stay at home relaxes, this is the right time to demonstrate that cycling is more than just a hobby, it’s an independent mode of transport.” In Paris, when the lockdown is finished, some 650 kilometres of new cycle paths are going to be built, the idea is to make inner cities across La Grande Nation free from cars. The plan was initially supposed to be rolled out in 2024, but due to Corona and with so many citizens getting on their bikes, “Plan Vélo” has already been implemented in certain areas way ahead of schedule.

“Due to the crisis and ensuing restrictions, many people rediscovered the importance of getting out into nature.”

In Austria, Dr Holger Schwarting, Chairman of the Board for Sport 2000 notes a change in mobility behaviour during the Corona crisis. “Due to the crisis and ensuing restrictions, many people rediscovered the importance of getting out into nature. More and more people are cycling to work and bikes are enjoying increased importance as an important and flexible means of transport.” This has had a very positive influence on the industry in Austria. The fact that cycling was allowed during the Corona phase played an important role. When stores reopened, there was high demand. This has increased continually, also due to company bicycle leasing, which has been allowed in Austria since the start of the year. Whether this development will continue in the long term remains unclear: “It will depend a lot on bike tourism in the coming summer months,” says Dr Schwarting.

“In Germany, people have been complaining that all they are allowed to do is to go for a ride. In Spain, this would have been luxury.”

This is exactly the source of income missing in Spain, where cycle tourism is badly affected. “Spring is normally high season here,” says Jan-Eric Schwarzer, owner of the small bike sport hotel MA-13 on Majorca. It is only since 2 May that we have been allowed to leave the house for one hour. “In Germany, people have been complaining that all they are allowed to do is to go for a ride. In Spain, this would have been luxury,” he explains. The real effects of the crisis are not clear yet, but social change is possible. In big cities, such as Madrid or Barcelona, people are currently enjoying better air quality and see bikes as a way to keep it like this. Whether this will lead to a transformation towards sustainable transport is hard to tell. The country is hit extremely hard by the financial crisis. There is little in the way of state investment and the decrease in tourism this year is going to have a major effect and lead to high unemployment. “The government in Madrid is keeps talking of a return to normality. So far, there have been just more new rules and regulations. The country is hit hard,” says Jan-Eric Schwarzer summarizing the situation.

Italy, the road bike nation, has been similarly affected. Until the phased relaxation of the lockdown that started on 4 May, there was a strict ban on leaving the house. The government quickly understood that the transport system needed changing, as public transport was having difficulty coping. Since 13 May, there has been a state-funded programme for e-bikes and bicycles. The financial support is aimed at people in cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants. A 500-euro bonus is available if it covers 60 per cent of the total cost. This means a bike must cost over 830 euros. The programme is set to run until 31 December 2020. A package of 120 million euros has been made available by the government. In addition, new road traffic regulations promise better conditions for cyclists across Italy.

 

In the Netherlands, bikes have long represented major proportion of overall traffic. Bike stores were allowed to remain open during the Corona crisis here too. As a result, there has been virtually no drop in sales. The Dynamo Retail Group trade association has recorded 5.8 per cent growth for April 2020 compared to the previous year. In particular, e-bikes and cycle clothing were in demand; mountain bikes and road bikes grew too. Maybe the Dutch are now also discovering for themselves that bikes can be sports machines and more than just a means of transport.