By: Andy Lambert, Global Sales Manager
COVID-19 is forcing everyone on planet Earth to grapple with massive uncertainty and is laying bare the inequities that have been institutionalized for years into the fabric of daily life. Many people who’ve been dealing with racial disparities, environmental injustice and socio-economic inequity since before COVID-19 was a household term don’t want to “return to normal”.
The old normal doesn’t work for millions of people around the world and elected officials from the highest offices know this. President Obama stated in his commencement speech to the class of 2020, “the old ways of doin’ things just don’t work”. Building cities for getting around in private motorized vehicles is one of those things that isn’t working anymore. In this time of social disruption, it’s time to envision and create a future for our cities that prioritizes equity, inclusion, and access in all public spaces.
Attitudes about how to use transportation infrastructure are changing. Use of public transit systems and ride share apps have plummeted while unprecedented numbers of people are using bicycles to get around. Many of us need to go outside when shopping for groceries or to maintain mental/physical health and essential workers need to get to work. We know that social distancing works in slowing the spread of the virus and that means that leaving the house requires forethought and mindfulness. Should I wear a mask to protect those around me? Can I keep a safe distance from anyone I may encounter? These are new habits that we may need to adopt for the next couple of years.
Cycling advocates are recognizing this opportunity for what it is, a worldwide phenomenon that is forcing the conversation around transportation policy and the reallocation of public space (read: public streets). Cities throughout the United States, Australia, South America and across Europe are opening miles upon miles of streets to cyclists and pedestrians. Bicycles haven’t had this much real estate on our public streets since before the invention of the automobile.
The big question is, what happens after a vaccine becomes available or “herd immunity” is achieved? Will automobile traffic return to clog our public streets? Will the choking smog that makes our children sick with asthma return to major cities? Or, as Eben Weiss from Outside Magazine frames the topic, could this pandemic kill car culture?
For those of us who welcome this disruption, the next big question is, “how do we hold onto the ground that we’ve gained?” Public support will certainly help as will measurable data that shows the public benefit of opening streets and traffic lanes to bicycles and pedestrians. Groups like Right 2 Bike are collecting signatures for a Cyclists’ Bill of Rights that calls for safe, just, inclusive bike-friendly policy and dedicated infrastructure that keeps cyclists safe.
Public health experts know that humans have a physiological need to move around. We do not do well in cages and it is therefore incumbent upon our city leaders to create public policy that nurtures this aspect of human nature. Reallocating portions of our public streets to non-motorized transportation and recreation will draw the public to these areas in a safe and effective way.
If large cities that become COVID-19 hotspots hope to retain their citizens who have the option to move to less affected areas, they need to accept that this virus will be with us for a while. Major pharmaceutical companies predict that a vaccine will be widely available in the next 12-18 months. We can bolster our fight against COVID-19 by funding infrastructure projects that provide safe and equitable access to public spaces. The wholesale closure of certain streets to motorized vehicles opens myriad possibilities for public health maintenance and can positively impact local commerce.
In lieu of a health care system that provides everyone the basic human right of healthcare when they’re sick, prevention is critically important. Those who can get health care are often shouldered with insurmountable debt from getting necessary care to stay alive. It is a politically divisive topic because those who profit from our current system of healthcare stand to lose billions in revenue if less people rely on expensive treatments or therapy. Prevention is the most effective tool for many of us (in some cases the only tool) so if cities look at this problem from the standpoint of protecting their tax base, converting more streets to dedicated bike lanes could be a powerful preventative measure. Reducing a human life to a monetary figure in terms of economic output smacks of slavery, but federal agencies actually do this when weighing the cost benefit analysis for some new regulations.
This pandemic is nothing if not an exercise in mental fortitude and those who are not able to safely socialize outside are paying dearly with their mental health. The Mayo Clinic recognizes the strain that COVID-19 can place on individuals from increased stress, anxiety, fear, sadness and loneliness. First among their self-care strategies are being mindful of your physical health and reducing stress triggers. Bicycles provide an excellent way to manage both and growing numbers of people are recognizing this.
Bicycle retail giant Trek conducted a survey recently and found that 21% of adults surveyed plan to ride bikes more during the pandemic, while 50% of them plan to continue riding into the future. This is good news or all road users and we need to support this behavior.
The bottom line is this, if cities want to prioritize the safety and health of their citizens, we need to continue closing non-critical streets to motorized vehicles so that people have ample space to move around and recreate. Most importantly, we should be making plans now to make some or all of these changes permanent with the best available, most attractive infrastructure available.