Cycling across Europe in the pandemic - BBC World Service

Cycling across Europe in the pandemic - BBC World Service

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From the bubonic plague to tuberculosis, pandemics have historically changed the way our cities are designed. And the coronavirus has been no different. Coronavirus is a moment in which every policy maker can make a u-turn. Lockdown made our capitals quieter, greener, and we’ve seen wildlife blossoming like never before. It’s like a paradise for me now. You can see maybe 10 thousand of bicycles everywhere.

We’re travelling around Europe meeting the people who are trying to implement the biggest changes in cities we’ve seen in decades. Three months ago you had a lot of cars in this path. Now it’s for bicycles. But this rapid shift towards pedal power has created a problem I just went there and it was just empty. There were no bikes. Could the pandemic see a shift to more environmentally friendly modes of transport? No. It’s not easy to live together. Or will we simply return to the way we were? Dutch bike lanes are the envy of the world. It’s so much part of us - it’s as if we are all born with a bike - like you take a shopping bag - you take your bike.

But it wasn’t always this way. Maartje van Putten was a Dutch politician. This is me and my son…1976 Netherlands traffic is in Europe the most dangerous for children Maartje was a key player in the movement that transformed Dutch cities in the 1960s and 70s. The start was there in the 70s when people got alarmed about the figures of children on their way to school - the accidents / the numbers were so high. We had to do something.

And that’s how it began. Here the action group. This is us. We want car free Sunday at least once a month In 1973 Maartje launched a campaign called ‘stop the child murder’.

We sat together and we said, this can't go on, we have to do something…So more and more actions were taken. We were blocking roads, in the rush hour, people on their way home. Drivers totally overtaken and surprised about the mothers big circles on the corner of the road blocking it.

Maartje’s efforts have been immortalized, as the heroine of a new children’s book. Here we went through the tunnel under the water… and on the other side the police were there. The demand of space by car traffic was so enormous that it was eating up the space for cyclists and also pedestrians… the whole infrastructure of the Netherlands was totally focused on, let’s say, the priority of cars.

Today Amsterdam has 767km of cycle lanes. And more bikes than people. But even here, the pandemic is changing the way people get about. Because of COVID-19 it didn’t feel right to go by tram anymore and so it was actually the right time now to get a bakfiets cargo bike. Judith and Johan Hartog bought an electric cargo bike right at the start of lockdown. We’re not really going on a vacation now; so it’s like a staycation; we stay here in Holland and we do a lot by bike now. So you can put a lot of things in; you can get

the bags and go out - like here in the park, and we’re going to the beach by bike. So it’s easy for days off. Could you have imagined being this Dutch mum 6 months ago? No no no. No we never would have thought. So it’s fun, it’s different. It’s also a bit cliche. We like it. We love it.

The pandemic has been the catalyst for many people here to invest savings they wouldn’t otherwise have had. It’s not only mobility anymore… they’re singing in the bike, having fun, you’re in nature. It’s a whole different way of going out. The Netherlands already had world-renowned infrastructure. But the coronavirus has still significantly shifted behaviour. Cargo bike sales have gone up by 53% this year and the e-bike is now the most commonly sold type of bicycle. Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Since March it has built 40 km of new cycle paths.

I had been here for two weeks and then all of a sudden the whole world changed. So of course I decided I wanted to take all the measures I can to stay healthy. When Brussels went into lockdown Vesselina Foteva decided cycling was the fastest, safest way to travel and went out to buy a bike. I just entered the bike shop…and I had this image of myself buying a beautiful new bike with the matching helmet… but I just went there and it was empty. there were no bikes. I wanted to order one but they said that i needed to wait at least two months to get the bike so I said ok no way I cannot wait two months as the whole summer will be gone.

A friend of mine, really by accident, told me about, she heard about this subscription based service where you can pay a monthly fee and get the bike at your home. So I thought that’s really cool. Commuters make up the majority of those who’ve subscribed to this particular scheme - Swapfiets.

The Dutch company is expanding into three new cities to capitalise on a spike in demand that came with Covid. When it was official we were living in a global pandemic I decided that I will avoid as much as possible public transport, so this is probably the main reason to decide to have a bike. But it’s not just commuters who are switching to two-wheels. Cycling traffic surged in Brussels

during the first week of the return to school, with a 75% increase compared to last year. Milan was one of the first cities to embrace cycling as a way to get its residents moving around again. This is one of Italy’s most polluted cities, it’s also in the heart of the region which was the epicentre of the outbreak in Europe. I told you that I lived through the war, this seems worse to me than the war. When there were so many deaths, I was scared because it was old people who were dying. 90% of them were the elderly. They were old. So I was a bit scared.

Peppino Drali is one of Italy’s most famous bike manufacturers. Now at 92 Peppino has been building bikes for more than 80 years. I come to the workshop, with my dog, Alessandro picks me up in his car, because here I’m alive. And the crisis has meant an unparalleled pressure on Peppino and his apprentice Alessandro As the demand for their handmade bikes has soared. On the 5th may we reopened, people were standing on the streets with their bikes in their hands and the line was right around the corner - it didn’t end. It has been complicated to keep manufacturing; coronavirus has meant a lot of parts we couldn’t find anymore.

But Peppino isn’t convinced the boost to their sales is reflected in the number of actual cyclists on the streets. In the past there were 200 bikes and one car. Now there are 200 cars and just 1 bike. It’s the opposite. Are you hopeful that in the future it will again be 100 bikes and one car in Milan, like it was when you were a boy? Maybe it’s because I’m old that I say no. Maybe it’s because I’m old, I’m

sorry. I say no. Because nowadays the world has changed. Someone goes to get a newspaper, and goes in the car. And there are many who hope Peppino is right, that the surge in cycling is just a phase...

Claudio Severgnini’s slipping back into his old routine. He’s been driving passengers around Milan for more than two decades. But the roads he knows like the back of his hand are being altered, and he’s worried about cars being pushed out.

The taxi industry is a bit of a litmus test for the movement of the city. So when the city gets moving, the taxis get moving. At this time, 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, at this taxi rank and at others, it used to be that you’d see a person waiting for a taxi, but now it’s so many taxis waiting for people. Claudio is concerned these bike lanes through the heart of his city have appeared too fast, without enough consideration for cars.. No, it’s not easy to live together. For motorists, motorcyclists and cyclists it’s difficult to cohabit the city. You need to build a viable, practical system, where the

motorists’ lanes and the cyclists’ lanes don’t come into conflict.. Because otherwise it would really become a dangerous situation, not only a problem of sharing between citizens, but it would really increase the number of accidents. It's already causing a lot of conflict - transforming the roads, making room for cyclists involves taking sections away from the drivers. This used to be a road of 3 lanes, now it has become only 1. And this side is also new? Yes. The parking… We all hope for the ideal city, where there is environmentally friendly transport and respect between all the road users. Perhaps now we’re living in a historic moment of

rare transition, between our old, traditional model of travel in the city, and what could be the future. However we also have to take into consideration that, like I already said, many people aren’t able, don’t want to, can’t use these new methods of transport. And therefore it’s probably necessary honestly to have a long period to deliver this kind of ideal city very gradually. But there is an urgency in this part of Italy as everyone we meet has been touched by the pandemic. My friend, he always worked in front of the San Paolo hospital, which is one of the major hospitals in the city. And unfortunately probably he had contact with a contagious person and

he himself became a victim of this Covid. He was 50 years old. 50. This time has forced reflection. For some the changes aren’t going far or fast enough - most of Milan’s new bike routes are only temporary paint jobs. Environmentalists are using the current situation to push for permanent infrastructure. Coronavirus is a moment in which every policy maker can make a u turn completely and change their own cities.

Anna Gerometta is - an environmentalist and activist…she believes curtailing car use and backing bikes is an investment for a healthier future. Climate groups have warned people living in polluted cities are more at risk of contracting lung infections like Covid-19. The failure to have the courage to change now in a situation in which you have some time to prepare the people can be really disastrous… This is a major concern for the people gathered here tonight.

They are the critical mass… they are a movement that has been going on for years. They ride every Thursday night and they want to show policy makers that citizens of Milan want a different kind of city. There have been a few lanes that have been built but compared to the need and the necessity of this city and the will of people and the wish of the population of Milan to have a different mobility and way to go around, they are really a drop in the ocean. It’s a matter of a different quality of life if you have a city where your air is so polluted that you get sick and your children get sick; that is an important topic that you as a public policy maker should be addressing. The regional government has so far spent 115 million euros to stimulate cycling. But Milan’s

urban planner told us many Italians just aren’t ready to get on the saddle. It’s absolutely not true… probably the mentality of the politicians is too old; not seeing what the people really want. Their capacity of their own population and citizens to accept large changes with a happy heart. The French capital is spending record amounts transforming the streets to try to make cycling a viable option for everyone.

It’s going to be really interesting to see how all the investment is actually changing the way people are moving around the city. It’s like a revolution you know…because before we had a city with only cars, and now we have a city with bikes, pedestrians, it’s good for ecology. I know we have problems. But it’s a priority for the next months to solve this problem, and I’m sure we can solve this. Here is before; now is the new world. The most iconic change is here on the notoriously petrol filled Rue de Rivoli - sections are now completely car free. David Belliard is the deputy mayor of Paris. He’s a green politician who’s been pushing

for these measures for years. Three months ago here you had a lot of cars in this path. Now it’s for bikes. The more you give space for bicycles the more they will use it… Look at that - it’s like a big traffic jam you know. People here telling me, they went into lockdown and then came out, to this, to a whole new world. These types of changes normally take decades. Because of the pandemic there was

an urgency which meant they happened here overnight. Cycling levels after the lockdown increased by 27% compared to last year. Paris is in a big transformation...a big bang of mobility, a big bang with public space. We will organise the city to allow you to take your bike safely and we will change rules and we will make more bike path and we need to give back space to Parisians. It’s a profound culture shift that’s taking some adjusting. We saw cyclists being pulled

over for running red lights, and cycling with headphones on. It’s clearly not clear to everyone who has the right of way…. which means for some people it’s time to go back to school.

What you need is always both hands on the brakes, always both hands on the brakes. Now the hands are down This is Joel Sick. He’s an instructor at Maison du Velo cycling school. Normally, we have about 150 adults each year learning to cycle, and now I think this year we have easily doubled to 300 people. There is a double impact: The impact of the strikes,

there was the transport strikes. And afterwards, there was the impact of the coronavirus. So there were two phenomena which participated in the development of bikes. Then there is also the fact that the public authorities have played along in Paris, they made big cycle paths. So the phenomenon we have now, you can’t see it in every city. Since coronavirus struck, the French government has invested 20 million euros in a push to get more Parisians using bikes. These classes are now free to anyone in the city who wants

to learn to ride. It’s like a paradise for me now. You can see maybe 10-thousands bikes everywhere. It’s really becoming so popular.

Remy Dunoyer is a bike mechanic. His repair shop in downtown Paris stayed open through lockdown. In response to the pandemic, the French government started contributing to the cost of bike repairs. We have a name for a new service which is ‘out of the basement service’. With a

dusty bike like this one or many other one. So we have a special service which we include the help from the government. They have the 50 euro to help people fix these bikes. So it’s cheaper for the people to reuse this one than to buy a new one. While other businesses have been shedding staff or shutting down Remy has been hiring, and opening new stores throughout the country.

It was an opportunity for us to open a new city which is Strasbourg. We opened a second one in Bordeaux; so two shops in Bordeaux; one in Paris maybe soon a second one in Paris. And in Strasbourg too. Across Europe more than a billion euros has been spent and 2,300 kilometres of bike lanes created since the pandemic began. Reduced car use has seen pollution fall by 50% in some of Europe’s biggest cities. But whether this Covid-related trend continues depends

on the scale of the continued investment and how many of us are committed to keep cycling, changing cities, possibly, forever.

2021-01-23 14:31

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