Health experts are calling for more roadspace for cyclists. Here’s why.

by Matt de Neef


If you’ve been out riding or walking since coronavirus lockdowns began, you might have noticed that you’re far from alone. It would seem the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired many people to dust off old bikes for the first time in years, and prompted many a family ride on local bike tracks. The number of people walking and running has seemingly increased in a similar fashion.

In the wake of this development, a long list of Australian health and transport experts have called for increased space for safe cycling and walking. In an open letter that has since drawn the support of cycling advocacy groups like the Amy Gillett Foundation and Bicycle Network, the experts called on “decision makers to take urgent steps to enhance walking and cycling during the pandemic … to ensure that safe physical activity and social distancing can occur on our streets now and when the economy is reopened.”

The open letter, headed up by Monash University health researcher Dr Ben Beck, highlights the “substantial and wide-reaching physical health benefits” of exercise, as well as the benefits to mental health. It highlights that cycling and walking are “compatible with social distancing” requirements imposed Australia-wide, but that current infrastructure is not currently up to the task.

“Current cycling and walking infrastructure is often inadequate in providing safety and sufficient space to facilitate the recommended 1.5 m of physical distance between persons,” the letter reads. “This demonstrates the clear need for the rapid roll-out of cycling and walking infrastructure in Australia.

“Reported decreases in motor vehicle traffic provide a unique opportunity to repurpose space usually allocated to motor vehicles for temporary infrastructure to support cycling and walking.”

A great many jurisdictions around the world have already implemented a range of such measures, including the following:

– The Canadian province of British Columbia is endorsing the reallocation of roadway space to cyclists and pedestrians.

– The New Zealand city of Nelson is widening footpaths and lowering speed limits.

– The German capital of Berlin is installing pop-up bike lanes.

– Speed limits in Madrid have been reduced to 20 mph (32 km/h) and pavements have been widened.

– More than 115 communities around France are installing temporary cycling facilities.

– Bogota, Colombia is opening 76 km of temporary bike lanes to reduce crowding on public transport.

– The US city of Philadelphia closed 4.7 miles (7.5 km) of the riverside Martin Luther King Jr Drive to motor vehicles “in the interest of facilitating social distancing among trail users”.

Some such measures have been implemented in Australia — including the installation of automatic pedestrian traffic signals in Brisbane — but according to Dr Beck and co, Australia is “lagging behind the rest of the world”.

As things currently stand, local councils around Australia don’t have the authority to take road space without the approval of the relevant state or territory authority. Those behind the open letter hope that their campaign will result in more power for local councils to act independently, and quickly.

According to Dr Beck and co, the need for safer infrastructure for cycling and walking will persist long beyond the time lockdowns end and life starts trending back towards normality. With public transport use expected to remain low for some time — with people concerned about keeping their distance from others — it will be important for bike lanes and footpaths to be wide enough to facilitate increased load and appropriate distancing measures.

“Safe cycling and walking will be imperative in reactivating our economy when social distancing measures are relaxed,” the letter reads. “This will enable people to travel to work and school using transport modes that are both safe and healthy.”

Amidst all the ways coronavirus has changed the world for the worse, there have been some positives. A reduction in motorised vehicle traffic has led to significant reductions in air pollution and as mentioned above, the number of people riding bikes has almost certainly increased. Many within the health and transport planning sectors are hopeful that this crisis will help prompt a rethink of the way our cities work, and ultimately lead to further support for healthy, sustainable modes of transport.

You can read the full open letter here. And if you’re interested to learn more about this movement in general, be sure to check out the #SpaceForHealth hashtag on social media.

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