Many governments and authorities started to build cycling infrastructure during the Covid-19 lockdowns, but were these developments temporary or the foundation of a permanent shift towards truly cyclable cities?

In this WRI Big Ideas Into Action podcast we hear that many of those cities are starting to make things permanent, and - of course - why helping to get more people out of cars and onto bicycles is a good thing for them, for the cities, and for the environment as well.


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“In a country like the Netherlands the cycling culture and infrastructure developed over the past 40 years. We don’t have 40 years in the rest of Europe, but people want to make cycling more possible, and easier and more comfortable. And these temporary measures [introduced during COVID-19 lockdowns] are certainly one way to very quickly introduce infrastructure that makes it easier for people to cycle, and more willing to do it, because they feel safer if a street has been made car free.”

Jill Warren, CEO, European Cyclists’ Federation


“Buenos Aires has had this policy to build cycle ways for over 10 years. We have a system that has 245 kilometers of cycle ways, so that’s quite a lot for a Latin American City. What we’ve seen is that to this point what we needed was to create the demand for cycling, and after ten years we have a strong demand.”

– Carlota Pederson Madero, Advisor to the Subsecretary on Mobility Planning for Buenos Aires, Argentina


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“Cycling is critical. As soon as you step out of the door in the morning when you are going to work or going to take your kids to school, you realize that transport is a big headache. You have a lot of problems with road safety: 1.35 million people are dying every year. You are also breathing very poor air. And if you think about the climate change crisis it is absolutely important that we decarbonize the transport sector.”

Claudia Adriazola-Steil, Health and Road Safety Director, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities


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Santiago Londono 00:52

I'm here on the streets outside WRI's Europe office, in The Hague in the Netherlands.

Nicholas Walton 00:57

This is my colleague, Santiago Londono, giving a flavor of just how well adapted the Netherlands is to the cycling lifestyle.

Santiago Londono 01:05

Along both sides of the road are cycle paths. And here, just about every street, every street is like that. It feels like everybody here gets on their bike rides around in their bike, and it's a country where even the Prime Minister cycles to work. You can see bikes are adapted to carrying babies and school kids, but also packages and moving around very, very easily with whatever you need. And the infrastructure is also built for it. So you can see that it's been a conscious decision to prioritize biking within the city. And it's really just made it a way of life here.

Nicholas Walton 01:39

Santiago Londono on the streets of The Hague. Of course, most countries don't have anything like the cycling infrastructure that the Netherlands enjoys, but that is changing. And the lockdowns that followed the global spread of the COVID 19 pandemic led to many governments and authorities making it easier for their citizens to get on their bikes. Here's Jill Warren of the European cyclists Federation based in Belgium.

Jill Warren 02:03

Well, the first lockdowns gave us a glimpse of what a world not dominated by cars could be like. So the empty streets, the clean air, really encouraged people to get out and cycle more, to cycle for the first time, to teach their children to cycle. And you know, cities also recognized that looking towards coming out of lockdown to ease congestion on public transport for social distancing reasons that it would be a very good idea to enable and encourage more cycling as a means of transport. So some 300 cities in Europe that that we've been able to track introduced some form of cycling- enabling measures, be it pop up cycle paths, or slow streets, sometimes fiscal or financial incentives, purchase premiums, or repair vouchers for bicycles, introducing lower speed limits, all kinds of things to encourage more cycling. And it worked. A study showed that in 106 cities that introduced such measures, in the first month of the pandemic, that cycling actually increased between 11 and 48% in those cities, so I think that's a very clear correlation between if you build it and make it more possible, they will come.

Nicholas Walton 03:26

Here in the Netherlands, of course, the cycling infrastructure it's very evident just how much there is, there's cycle lanes everywhere, sometimes the cars have to really play second fiddle to the bicycles. But what you're saying is that there's a lot of, I suppose smaller measures, interim measures that you can take that can really improve the cyclability of a of a city or town or urban area without having to spend the amounts that the Netherlands spend.

Jill Warren 03:54

Yes, well, I think you need to realize that in a country like the Netherlands, this culture and this infrastructure, all of this developed over the past, let's say 40 years. We don't have 40 years in the rest of Europe, but people do want to make cycling more possible and easier and more comfortable. And these temporary measures are certainly one way to very quickly introduce infrastructure that makes it easier for people to cycle, and makes people more willing to do it because they will feel safer if a street has been made car free, or you know, one lane of traffic has been repurposed for cycling. So those are certainly things that cities can do and have done. The challenge I think going forward is to say right, how do we turn this into more permanent infrastructure so that this is lasting change?

Nicholas Walton 04:43

How much of this is is culture? Here in the Netherlands, a 75 year old for instance, may not think twice about jumping on a bicycle and going down to the shops, but obviously in many other countries, people are just used to walking to the shops or taking a bus or perhaps even more sadly, driving all the time.

Jill Warren 05:01

Yeah, I think culture for cycling or culture for your means of transport goes hand in hand with what kind of infrastructure you have for it. So, the principle if you build it, they will come, I think very much works. If you have infrastructure on which people feel very safe and comfortable cycling, many more people will do it. And you can encourage that further through these incentives, like purchase premiums and tax breaks, you know, cycle to work schemes, you can drive behavioral change with a range of measures. And that, in turn, you know, gradually changes your culture. And we've seen a very quick culture change over the past year due to the pandemic that we otherwise probably wouldn't have seen that quickly.

Nicholas Walton 05:48

Given how important culture is how much progress has been made in those places where cycling wasn't necessarily part of everyday life?

Jill Warren 05:55

I could give a couple of cities as examples. Paris is one of the most prominent examples we have today. Certainly before the pandemic, Mayor Anne Hidalgo had a plan for transforming Paris and making it much better for cyclists and pedestrians. As part of that plan, when she came into office in 2014 she said she was going to build 1000 kilometers of cycle paths in Paris. By 2019, about half of that had been built. Then the pandemic came and plans were accelerated. So another 50 kilometers were added. And the modal split has really changed in Paris, we've really seen a cultural transformation in Paris in the space of just, let's say, 5, 6 or 7 years, that would have been unthinkable. Previously, Paris was such a city for cars. Brussels is another good example, Brussels used to be the example of how you don't do it if you want a city that's nice and livable for cyclists or pedestrians. The whole city was geared towards through-traffic and you know, getting cars very quickly from from one place to the other. I would say in the elections in 2018/2019, when Greens were elected, they were really able to make plans and start implementing them for a more livable Brussels that reallocated space from cars to cyclists. And again, during the pandemic, that was the opportunity to accelerate this with 40 kilometers of pop-up cycle paths that are gradually now being made permanent. And, you know, we've really, almost before our very eyes, seen this cultural shift happen. I think Lisbon, Portugal is another good example. What's happening in Ireland now with the massive investments in transport are also very, very encouraging to see. And Berlin is also a nice example of where the pop-up cycle lanes have really opened our eyes to just how much space was allocated to cars previously, and how that needs to change.

Nicholas Walton 08:01

in the course of your work, and I assume also as a cyclist, what have you learned is the is the most important thing for encouraging people to get on their bikes?

Jill Warren 08:11

People need to feel safe and comfortable cycling. If they feel unsafe, they will not do it. And so protected infrastructure, separated infrastructure that people truly feel safe cycling on, is the most important factor.

Nicholas Walton 08:29

And you've done work looking at how cycling is an important part of the of the climate plans of countries in Europe.

Jill Warren 08:38

Yes, we feel strongly that policies and investment commitments to increase cycling should be an integral part of any country's climate plan. So to see what the picture looked like we analyzed all 27 EU Member States' national energy and climate plans to look for these kinds of policies and for any gaps that highlight where we and our stakeholders could try to influence them for more cycling measures. The draft versions of the national energy and climate plans were submitted to the European Commission by member states at the end of 2018, and the final versions about a year after that. So they were put together before the pandemic took off. But looking at 13 different cycling or sustainable mobility related indicators in the in the plans, we scored the countries and we saw that in the first versions of those plans there really was quite a lot of room for improvement. In the second versions, some countries have really stepped up. I think, just looking at which countries are doing very well on these counts. The top score was achieved by France, which has a plan to triple the share of cycling in their transport modal split. And they've developed a very detailed set of measures to do that. Austria and Belgium also did very well with targets and plans. And the best climber country from the first version to the second version of these plans was Portugal, which has developed their ambitious Portugal Cycling 2030 program. And other climbers that I guess recognize the need for more cycling were Slovenia, but even a country like Denmark, which is already very good in cycling, and Ireland with with the new policies and budgets they've implemented, and Luxembourg.

Nicholas Walton 10:24

Jill Warren of the European cyclists Federation. You're listening to the WRI big ideas into action podcast in this episode, looking at how cycling is critical for the health of cities and those who live in them. More on the link between climate action and cycling a bit later on. But first, let's look at a couple of examples. First, a brief visit to one of the cities that Jill mentioned: Paris home to another one of my colleagues from WRI Sophie Mongalvy. She, like 1000s of other Parisians took up cycling when the city started putting infrastructure in after the first COVID lockdown.

Sophie Mongalvy 11:01

It was really interesting what happened when we all came out of the lockdown the first lockdown in Paris and when we came out of it in May 2020. It was really interesting because all of these new cycling lanes had just flourished, I think within a few days or a few weeks. And so these temporary cycling lanes - I think about 50 kilometers of them around across the city - had appeared, and yellow markings on the streets. And 1000s and 1000s of people just started bicycling. I was one of them. One of the first things I did when I came out of lockdown was buying myself a bicycle and a helmet. It was really interesting to see how everyone was trying to address it created a bit of chaos, a bit of confusion. Cars and buses and taxi and delivery vans just having to now deal with cyclists on the street and a lot of cyclists not very used to cycling in the cities. And I think it's sort of accelerated the municipality's projects in terms of cycling lanes in Paris.

Nicholas Walton 12:01

And that was Sophie Mongalvy in Paris. Next to Argentina and Buenos Aires, where Carlotta Pedersen Maduro is the advisor to the Subsecretary on Mobility Planning for the city. She's been in charge of a project to extend cycling lanes onto the enormous boulevards that cut across Buenos Aires.

Carlotta Pedersen Madera 12:19

So when I say this is quite an extensive city is not that dense, actually. And that's one of the challenges. It has had 3 million people for over 30 years. And what has grown a lot is the metropolitan area. So when a site is has a lot of streets, a lot of space for different vehicles. We still have quite a strong culture of public transport, which is of course fantastic. And there's a lot of buses, there's a lot of cars, there is a lot of people walking in the city as well. And also a subway system. But we have a strong network. And for over 10 years, we have been implementing cycleways all over the city. And we have created a demand to use the bicycle that didn't exist 10 years ago.

Nicholas Walton 13:13

When I was in Buenos Aires, I remember that the very centre of the cities is very built up. And there's roads that have got multiple lanes. And it looks quite daunting. But because the city is so as you say it, it extends over a very large area, does that mean that certain parts of it are very, very suitable for cycling?

Carlotta Pedersen Madera 13:34

I would say that, yes. And one of the key data points that you should know Nicholas is that 66.5% of the trips that are made in Buenos Aires are between one and five kilometers. That's the length of 66.5% of the trips. So actually, even though the city is quite big, most of the trips are totally bikeable, you could say. So that has been also one of our key data points for us to start implementing and continue implementing this bike culture that we want to create in the city.

Nicholas Walton 14:17

What was the change that you saw under the COVID situation during the COVID crisis, which of course we're still in? What was the big change to the way the city was working or traveling or whatever that you saw?

Carlotta Pedersen Madera 14:29

So of course, one of the key challenges that we are seeing everywhere in the world is that from transport point of view, the public transport has always been the focus, like trying to move more people in less space. And suddenly public transport is not a dangerous place, but it is still a place where people gather and are rather close. So because of all the restrictions suddenly we needed tools for people to move in the city, that weren't only cars, because first of all, we don't have a population that can afford a car, not everyone can afford a car. And then we don't want as a city to promote the excess of car usage. So I would say that in that way, the pandemic has kind of made very visible, that bikes are a very, very strong tool to move around in the city. And then there's another point that is quite key for us. Bikes are not only a way of transport, but for many people, it's a job opportunity. We have a lot of people that are using the bike to make deliveries around the city. And we have seen kind of an increase of 50% in usage of all those apps that where you can like ask for food or stuff to be delivered. So the bike is also a work tool that is quite strong. And we have also seen during the pandemic that all the industries or most of the industries were going through a very rough crisis. But actually the cycling industry is doing really good. They're selling bikes like never before. And we have the equivalent of our Amazon, which is called Mercado Libre, is 131% more sales in biking, in bikes, than it was in 2019. And those numbers are still increasing.

Nicholas Walton 16:30

The way you describe it. It certainly sounds as though there's a demand there. There's an economic reason there's a real opportunity there. But what has the city, what kind of infrastructure has had to be put down to help this along? Especially in a place where recently certainly over recent years, there have been really big economic problems in Argentina, so there hasn't been an enormous amount of money to throw around.

Carlotta Pedersen Madera 16:55

Exactly. So the city has had this policy to build cycleways for over 10 years. So it's something that it has been already on the top of the agenda for a long time. And we have a system that is 245 kilometers of cycleways. So that's quite a lot for a Latin American city. What we've seen actually is that till this point, what we needed was to create the demand of cyclist and after 10 years, and this is, of course, a very good news, now we have a strong demand. So a little bit, one of the key elements of my job and the team's work related to cycling, was to start building the infrastructure with parameters that were following more the behavior of the cyclist and not so much the infrastructure. So till this point, we needed to create the demand. Now the demand is there. And what we've realized is that actually 60% of the cyclists in the city, they're not using the infrastructure that we built for them. Because the city has always had this policy of building cycling infrastructure in secondary streets, and not on avenues. So when we saw the map of where the cyclists were actually concentrated, and where were their desire lines, we realized something that is, of course, quite obvious, but it was really good to have it in numbers, is that the avenues were very much used. And there were no infrastructure for those cyclists. So that has been one of the key points for us to revisit the parameters that we were using till now. It has been successful till now. But we needed to change in order to make a bigger jump. So that's why we implemented two avenues that are one of the most important avenues in the city that are called Avenida Corrientes and Avenida Cordoba. And those 17 kilometers of cycle ways, have been incredibly successful in a very, very short time.

Nicholas Walton 19:10

Fascinating. So what's the scale of your ambition? Where would you like Buenos Aires and cycling in Buenos Aires to be in 5, 10 years time.

Carlotta Pedersen Madera 19:20

So we have this really strong ambition to — by the end of 2023 — have 1 million trips per day. We are today at around 350,000. So it's very ambitious as you can hear. And our idea is that in the coming years, we want to really start building more infrastructure on avenues, because we can see that that's what makes also using the bike the most agile way of moving around. Otherwise you always have to do trips are quite long. And you have to take a lot of small streets and go right and left and right and left and it gets quite like annoying actually when you can just take an avenue and go from A to B. And we also are very lucky to actually have a city that is quite flat, and that has a fantastic climate. So those are also two elements that we see as very strong assets and where the city can actually really have a big cycling demand because of the conditions of the city of the trips and of this climate.

Nicholas Walton 20:37

Carlotta Pedersen Madera in Buenos Aires. Finally, WRI's own Claudia Adriazola-Steil, our health and road safety director. I spoke to her recently and as you can hear from my questions that was after I left the Netherlands for a slightly less flat European country, here in Italy. But let's concentrate on what Claudia has to say. How important does she think it is for cities to get cycling right?

Claudia Adriazola-Steil 20:58

It is critical, I will use that word for several reasons. But as soon as you step out of the door, in the morning, when you are going to work or you are going to take your kids to school, or to the doctor, you can realise that transport is a big headache. And it is in front of your eyes, because you know you have a lot of problems with road safety. 1.35 million people are dying every year. You also breathing very poor air. As a matter of fact, nine out of 10 people in the world breathe polluted air, 4.2 million deaths are associated with ambient air pollution. And if we think about the climate change crisis, it is absolutely important that we decarbonize the transport sector. And cycling is proven to be a very low carbon emission mode of transportation. As a matter of fact, that recent study pointed out to 84% lower carbon emissions than people that use a vehicle.

Nicholas Walton 22:13

How difficult is this to achieve? And I speak as someone who lived in the Netherlands for four years until recently, where obviously, you know, it's a nice flat country, it's good for cycling, there's money. And there's a government that's very good at putting into place big infrastructure projects. So the Netherlands has a fantastic cycling system. But in other places, it must be much more difficult.

Claudia Adriazola-Steil 22:35

It is much more difficult because there is not a clear policy, a clear vision of what you want to do. And so you find a default car-centric set of policies and investments that follow that. So you need to have a clear vision: I need to help my people to move around in a safe way in a clean way, in an equitable way. And then if you have the political will, you have the funding, you have the investment, the safe infrastructure, it is absolutely possible to be able to set cycling as a way to move around. We have seen it. You are mentioning the Netherlands in the 70s, the Netherlands has started to have a car dominated culture and a lot of traffic related deaths that came, among you know them children, and people who are just fed up with these problems. So that started to move the decision makers into shifting policies to support cycling. And now you have experienced Nicholas what is to cycle in the Netherlands, it's almost part of your day to day transportation. You don't have to think about it.

Nicholas Walton 24:02

So what are the first steps?

Claudia Adriazola-Steil 24:04

One of the first one is to have a clear vision of what would want with the city. And why is that important? Because in order to make cycling a viable option, you have to have a network, people that cycle will be able to go anywhere in the city. And that is not achieved by having just you know one kilometer of a cycling here and there. It is to have a real vision of what you want. We have seen it now during the pandemic how many cities started carving out the space for the cyclists. One important one as I mentioned, a good example is Paris, is reducing the speed climbing traffic to really allow cyclists to be able to enter the transport system in an urban area, would recommend having 30 kilometers per hour as the speed limit in in cities. And of course, you will have arterial roads that can carry your mass transportation and your goods that will have higher speeds. But the majority of the grid should have a lower speed that can enable cycling to happen.

Nicholas Walton 25:24

That was Claudia Adriazola-Steil ending this WRI Big Ideas Into Action podcast on cycling. You can find more about it in the city section of our website, and in the work of the Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Check out for our entire back catalogue, including podcasts on everything from road safety, to the great ideas that were part of the WRI Ross Prize for Cities. I'm Nicholas Walton. Thanks for listening.