Cycling as Public Transportation in Reimagined Global Goals in
Post-COVID-19 Era

by Leszek J. Sibilski
July 16, 2020

The inclusion of cycling into public transport is a global imperative. In the upcoming post-COVID-19 social global contract, transportation should be formally included in the 17 United Nations Global Sustainable Goals (SDGs) with cycling to follow. Bicycle transport is a crucial form of mobility that should be an integral aspect of mass transportation. Transport is the second biggest global contributor of carbon dioxide emissions at 15%. Active mobility has the potential to mitigate it, and even be a solution to the climate challenge.

As ever-increasing voices ring globally, world bodies should consider postponing by 5-10 years the implementation of the 17 global goals—due to COVID-19’s reign of terror. This extension affords the world the chance to recover from the pandemic’s devastating consequences but also allows the United Nations and all its agencies to revive, reorient, and reimagine the global goals. Necessary adjustments—such as including the incorporation of transportation into the SDGs—would make them more globally relevant towards ensuring a safer, more equitable world for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children. A United Nations resolution or amendment or even creation of an additional global goal solely dedicated to transportation supported by all the stakeholders would tip the scales towards recognizing cycling as a pillar of public transport in the post-COVID-19 era. Current fears, terrors, and phantoms needn’t stifle our spirits. By taking action on what is within our power—incorporating cycling and transportation into the SDGs—we sow the seeds for more hopeful dawn. After all, cycling is everyone’s business everywhere.


Bet on the bicycle

During this COVID-19 pandemic, the world must bet on the bicycle. In cities like Bogota, Paris, Kampala, Budapest, Montreal, Barcelona, Lima, Vancouver, Berlin, Mexico City, Austin, and Oakland—among others—lockdowns along with other public transport restrictions demonstrated that life overall and our cities are better with fewer cars and altered streets. Streets are being repurposed by creating pop-up bike lanes—making them healthier for all. In many communities, bike shops have been upgraded to essential status and kept open to serve bicycle commuters during this unprecedented time. In some developed and developing countries, governments have deemed bicycles as essential services which have been kept open during the crisis. In Australia, bicycles have become as essential as toilet paper!

Unfortunately, however, due to a lack of trust in public transportation and very low gasoline prices, the Chinese and many others have turned to private cars. There are some disturbing facts coming from the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, Wuhan, justifying growing concerns that carbon emissions will bounce back with a vengeance once the COVID crisis is over. The narrative needs course-correction, as big cities may lose their new, cleaner appeal to city dwellers—who may not want to return to their urban neighborhoods. Rebooting functional mobility via the bicycle may change their minds.

Affordable, reliable transportation is no doubt one of the most valuable, but unrecognized tools of relief and development work there is. A bicycle is an industrial revolution in an individual’s life.

F.K. Day, World Bicycle Relief Co-Founder

The bicycle, invented over 200 years ago has been a mainstay of human mobility and transport for over 140 years. Why then has it been treated so marginally by city planners and most importantly by the financial sector? In 1999, a former Bogotá Mayor, Enrique Pañalosa, signaled a cultural shift: “A citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as one in a $30,000 car.”

Current estimates are that there are over one billion bicycles worldwide and over fifty percent of the global population knows how to ride them. Every second four bikes are being produced and every two seconds someone buys a bicycle. Since its inception, the bicycle has played a major role in providing functional, local mobility. In times of a crisis, disaster, catastrophe, or conflict or just a malfunction of modern technology the bicycle has been there to faithfully serve the human need. It’s always good to have a spare bike in the garage, basement, or on the balcony, just in case of an unexpected event happening to traditional public transportation. However, a bicycle does not have to be used only as an emergency vehicle but with proper infrastructure, it can serve as a convenient, clean means of daily commute and transport.


Stigma impedes expansion of bicycle use

But the social stigma of the bicycle as the chief vehicle of the poor in developing countries impedes the expansion of regular bicycle use. Since the early 1990s, several studies have focused on the integration of bicycles into public transit. One of the obstacles has been a label that cycling is still perceived as a sport and not as legitimate transport. A report published by the UK National Infrastructure Commission in 2018 boldly states that: “Cycling is now mass transport and must be treated as such,” The article perfectly justifies such a long-awaited cultural shift. It suggests that cyclists and pedestrians usher life in the streets, whereas cars tend to diminish vibrancy in the streets. Research has shown that bicyclists spend on average three times more than automobile drivers on local business enterprises and that cycling infrastructure is intertwined with higher retail purchasing. Cyclists create cities with healthier people, safer streets, cleaner air, and better inter-connectivity.

Currently, there is a lack of cycling infrastructure in many major urban centers. In the 21st Century there is an urgent need to mindfully consider developing safe and connected bike lanes; bike-carrying capacity on rail and bus; superhighway under and overpasses; indoor parking; traffic lights; modal solutions; repair stations; public bike shares; cargo bikes; and e-bikes in order to attract investors. Such considerations would increase the number of cyclists worldwide—being especially beneficial to families. There is a saying: “if you build it, they will come.” Excellent examples of places with such infrastructure are the City of Copenhagen is one city that has more bikes than cars. The Netherlands has more bikes than citizens. Nowadays, the bicycle has become a vibrant part of modal transport where it plays an active role in the first and last-mile approaches. The urban transit capacity for cycling is endless.

In recent weeks cycling for all was headlined in every corner of the world as a safe means of transport during physical distancing. Ironically, elite professional cycling has been at a standstill. Due to lockdowns, host countries of the grand tours, Italy, France, and Spain, were forced to postpone legendary races. The lower speed limits and pop-up temporary COVID bike lanes with bollards, cones, and pylons are a good start and demonstrate the potential of increasing the prominent status of cycling for all in urban and rural settings. The World Health Organization encourages both travel and physical activity by bike, particularly in the COVID era.


Bicycles, past and future

Observing the seeming rivers of bicycle traffic in Copenhagen and Amsterdam clearly justifies a call for cycling to be considered as a means of public transportation. Both in the Global South and North. This is a call to fully include everyday cycling as part of mass transportation in city centers as well as rural areas.

There have been previous, but temporary love affairs with the bicycle. In the 1973 oil crisis, the world was fascinated with the bicycle for a moment but then returned to the previous order of the combustion engine. We have lived through moments like this in the past where the bicycle was a mere backup vehicle. It doesn’t have to be that way again. Let’s work together with investors, urban planners, government officials, the international development community, civic society, and everyday citizens to make the benefits of cycling that are before us a more lasting and permanent solution for cleaner and more sustainable urban and rural environments.

On April 12, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution A/RES/72/272 that declared June 3rd as “World Bicycle Day”. It’s time for the next step in absorbing the absentee: everyday cycling. Amidst the third global bike-boom, let’s include everyday cycling—a leap towards cycling for all—into the already existing 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as part of public transportation. Undoubtedly, the bicycle will be with us for generations to come. Why not seize the moment by promoting cycling literacy globally at the United Nations level?

Leszek J. Sibilski is a Professor of Sociology and longtime advocate for issues related to climate change, the environment, family, public policy, global poverty, youth, and the role of women in contemporary society. He has served as a consultant for The World Bank Group and the United Nations. And is a former member of the Polish National Olympic Cycling Team. In 2015, Dr. Sibilski wrote a post published on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog entitled: “Cycling is Everyone’s Business”. The article was highly popular and received excellent feedback prompting him to originate and spearhead a global campaign for the United Nations to establish a “World Bicycle Day”. On April 12, 2018, his effort came to fruition when the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution A/RES/72/272 that declared June 3rd as “World Bicycle Day.”

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