The Inevitable COVID-19 Post… (Part 2: Benefits for Cycling)

Many of us have been relying on the bike during this time to keep our mental wellbeing on an even keel. Fortunately, in the UK we have not had to manage the lockdown restrictions that countries such as Spain and Italy have had. Many of us are concerned  Many of us are concerned about what might happen if further restrictions were to be implemented though, at the time of writing, there haven’t been any suggestions that is going happen. Not knowing for sure what is going to happen is one of the issues…

Some of us, such as myself, could resort to a turbo trainer if necessary though those who aren’t fortunate enough to have a balcony, garage, or a floor solid enough not to enrage the downstairs neighbours are at a disadvantage. A few people I know are currently looking into alternative exercise which can take place at home with the minimum of equipment. Others are considering what other activities they may be able to divert their attentions to – baking, crafting, artwork and so on.

When we are spending so much time confined the benefits of access to open space are quite clear. With limitations on movement many people have been making the most of the chances they have. Certainly I have exercised consistantly much more over the last few weeks that I have done in a long, long time. Unsurprisingly, many of us are heading to local parks and other green spaces as temporary respite from the indoor life.

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The underlying tension and anxiety can emerge in confrontation – with cross words and threats traded as people struggle to practice physical distancing. It’s all to easy to respond with frustration to those in the vicinity when we cannot change the wider situation we find ourselves in. There has been, perhaps predictably, a flurry of negative press directed towards runners and cyclists. Access to outdoor space shouldn’t be considered a luxury, or an indulgence – it is all too necessary, particularly for building mental and physical resilience .

More space, not less, needs to be opened up for public use so that people can exercise and travel in accordance with distancing measures. What has been made clear is that many of our streets are unsuited to application of the 2m guidance. Many pavements are much narrower than 200cm, parked vehicles force pedestrians out into the road, street furniture makes it tricky to move around others and stay out of the street. The absurdity of allocating so much of our public space to private vehicles is clear. Given how much traffic levels have dropped it makes perfect sense to filter some streets to allow access and exercise to take place safely. Predictably, the lower traffic volume has led to some appalling incidents of speeding, though I’ve been heartened by the police responses around London and the South-East that I have read.

There are growing calls to prioritise space for those on foot or bike and several countries (Germany, New Zealand) have already created temporary cycling lanes. With the lower levels of motor raffic is it so simple to reallocate space. Over the last few days there have been signs of movement here in the UK too with Brighton and Hove Council making moves to follow. There have also been calls to open up golf courses and other privately owned open spaces though there seems to be little overall movement on this in the absence of any nationwide instruction by the government.

Higher pollution levels have been linked to higher COVID-19 death rates – all the more reason to minimise motor traffic during the pandemic. Many key workers are turning to bikes to avoid the cramped spaces of public transport – the bike is an ideal way to remain distanced. Bike shops have been permitted to remain open – a sign that cycling is being recognised as a valid transport option and isn’t just for leisure/exercise use. I rode through central London the day that the COVID-19 restrictions came into place. What struck me was how much more relaxed I was. The the background tension and anxiety I always feel when riding in town had fallen away.  The palpable difference surprised even me. I could ride through Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar and Parliament Squares without constantly second-guessing driver behaviour, fear of close passes, or enduring the exhaust emissions. I took my time but with the reduced traffic my journey didn’t take any longer. I observed the city, noticing architecture and took in the fleeting vistas between the buildings. I was more present, and my ride more mindful. I wasn’t just getting from A to B, I was enjoying the journey and arrived back home with a sense of satisfaction and equilibrium. Fear of injury and reluctance to place oneself into environments considered as dangerous is one of the most significant factors that prevents people from riding yet there is evidence that cycling in fact reduces stress levels. Have look at this BMJ article in relation to commuting and perceived safety and related blog post by Discerning Cyclist.

Pollution levels have dropped, skies are clearer, birdsong seems more evident without the constant drone of traffic. Nature becomes emboldened when we allow our dominance to wane a little. We have a glimpse of a world that could be. It is unrealistic to expect the current situation to become permanent but it does indicate how quickly our surroundings can improve when we make considerable changes. Also how we can dramatically change our habits when we’re forced to. Hopefully we can keep this in the forefront of our minds beyond COVID-19 in regards to the climate crisis. In the meantime, I am hopeful that some of the positives in relation to cycling as a means of transport will persist. More people on bikes is safer for everyone. Protected space for cycling encourages the more reticent to ride. The numbers of people using dedicated cycle space in London and across the country shows this admirably .

Cycling is demonstrating its versatility once again. Use a bike for personal transport, use it for deliveries (Pedal Me!), use it for exercise, use it to stay mobile and distant from others, use it to boost mental wellbeing. Some companies and organisations in London (and in many other places, I have no doubt) are already discussing a change to future working practices with more chances to work flexibly and from home. Will the modal shift towards cycling be sustained or will people begin to feel more confident about using public transport once again? Will changes in working practices noticeably ease congestion on the buses, tube, trains and the roads?  (the likely shift in working practices  am keeping my fingers crossed that London and the UK won’t continue to drag its heels in providing more widespread cycle provision. In the light of the obvious benefits of bike riding during COVID-19 restrictions I am hoping that we can convert any temporary improvements into permanent ones. I’m not as unrealistic as to desires that post-COVID-19 streets will be as enjoyable to ride as those during the travel restrictions but if they are than they were… it’s something.

 

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[NB. I’m London-based so my comments will inevitably be London-centric though many of the points above are equally applicable elsewhere. There’s an excellent summary of cycling/COVID-19 points in this piece by LCC which worth a read, and summarises things in a superior way to my thoughts here.]

 

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