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The pandemic created a biking explosion. How can cities make it permanent?

We need to future-proof our cities so active travel is always an easy option.

The pandemic created a biking explosion. How can cities make it permanent?
[Photo: MarcelloLand/iStock]

For decades, humans have been marginalized in the urban transport equation. But during the pandemic, we’ve seen an urgent need to shift the balance back in favor of human-powered transport as an equal form of movement in our cities.

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Last year, data from my company, Strava, revealed that active travel grew by 42% globally, as city dwellers embraced healthier and more environmentally friendly ways of getting from one place to another, offsetting 46.2 million metric tons of CO2—enough to cover the annual carbon output of Norway or Hong Kong.

And this was all pre-COVID-19, before lockdown measures and changing public attitudes in cities around the world accelerated the shift toward active travel as people’s main mode of transport. If we continue to harness this trend, we will collectively offset double the amount of CO2 by the end of the year.

So far in 2020, in the U.K. alone, Strava data has shown that active travel has soared by 162%, with London seeing an increase of almost 120% from May 2019 to May 2020, as people turned to cycling to move across the city.

And the U.K. cities are not alone in this trend. Our data show a similar rise in cities across the globe, including Berlin, New York, and Barcelona, which saw a 76%, 34%, and 32% year-on-year increase respectively.

Quantifying this trend and seeing clear patterns of travel and movement across cities is central to the idea of having data-informed infrastructure plans for the future of our urban areas.

With public support for active travel growing, we’ve seen a resurgence in interest in urban mobility and the redesigning of our cities for the future, where active travel is deemed as an equal form of transport. Governments around the world are fast coming under pressure to reassess their current infrastructure plans and create sustainable and healthier cities.

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To achieve this we need effective cross-collaboration between the public and private sectors, where government funding and business expertise can lead to better infrastructure, ultimately making cities friendlier for human-powered transportation.

And for effective cross-collaboration, we need smart data to help cities better understand the importance of fit-for-purpose infrastructure.

Smart data analysis that tracks transport trends can empower urban planners, local councils, and academics to understand mobility patterns and predict the impact of infrastructure change.

Understanding mobility patterns

The rise in demand for cycling across the world comes as no surprise, especially when considering the recent boost and support from governments to encourage this trend in light of the pandemic—pointing to an opportunity that is too good to let pass by.

We’ve seen the U.K.’s Department for Transport announce a 2 billion pound package to encourage active travel and aimed at doubling cycling and increasing walking to work by 2025. Similarly, Paris rolled out 650 kilometers of cycleways, Milan revealed that it will transform 35 km to support cycling and walking infrastructure, and Germany decided to expand its cycle lanes to meet the demand of active travelers.

These plans are to be applauded, and we’re already seeing the growth in active travel as a result. Crucially, however, we must ensure that the funds invested are going into the right place—and that’s where smart data comes in. Urban planners need details of the exact locations where cycling lanes should be added, redesigned, extended, or shortened.

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Berlin [Image: Strava]
In Germany, for example, its capital saw the biggest jump in active travel—with Berlin seeing an increase of 76% in people taking up cycling since May 2019. And the increase in demand was met with great public and government support, as a wider bike lane was added in Petersburger Straße in April to meet this boom in active travel during the pandemic—seeing an increase of 269.23% in cycling on this section of road between January and July 2020.

New York [Image: Strava]
New York, too, saw an increase in cycling during the pandemic. Queens’s 34th Avenue saw the biggest recorded jump in the city, of over 1220%, from January to July 2020, having closed off car traffic from the street during the pandemic. There’s been a clear appetite for making this change permanent as the demand for people turning to active transport boomed, pressuring the local council and DOT to consider making this a car-free street moving forward.

London [Image: Strava]
London’s Park Lane is further proof that introducing cycling lanes in traditionally congested areas will lead to a rise in demand. Our data show a 448% increase in cycling from January to July this year, for what is one of the busiest central London roads, now transformed via a pop-up bike lane.

There is a clear and obvious correlation here. Cycling lanes encourage people to jump on their bikes, and it’s only right for us to build on this momentum and invest in smart infrastructure. Pop-up lanes are the perfect start to understand the rise in demand, which now needs to be met with long-term investment and planning.

This is where we know data can be a powerful tool to help visualize where exactly infrastructure is needed—providing the kind of local insights governments need to better understand the changes in mobility behavior our society is witnessing—and helping them implement changes where required.

Future-proofing our cities for active travel

The global pandemic has made it apparent that active travel is the way forward, but only if we choose to fully embrace it.

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If we go on to harness this trend and ensure it continues after COVID-19 ends, we’ll get a long way toward building a more sustainable and greener future, that embraces healthier habits and puts people at the heart of urban travel.

There is a global window of opportunity here, where it’s not one or two countries, but a global shift toward healthier societies and cities redesigned for active travel.

The time to act is now. We have a clear public demand on our side and abundant appetite from people to incorporate active travel into their daily lives. Let’s make sure we seize the opportunity and make this a turning point for human-powered transport—our future depends on it.


Gareth Nettleton is Strava’s global VP of marketing and the lead of Strava Metro.

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