For a long time, the French have considered cycling a sport rather than a way of transport. This has changed in the past years with raising concerns about air quality, climate change and public health. 2020 can be a real turning point with long strikes in public transit as well as government support for a bike system in the aftermath of the Coronavirus crisis. Lisa Tostado takes a closer look.
“Don’t laugh”, the newly appointed French Prime Minister Jean Castex had to ask senators who were mocking his discourse on the importance of bikes for present and future mobility in the French Senate last month. They have not taken seriously a development that has nevertheless been under way for a while and that has been accelerating.
The Covid-19 crisis has indeed led to the resurgence of cycling: the lockdown gave the bicycle the opportunity to prove it is a safe, efficient, active and affordable mode of transport, with minimum space requirements and a large local employment potential. As a result, many national, and local authorities have started to put in place several permanent and temporary cycling measures in their cities and regions. The pandemic is thus speeding up an ecological transition to limit car traffic and cut pollution, especially as new research draws links between dirty air and Covid-19 death rates. Americans too are flocking to bicycles as the coronavirus discourages the use of public transit. In Europe, however, where many cities have integrated cycling as a mode of transportation for years, the development is even faster; and France is a very good example.
Bike use in France has increased dramatically ever since the country has been lifting its tight lockdown measures. This applies especially, but is not limited to urban areas. Many French municipalities have quickly built provisional bike lanes to encourage people to bike rather than take public transit in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis that hit France particularly hard. Several hundreds of kilometers of additional bike lanes have been installed, with over 50 kilometers in Paris alone. In addition to these infrastructure measures, the French Ministry of Ecological and Solidarity Transition is currently also implementing another plan to incentive cycling: the so-called “Coup de Pouce Vélo”, a bike nudge. It consists of financial aid of up to 50 € per bike for reparations, public bike lessons and subsidies for building new bike parking. In the first six weeks of that program alone, over 200 000 French residents have used the “Coup de pouce Vélo” to get their bikes fixed. First announced as a plan with a budget of 20 million euros, its success made budgetary adjustment necessary, making it a plan worth 60 million euros. These various measures made France top the list of the European Cyclist Federation interactive dashboard “Cycling beyond the crisis: Covid-19 measures tracker”.
Travelling by bicycle had been becoming more common before the coronavirus lockdown in France, even though the country is still lagging behind most of the other European countries. Data by the bike lobby group “Vélo et Territoire” shows that between 2013 and 2019, bike traffic in France has risen by 19% on average, with large regional differences. This can partly be attributed to policies that encourage cycling. In 2015, an Action Plan for Active Mobility was announced, aiming to get people either on to bikes or walking shorter distances more often. It included financial incentives for employers who successfully encourage staff to commute to work by bike (max. 200 €), moves to boost cycle tourism across the country and create more bike-to-school programs for kids. In late 2017, the government announced its first plan dedicated entirely to the bicycle. Its main goal: triple the rate of daily commutes taken on two wheels from 3% to 9%, the current European average, by 2024. It allows companies to pay up to 400 € in tax and social exemption to their employees who cycle to work. There are also financial aids to buy electric bikes, marketing efforts to improve the image of cycling and measures to improve intermodality. On top of that comes a mandatory identification engraving system for new bikes to fight bike theft and an obligation to include bicycle-parking facilities for new buildings. The bike plan fund of 50 million € per year falls short of what 20 NGOs had demanded in an open letter and what the French Climate Convention now asked for, namely 200 million € per year, but is the most comprehensive bike plan the country has seen so far.
Besides the Covid-19 crisis, another external factor increased bike use in France: Many commuters began cycling during the longest public transit strikes in the French history, lasting for almost two months in December 2019 and January 2020. After the strikes, many kept their new habit.
Research shows that bike use increases when comprehensive bike systems are in place: wide, connected and segregated bike lanes, safe parking possibilities, cycling training, financial incentives, clear signage, infrastructure to easily fix bikes, etc. It usually takes time to build such systems, but the Covid-19 (plus transport strike) French bike case shows that system change can be catalyzed if governments take the right measures in times of crisis. Similarly, and unlike common clichés, the Dutch are not inherently inclined to use bikes, but happen to live in a country heavily impacted by the oil shocks in the 70s after which governments decided to invest in a bike system. Most cyclists do not use that way of transport because of ecological convictions, but simply because it is the cheapest, easiest and fastest way to get around.
The even bigger success of the bicycle in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown may yet be to come: many people still work from home, students have not returned to their universities, some are on vacation, some still need to familiarize themselves with the new infrastructure, etc. Investments in a bike system therefore should not only be seen as a way of social distancing to avoid other waves of infections, but also a durable change in daily mobility. Around 60% of trips in France are less than 5 km which makes bikes a perfectly ecological, economical and healthy solution for the majority of trips in France.
Let’s hope that politicians talking about the importance of cycling for transport do not have to ask their colleagues to “not laugh” anymore in the future. The most recent Green surge in local elections, especially in bigger cities with a big potential to have people shift to bikes on a daily basis, gives reason for some hope.