Key Insights

Resurgent Pedestrian Cities and the Bike Revolution: A Side-Effect of COVID-19

ESI ThoughtLab

Facilitating social distancing in crowded metropolises to reduce the spread of COVID-19 became a priority for city leaders early this year.While lockdowns remained in place across the world during the northern hemisphere spring, subsequent summer weather allowed people to venture outside and enjoy activities like hiking, biking, and outdoor dining. This required cities to accommodate the need for more outdoor and sidewalk space.

In addition, the pandemic sparked important changes in how people get around. The demand for public transportation declined, as did its capacity.Cities needed to support other means of safe mobility for travelers and commuters. Use of cars to replace public transportation would have had detrimental effects on the environment and city traffic, a threat that prompted city leaders to find innovative solutions and encourage green mobility.


The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has launched extensive efforts to reduce traffic in the city, hoping to retain the low pollution levels recorded during lockdown. More than 30 miles of roads were converted into a network of bicycle freeways that stretch over the entire city and into the banlieues (suburbs). Mayor Hidalgo also put in place an incentive system that grants citizens €50 for bike repairs and up to €500 to purchase new electric bikes.Three days into the program, over 4,000 Parisians had taken advantage of the repair check. Paris is also planning to remove high-emission cars from the streets in the future.


Seattle introduced the “Stay Healthy Streets” program in April, while still under lockdown. With the hashtag #KeepItMoving, the city encouraged residents to go outside and exercise. Twenty miles of roads were repurposed to create neighborhood greenways, a network of streets given exclusively to pedestrians and cyclists. While the initiative was supposed to be temporary, its success turned the project into a permanent one.  


Mayor Sadiq Khan has been another great proponent of cycling networks, launching “Streetspace”, an initiative designed to facilitate a ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold in walking. Mayor Khan stated in his official website: “Many Londoners have rediscovered the joys of walking and cycling during lockdown and, by quickly and cheaply widening pavements, creating temporary cycle lanes and closing roads to through traffic, we will enable millions more people to change the way they get around our city.”


The city of Turin, Italy, home to car maker Fiat, already had a bike plan in place aimed at raising the share of bike travel to 15% by 2023. The pandemic accelerated those efforts. The city planned 95 km of new bike paths and implemented something called “bike boxes”—spaces at crossroads controlled by traffic lights that give priority to bicycles and scooters for turning.


In order to help essential workers needing to travel to and from their jobs during the early days of the pandemic, city leaders in Bogota, Colombia created a 47-mile emergency bike network, in addition to the existent340 miles of bike paths. According to the city’s website, 30% of all daily journeys in 2019 were made by walking or biking, a number the city plans to increase to 50% in 2020.


Pamplona, Spain is a pioneer in implementing innovative mobility solutions, having adopted policies to promote green and electric transport a decade ago. During the pandemic, it has extended roads to make room for pedestrians and cyclists, widened sidewalk pavements, and built modular parks equipped with charging systems for electrical bikes. Riders can leave their bikes in a secured garage by registering through a website or using a mobile app.

Post-pandemic mobility

Many of the changes in urban mobility practices sparked by the pandemic are likely to become long-lasting, even when the crisis subsides, as cities continue to incentivize alternatives to cars or public transport.

“The pandemic has completely disrupted transportation,” said Giovanni Circella, Honda Distinguished Scholar for New Mobility Studies and director of the 3 Revolutions Future MobilityProgram at the University of California Davis Institute for TransportationStudies. “Many things are changing.”

Circella and her colleagues at UCDavis argue that now is the time for more governments to put policies in place to place to prepare for post-pandemic transportation and mobility.