Europeans want (others) to cycle more to keep air clean

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 11 June 2020 14:38 GMT

A man wearing a protective face mask rides a bicycle at Piazza Duomo, as Italy eases some lockdown measures put in place during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Picture taken Milan, Italy May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

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Coronavirus lockdowns improved air quality; urban dwellers want to keep the skies clear when the virus goes

By Umberto Bacchi

MILAN, June 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - European city dwellers want more cycle lanes installed to control air pollution post-lockdown - but only a few are ready to actually hop on a bike, a survey showed on Thursday.

From Delhi to Madrid, world cities recorded dramatic improvements in air quality over the past few months as Covid-19 forced people to stay home, emptying the streets of traffic.

Having enjoyed clear skies, almost three in four people in six European countries said they wanted city authorities to take action to keep them that way even after the crisis, according to a survey by polling firm YouGov.

"People felt in their own lungs how clear the air can be," said Jens Muller, air quality manager at Transport & Environment, a European umbrella group of NGOs campaigning for cleaner transport, which supported the study.

"So now we see a strong support for measures, where before they weren't always super popular, like taking away space for cars, banning polluting cars, from city centres."

The poll was based on online interviews with more than 7,500 people living in 21 cities including Madrid, London and Berlin.

It found 60% of respondents favoured reserving more space for public transport, for example by expanding bus lanes.

About the same share, 62%, wanted to see more cycling lanes, while one in three backed more pedestrian paths.

Yet, respondents were less keen when it came to changing personal habits. Only 21% said they planned to cycle more after the lockdown while 35% said they would walk more.

Better infrastructure, such as wider pavements and segregated cycling routes, could persuade more people to join, said Lucy Mahoney, network manager for walking and cycling at the C40 network of cities pushing for swift climate action.

"Cities ultimately need to make public space feel safer for people to walk and to cycle, and to prioritise them above vehicles," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via email.

Milan, London and Paris were among cities that had already moved in that direction, with plans and investments to cut traffic and encourage riding, she said.

"What is needed at this time is a concerted effort to address race-related barriers to walking and cycling in cities worldwide," added C40 air quality network manager Dolly Oladini, referring to demonstrations for racial equality that have swept the globe.

"Black and minority ethnic groups are hugely underrepresented in cycling, so real investment is needed."

With many city dwellers reluctant to use public transport, fearing the coronavirus, easing the transition from cars to bicycles was key to controlling pollution, added Valentine Quinio, a researcher at British think tank Centre for Cities.

"There's a risk that air pollution actually not only goes back to previous levels, but goes higher, because people are likely to jump in their cars," she said by phone.

In China, some air pollutants have risen to above last year's levels after dropping when the government imposed strict lockdown measures, according to a study published in May.

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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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