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To Battle COVID and Climate Change, NYC Should Invest in Cycling

by Josh Cooper |July 29, 2020
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Photo: City Clock Magazine via Flickr CC

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact daily life for people around the globe. While no longer the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, New York City still must navigate the long road to “normal,” which must include an in-depth evaluation of what that normal was, and what we as a community want it to be in the future.

As shelter-in-place orders took effect, the images of streets free of cars and buses were an eerie sight for anyone familiar with the frenetic status quo of city traffic. Researchers at Columbia University estimated that air pollution levels were 50 percent lower than normal. Similar decreases have been observed in other urban areas around the country. Research has also shown that air pollution is likely connected to increased mortality from COVID-19, with the higher mortality being borne by underserved neighborhoods often inhabited by persons of color.

As the city continues to reopen, expectations are that there will be a major reversal in these downward air pollution trends. There have been significant decreases in ridership on the city’s mass transit system, which may be necessary to minimize the spread of coronavirus, but over time will prove to be unsustainable as the need for transportation returns to pre-COVID levels. Technological innovations and procedural adjustments are already being implemented to decrease the risk of infection from using subways, trains, and buses, but these strategies may not be enough to prevent a significant portion of the population from turning to personal vehicles in order reduce their chances of infection. If we are not careful, positive feedback loops can result in a future that will most certainly see a major increase in automotive traffic on the streets of NYC. Both the general population and city policy officials must continue to develop, advocate for, and implement alternative options to counteract this surge in traffic—and bicycle transportation is one potential solution.

Cycling is an effective way to get around the city can be faster than both automobiles and subways, especially when traffic is heavy or there are delays due to infrastructure degradation. Cycling is also a healthy, low impact activity that can help people lose weight and improve cardiovascular fitness. These benefits to both personal health and traffic congestion are gaining in popularity in the city, especially in the wake of investments in bicycle lanes.

The city has expended tremendous resources to improve cycling infrastructure in the city, both in terms of bicycle lanes and bicycle share programs like Citi Bike. New York City has increased its allotment of bicycle lanes to over 1,300 miles. As of 2019, approximately 800,000 residents ride bikes several times a week. Despite these significant improvements, some of the key difficulties in expanding bike use lie in weather and safety concerns.

Inclement weather is one reason why many reject the idea of bike transportation on a daily basis, but the perceived obstacle is far greater than the reality. There is a saying in Scandinavian countries, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” This does not mean that we all have to be clad like the finest athletes in the Tour de France—a few layers of comfortable clothing are sufficient. And with some low-cost bike fenders you can easily avoid the ‘wet butt’ that you are likely to get when caught riding in the rain. This is all to say that with slight modifications to our notions of bicycle transportation, its practicality can be far more greatly embraced.

Others may look at bike safety issues on streets that can often seem treacherous. There has been an increase in the number of bicycle accidents during the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly due to the increased number of people using bicycles to move about the city or engage in a safe socially distanced activity. This is where smart public policy is needed. The city government should develop proposals to develop car-free spaces similar to the superblocks of Barcelona to provide additional protections for riders. Other ways to improve safety for riders is through education programs to help the public develop a better understanding of riding in an urban environment and increased enforcement of traffic rules to better encourage safe operation of bicycles and the vehicles they contend with on the streets of NYC. The city and developers should also continue to invest in bicycle parking infrastructure to provide cyclists with secure parking spaces that can give riders confidence that their bicycles will be there when they leave work at the end of the day.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly must take precedence for the well-being of New Yorkers, but it cannot be allowed to subsume all other threats that the city faces. The threat from climate change is only accelerating as we continue to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The current lack of action in reducing emissions only highlights the need for substantive, fundamental change in the organization and operation of our urban centers. New York has the potential to be a model for how cities around the country can employ cycling to improve environmental conditions as well as quality of life for their residents.

Josh Cooper is an alum of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, Class of 2020.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact the assistant director, Stephanie Hoyt (sah2239@columbia.edu), or join us at one of our upcoming online information sessions. Register here.

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