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Chain reaction: commuters and cities embrace cycling in COVID-19 era

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People cycle through Westminster area of London, Sunday, May 10, 2020 during the nation-wide coronavirus lockdown.
People cycle through Westminster area of London, Sunday, May 10, 2020 during the nation-wide coronavirus lockdown.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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It’s a great way to get some exercise on the way to work while limiting air pollution in our cities.

Now millions of commuters across Europe are turning to cycling to avoid crowded public transport throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

As countries start to ease lockdown restrictions to get their economies up and running again, authorities are rushing to ensure that it's not just the wheels of industry that have started turning again. New cycle paths are being created to encourage people to hop onto their bikes rather than into their cars.

Leaders and urban planners say it’s a unique opportunity to advance green policy goals while encouraging social distancing.

"What we’re seeing across Europe is a brilliant move in cities like Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, Milan, Vienna – the list is extremely long now – that will remove the old, obsolete care infrastructure and actually make infrastructure for all of us," Morten Kabell, CEO of the European Cyclists' Federation, told Euronews in a live interview.

Capitals including London, Paris, Brussels and Rome are scrambling to set up hundreds of kilometres of new cycle paths. Authorities in France are subsidising bike repairs and electric bike purchases.

Paris has also banned cars from the famous shopping street of Rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre Museum, to favour bikes instead.

In Barcelona, existing bike lanes are being widened so that cyclists can keep their distance from others, and new ones are being created.

Before the pandemic accelerated the creation of cycle paths across Rome, existing lanes often weren't connected – forcing cyclists to brave busy and dangerous roads. The capital’s transport councillor has now promised the new lanes would remain in place even after the crisis.

"We are very happy. We have been asking for them for years," said Enzina Fasano, president of the 'Save the Cyclists' association. "We were simply asking for a sign of civic sense and dignity for cyclists."

That all sounds great. But is it safe?

Weeks-long transport strikes in France this winter led to an increase in cycling, alongside an increase in cycling accidents. With more people on the road, how can riders stay out of harm’s way?

First off, remember to wear a helmet, as well as high-visibility gear if you're cycling at night or at dawn. And if you like to listen to podcasts in one ear, make sure you always stay aware of what's going on around you.

The rest, says Kabell of the European Cyclists' Federation (ECF), lies in the hands of urban planners.

"We need to have safe, permanent infrastructure in all our cities. Most of these accidents happen because the infrastructure is not ready for the huge amount of bicycles that we’ll see in the future," he said.

"But with separate, safe bicycle lanes – as you see them in Copenhagen or in the Netherlands – then we will avoid a lot of these accidents. If you look at the numbers there, cycling is the safest way to get around our towns. And so it could actually be for all our cities."

The ECF recommends setting up dedicated bike paths, bringing down speed limits, introducing congestion charges for motor vehicles and subsidising bike purchases, among other suggestions.

What about shared bikes?

Kabell says regular hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, as well as common sense, should be enough to make bike-sharing schemes safe to the public.

Madrid's municipal bicycle sharing scheme BiciMAD reopened in late April after being closed for over a month as part of measures to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Cyclists are now allowed to ride the bikes, which are disinfected several times a day, as long as they wear gloves.

You can watch the interview with Morten Kabell in the video player above.