(Montreal) In the throes of the virus that has upended most of the world, millions of people, from Bogota to Berlin, have seen what life could look like on two wheels rather than four.

Even as commuting to work and home to school plummeted during the height of the COVID pandemic lockdown, outdoor recreation, and cycling in particular, has proliferated in every country as people seek to escape isolation in a relatively safe way. In response, cities around the world have been developing bike lanes with new urgency since 2020.

The question is whether people will stick to their new cycling habits in these nearer-to-normal times.

Data so far is incomplete and varies from place to place. But the numbers suggest that if you build, people will come.

Case studies by urban planning researchers Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech and John Bucher of Rutgers University trace what more than a dozen cities have done over the past few decades, and specifically during the pandemic, to improve travel and leisure by bicycle.

Montreal, which was already a world leader in bike friendliness, has done more than any other North American city surveyed to expand safe cycling during the pandemic. In Europe, London, Paris and Brussels did the most. But many other cities around the world have also seized the opportunities presented by the crisis.

“A big paradigm shift is happening,” Buehler said in an interview. In transportation planning, policy, and engineering, we have encouraged driving for nearly 100 years. We’ve made driving fast and convenient.

“Nowadays all these cities and all these places are taking back some of the space and giving it to bikes. »

Some measures were phased out as the virus waned, such as the many temporary bike lanes that appeared overnight. But many have remained, thanks to more lanes with permanent barriers to traffic, car-free central thoroughfares and other concessions to pent-up demand to get around without gas.

Environmental concerns have also prompted many people to ditch the car for the bike ― a choice that researchers say has clear benefits in terms of reducing global warming carbon emissions and fighting pollution in general.

Here’s a look at what some of the most ambitious cities on three continents have done for cycling before and during the pandemic. The findings are primarily drawn from the book Cycling through the COVID-19 Pandemic to a More Sustainable Transport Future, by Mr. Buehler, the chair of urban affairs at Virginia Tech, and Mr. Pucher, who is professor emeritus at Rutgers School of Planning and Public Policy.

An innovator in urban cycling since the late 1980s, Montreal was the first major city in North America to develop an extensive network of physically separated bike paths on public roads, according to the book. It was also the first to implement a large-scale bike share system, with its BIXI bikes in 2009.

In the five years leading up to the pandemic, Montreal’s cycling network grew by 34%, surpassing 1,000 kilometres. Almost a third of this network is made up of off-street tracks and much of the rest is safely separated on shared roads.

The city’s mayor, Valérie Plante, a pro-biker, was easily re-elected in 2021 on the basis of a program of ecological initiatives. A new network of express cycle paths, the Réseau Express Vélo (REV), is being extended and should make it possible to double the city’s already extensive cycle network in four years.

In 2001, the capital of the United States offered cyclists only a meager network of five kilometers of cycle paths, without protection. In 2019, the network crossed the 160 kilometer mark, and the share of cycling in all trips in the city was multiplied by five. In 2020 and 2021, the city has picked up the pace again by building nearly 32 kilometers of protected lanes, much safer than just marked lanes on streets shared with cars.

Bogota is a resounding success. According to some measures, more than 9% of trips in the capital are made by bicycle, which places it in the top tier globally and makes it a model that other cities in Latin America are trying to emulate.

This is according to a study published before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by civil engineers from Bogota Daniel Rosas-Satizábal and Alvaro Rodriguez-Valencia. They attribute a “remarkable increase in the number of cyclists” to the leadership of the mayor, advocacy groups and a “latent cycling culture” that emerged as authorities invested in making the streets safer.

When the pandemic hit, Mayor Claudia Lopez opened up traffic lanes to bikes, adding 85 kilometers to the city’s network of bike paths.

Paris saw its cycling attendance increase by 60% in 2020-2021. Seen a quarter of a century ago as anti-cycling, the city has since taken sweeping steps to get people on the road, even subsidizing a third of the cost of buying 85,000 e-bikes or cargo bikes between 2009 and 2022. Cars have been banned or relegated to a single lane on some roads along the Seine in central Paris.

London more than doubled the number of its protected cycle lanes when the virus emerged, taking their total length to 260 kilometers in a year. And this, after having tripled in length over the previous decade. According to Messrs. Bucher and Buehler, the pandemic has caused the fastest transformation of Greater London’s cityscape in decades, resulting in a sharp increase in walking and cycling.

In 1998, 10% of trips in Berlin were made by bicycle, a proportion that many cities can only dream of today. In 2018, this figure rose to 18%. This is partly because Berlin is a city with many neighborhood centers, where more people live close to where they work and shop. At the start of the pandemic, city officials accelerated a plan to create more bike lanes to meet demand.

In Brussels, the number of cyclists increased by 22% in 2020, then decreased in 2021, while remaining 14% higher than in 2019. This suggests that some people who had started cycling when Brussels arrived COVID have abandoned this activity, but that others have remained. The city invested 74% more money in cycling in 2020-21.

Brussels seems determined to make things harder for cars in the city centre. It plans to eliminate 65,000 parking spaces for cars by 2030 and reconfigure central streets to reserve the most direct routes for cyclists and public transport.

The city built more than 100 kilometers of protected bike lanes between 2019 and 2022, generally connecting them to protected intersections, and more regular bike lanes. Docking stations for CitiBike self-service bikes topped 1,500 in mid-2022, up from 860 in 2019.

During the peak of COVID in 2020, more than 130 kilometers of mostly neighborhood streets were closed to motor vehicles during certain hours; this figure has since been reduced to 32 kilometres.

Between 2000 and 2017, the length of Minneapolis bike lanes more than doubled, the number of cyclists tripled, and the proportion of seriously injured or killed cyclists dropped by nearly 80%, not uncommon in cities who have grown their networks aggressively. In the first month of the pandemic, the city announced it would quickly add 24 kilometers of bike lanes, closing many roads to traffic except for neighborhood residents.

Like Montreal, Quebec City and other northern cities, Minneapolis is also a big fan of bicycling during harsh winters. The researchers place Minneapolis alongside Denver and Chicago among the most advanced Central American cities in improving bicycle safety.