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Is COVID-19 turning the French into cyclists?

With more people turning away from public transit, the pandemic might just be the final push needed to make France bicycle-friendly 

The French government announced on 29 April that it was putting down €60m (£57.7m) to help people transition to cycling — tripling its initial budget for the plan. 

“Unlike what many might think, French people are ready to take their bikes, they have been for a while,” says Olivier Schneider, president of the French Federation for Bicycle Users (FUB). 

“They are ready to change their commuting habits, they were just waiting for politicians to get on board and actually make the move to approve those changes.”  

Olivier Schneider

The end of lockdown brings difficulties

France’s lockdown ended 11 May, giving citizens the opportunity to roam as they wished again. This has made commuting a fresh issue.

Citizens are turning away from public transportation because of coronavirus fears and choosing to drive instead. This has added to problems with road congestion and air pollution. 

In a March survey by the association 40 million d’automobilistes, 82.3 per cent of respondents have preferred driving their cars over public transport since the beginning of the crisis. 

The French government has responded by quickly putting a bicycle plan into action. 

“We want this period to be a step forward in cycling culture”, Elisabeth Borne, French Minister of Ecology, told French newspaper Le Parisien.

What is the government’s plan? 

The government’s plan includes a €50 repair budget for people with used bikes and are prepared to regularly cycle to work. 

All they need to show is some form of identification and a telephone number. Almost 80,000 bikes have been repaired so far.

The plan also includes free classes to help people become comfortable with commuting by bike and temporary parking spaces for cyclists. 

Since mid-April, several regions of France have put hundreds of millions of euros towards the initiative. Major cities like Paris, Nice, Lyon, and Lille have put in place temporary infrastructures until permanent ones are built. 

Paris is replicating its busiest subway lines above ground as bike paths and creating new parking spaces for bikes. 

More than 1000km of bike paths are planned throughout the country, according to FUB President Schneider.

He says: “We have been advocating for those changes to be made for years, but it was supposedly never the right time, especially for smaller towns’ elected officials. With this virus, there have never been fewer obstacles.” 

Another reason to choose the bicycle? 

The main reason for these changes are fears of being infected with coronavirus while using public transport. But are these fears valid? 

Dr Martin Blachier, public health doctor formerly at the French Ministry of Health, explains how the French case may be different.

“There are numbers for New York showing that public transport is responsible for a big part of the virus’ circulation. However, when we studied the French case we haven’t been able to conclude that this is the case as well. There are actually studies showing that taking the train plays less of a part in infection than going to a party with 25 people in one room for a few hours.”

Dr. Martin Blachier

The real coronavirus-related benefits of transitioning to cycling lie in the potential general health improvements. 

“Big cities have the problem of higher numbers of COVID-19 but also the problem of people with sedentary lifestyles. That issue is major because people don’t exercise, which can lead to cardiovascular issues,” says Dr Blachier. 

The virus has been shown to have the highest mortality rate among those with cardiovascular issues.

The French plan to turn the country into a bicycle-friendly one is motivated by the need for people to be able to commute without fear. This plan not only lowers risks of transmission of the virus, but contributes to alleviating the climate crisis. 

French bicycle associations have been pushing for greener, bicycle-friendly, cities for years. COVID-19 was the last push they needed to make it happen. 

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