Study shows huge value of Covid era cycling infrastructure investment

A new study drawing on data from over 100 EU cities has concluded that Covid-era cycling infrastructure provision has already demonstrated a high return on investment, growing cycling rates by between 11 and 48%, on average.

Authors Sebastian Kraus and Nicholas Koch calculate that such impressive growth across Europe will generate somewhere between $1 billion and $7 billion in health benefits alone, if new cycling habits are retained; and much of that will hinge on the favourable cycling conditions remaining. Sadly, in many instances lanes have been removed as quickly as they have arrived, despite evidence showing improvements.

106 European cities had their daily bicycle count data combed to spot trends by the researchers, who discovered that during this pandemic period cities have added an average of 11.5km of provisional pop up cycle lanes.

The authors found that by July 8th of 2020 European cities had already responded by announcing 2,000km of infrastructure that is typically either marked or protected, largely in a bid to reduce the transmission of the illness by giving people broader transport options outside of public transit.

“Major disruptions to public transport, such as strikes, cause people to reconsider their habits and the provision of dedicated infrastructure has been identified as an important means to increase cycling. Thus, the fast provision of new bike infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic is a suitable policy experiment to investigate the responsiveness of cycling under conducive conditions,” start the authors in their assessment of the research task.

Applying the cycle counter data to a heatmap graph the researchers were able to visually illustrate just how stark the differences have been for some cities, particularly those known to have made substantial investments.

Berlin and Dublin are shown to had been the most consistent investors in the infrastructure throughout the summer of 2020, while Paris made the most standout and noticeable changes in a spell running May to July.

The pooled data, which accounts for Covid policy fluctuations over time, shows a very clear spike in cycling numbers both in the short and longer term when the provision of cycling infrastructure began to accelerate. Benchmarking against the prior data the researchers demonstrated an increase of 41.5% in cycling across treated (March 2020 defined as time of treatment) and controlled cities over time induced by policy changes.

As has been raised before, getting underserved communities moving by bike is identified as an open goal for policymakers, in particular when it comes to provision of things like bike share and infrastructure links to deprived communities.

“We find robust evidence for substantial short-run increases in cycling in European cities due to new provisional cycling infrastructure,” state the authors, leading into a section that discusses return on investment, with particular reference to health benefits for cities and users of active travel schemes.

“The direct cost of cycling infrastructure is low. At the higher end, 1 km of bike lane in Sevilla has previously cost €250,000. However, Berlin’s approach of iterative planning with provisional infrastructure during the pandemic has for instance reduced costs to €9,500/km as of July 2020. These costs are small compared to the substantial health benefits from the new infrastructure. Previous research has found that every kilometre of cycling generates health benefits of $0.45,” write the authors.

Extrapolating this finding it is reasonable to conclude that the investments made across Europe add up in cost to benefit terms quickly with the cycle counter growth confirming the success of infrastructure.

The economic benefit in the first months of the cycle lane rollout are therefore calculated to have been worth between $0.5 and $1.7 billion in health benefits. Moving on, the annual calculation based on the data assessed sees the returns swell to between $2.2 billion and $6.9 billion, but only if the lanes were to become permanent and the current cycling rates stick over the long term.

Later in the paper the authors discuss how Europe’s generally denser cities have seen higher success rates where infrastructure has been rolled out than in the United States where highways and city spaces are generally broader.

The author’s data was drawn on from the European Cyclists Federation Covid Cycling Measures tracker and then cross referenced against European Urban Audit 2020 information.

There’s no shortage of similar data forging a concrete link between safe cycling infrastructure and fresh cycling uptake. For example, in this Danish Cycle Superhighway Bicycle Account it was found that on average, with the appearance of safe lanes came a 23% increase in cyclists versus data stretching back to 2010 when less lanes existed. Likewise, a Simon Fraser University study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that car miles decrease in favour of boosted cycling where safe lanes appear