19 July 2022

Cycling levels during COVID lockdowns


'A new paper recently published in "Active Travel Studies" highlights the positive impact of cycling during lockdown and how this could lead the way to a greener future.'

The many benefits of active travel are well documented and recognised and include the following: improving health, shifting away from private car use to more environmentally friendly and sustainable transport systems, reducing emissions and improving liveability. Many countries, including Scotland, now have policy aims and associated investment to increase levels of active travel across the population to realise these listed benefits and live a longer healthy life.

Hence, one question arises. What sort of conditions can encourage and promote cycling and are there any lessons to be learnt from the COVID-19 different periods of lockdown?

In this study, researchers have looked at the early phase of the pandemic to examine the impact of COVID-19 work and travel restrictions on cycling levels across Scotland. Making use of cycle counter data from across Scotland, the researching team has analysed trends in cycling from the pre-pandemic period through the first four months of the pandemic from mid-March to early August 2020.

Following an initial sharp reduction in cycling in the first few days of lockdown (first ever lockdown imposed by the authorities), there was a large increase in cycling in the initial lockdown phase on all routes, but particularly on leisure routes. Better weather and COVID-related restrictions were independently associated with increases in cycling as a means of travel.

During most of this period, particularly in April and May 2020, the weather in Scotland was dry and sunny which encouraged more people to cycle, but there was also the added impact of the restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Hence, cycling levels rose when there was less motorised traffic on the roads and people had more opportunities to travel and exercise in their local area. Also, as COVID restrictions were relaxed, more cars returned to the roads and levels of cycling reduced. However, cycling on commuting routes was much less affected by these government relaxations and by weather changes. This is because commuting cyclists are more likely to cycle in all types of weather and during the pandemic cycling was never prescribed in the way that other methods of transport were at different stages of the COVID restrictions.

This study shows that, given the right conditions and the right environment, more people will choose to cycle. The lessons from the pandemic period can help commuters and institutions in making the so-called "Green transition" - in other words, to the low-carbon, active and sustainable transport system.

The lead Author of this research, Bruce Whyte, Public Health Programme Manager at GCPH author of the paper said: 

"That many more people in Scotland cycled in the spring of 2020, when Scotland was in lockdown and the weather was fine, is unsurprising. However, what is interesting is the strong impact COVID restrictions had on cycling, independent of the weather – when restrictions were tightest and many people were working from home or furloughed and there was little motorised traffic on the roads, leisure cycling rose dramatically.

The lessons from this period are that when the conditions are right, and it feels safe to do so, more people will choose to cycle in Scotland. To encourage more people to cycle regularly, we need to create a network of safe segregated cycle routes and we also need to reduce road speeds and motorised traffic in our towns and cities."

We at Cycle Law Scotland believe that this paper shows what a fantastic greener world we could build if we would only choose cycling for our daily journeys and ditch our cars or any other motorised vehicles when we do not need them. There's hope in the future for us and the generations to come, though with higher cycling commuters, incidents could also rise as well as injuries. Therefore, motorists should look out for cyclists on the roads and mutual respect amongst all road users is needed if we are all to share the roads successfully and, more importantly, safely. 

Pietro Furfaro - Marketing Executive - Cycle Law Scotland - #WeCycleToo

Paper citation:
Whyte, B. & McArthur, D. & Garnham, L. & Livingston, M., (2022) “Cycling Trends in Scotland during the Early Phase of the COVID Pandemic”, Active Travel Studies 2(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.16997/ats.1120


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