‘Corona Cycleways’ Become the New Post-Confinement Commute

PARIS — As France eased one of Europe’s toughest coronavirus lockdowns last month, a small army of street workers fanned out across Paris in the dark of night. They dropped traffic barriers along car lanes and painted yellow bicycle symbols onto the asphalt. By morning, miles of pop-up “corona cycleways” had been laid, teeming with people heading back to work.

Among them was Christophe Tafforeau, 52, a commercial director at a job training agency, who navigated the throngs for his post-confinement commute.

“This is the first time I’ve ever cycled to my office, but I don’t want to risk using public transportation,” said Mr. Tafforeau, fresh off a 20-minute ride across Paris to his job near the Bastille. “I’m learning to make the bike my main means of getting around.”

“This crisis has made clear that we need to change the way we live, work and move,” said Morten Kabell, chief executive of the European Cyclists’ Federation. “In the era of social distancing, people are wary of using public transportation, and cities can’t take more cars. So they are looking to the bike as a natural mode of mobility for the future.”

Authorities say the need for social distancing leaves them little choice. European cities have cut capacity on subways, buses and suburban trains by up to 80 percent. In Paris alone, around 10 million people jammed together each day in public transport before the quarantine; today, to maintain space between passengers, the system only allows in two million, although the restrictions are gradually being lifted this month.

To manage the overflow and prevent cars from flooding back onto the streets, the authorities have asked companies to keep employees working from home when possible, and to stagger shifts for people who must go to work. Sidewalks are being widened to accommodate more pedestrians. And solo drivers are being encouraged to car pool with mask-wearing passengers.

“Around five or six years ago we were talking about shifting from fossil fuel to electric cars,” said Christophe Najdovski, the deputy mayor of Paris for transport and public spaces. “Now, we’re talking about shifting from any type of car to other vehicles — especially bikes.”

The British government this month rolled out a 250 million pound (about $310 million) fund to reallocate more public space to cyclists, widen pavements and create cycle and bus-only corridors. The program expands a state-backed “cycle to work” program with employers, which the government estimates could save the National Health Service £8 billion a year as people get more exercise.

Milan introduced a Strade Aperte, or “open streets,” program creating 35 kilometers of new paths for cyclists and pedestrians as part of a bigger project to transform the city center and lower pollution. The Italian government introduced a 70 percent subsidy for buying bikes.

Berliners offered flowers to workers adding pop-up cycling paths through the German capital, where city authorities are pushing ahead with a previously planned program to favor pedestrians and cyclists.

Paris has been ahead of the pack in this transformation. Before the coronavirus, the city had already added around 1,000 kilometers of protected cycling lanes in recent years, edging out cars from major thoroughfares.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo also appropriated freeways next to the Seine river for cyclists and pedestrians, and closed swaths of heavily trafficked avenues — drawing ire from critics, who said the moves had backfired by creating bigger traffic jams and more pollution.

As France got ready to lift its national quarantine, Ms. Hidalgo ordered work crews to create pop-up bike paths around Paris and its outer suburbs as quickly as possible in the middle of the night, with the aim of adding 50 kilometers by June following existing underground metro and suburban train tracks.

The Rue de Rivoli, once one of the most traffic-snarled thoroughfares in central Paris, is now entirely reserved for bikes, buses and taxis. The pop-up paths are intended to be temporary, but Mr. Najdovski said the city could consider making them permanent “if they work.”

That is still an open question. While the paths are designed to keep cyclists safe, Paris hospitals have reported an increase in injuries among bike riders and pedestrians hit by them. The rise in biking has also created a parking problem that the city is trying to tackle by making space in car parks and creating secure aboveground bike shelters.

Nonetheless, the coronavirus has “shifted the paradigm” in the way people commute, Mr. Najdovski said. “People are waking up and seeing a new bike lane right outside their door.” The experience so far, he added, is that “as soon as a new bike path is laid, people are on it.”

  • Updated June 12, 2020

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

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      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

That was the case with Mr. Tafforeau, who rushed out and bought a used bike the day France lifted its confinement. “When you see people in public transport who don’t respect health safety measures, it’s scary,” he said. “Zero risk doesn’t exist, but you can minimize it by using the bike.”

A trim, nattily dressed man, Mr. Tafforeau wasn’t used to riding a bike in a city. But as he joined the crowd going back to work at the job training agency in Bastille, he felt secure inside bike paths that had concrete barriers to keep cars away. “Having so many bike lanes motivates me more to do it,” he said.

During the ride from his apartment in the hilltop neighborhood of Montmartre, he delighted in seeing Paris under the open sky and felt energized from the exercise, even if the uphill commute back home was tougher. The ride took 20 minutes — just 10 minutes more than his usual underground commute on the metro.

On a recent weekday, Mr. Tafforeau waited in a line outside Au Réparateur de Bicyclettes, the shop where he had purchased his bike, to buy accessories. The owner, Stephane Cueff, was forced to close during the lockdown and suffered a major drop in sales. With so many people waiting to buy or repair bikes, he hoped to recover lost profits quickly.

As he showed Mr. Tafforeau the proper way to attach a U-lock, Mr. Cueff said he was heartened to see a rising tide of new riders taking to the streets.

“The bicycle has always been a part of France,” Mr. Cueff said. “If there is an upside to the coronavirus, it may be that we are rethinking how we live, and getting back some of what we had lost.”

Geneva Abdul contributed reporting from London, and Eva Mbengue from Paris.

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