Ever since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Trudeau has been announcing multi-billion dollar programs as if there’s no tomorrow. There is one for seniors, students, farmers, laid off employees, and businesses, both big and small. A few days ago he announced $19 billion for the “ safe restart” of the economy.
All this is well and good, but it is also time for Trudeau to announce a billion dollar national cycling strategy.
Many people might be tempted to ask: Seriously, money for cycling in the middle of a pandemic?
From the earliest days of the pandemic, cycling has proven itself to be a very valuable tool for dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
As the virus started to take hold, large numbers of people quickly turned to cycling as a way of getting around while avoiding crowded buses and other forms of mass transit. Cities like New York even established emergency bike lanes, and cycling has remained a popular option for individuals who had no choice but to travel to work during the pandemic.
Cycling also came to the rescue during the height of the lock-down when people were looking for a way to maintain their sanity and get some badly needed exercise. In the past couple of months, cycling has undergone the largest resurgence in popularity since the early 1970s. People started dusting off old bicycles in the back of their garages, bike shops have sold out most of their inventory, and prices on the used market have gone through the roof.
More importantly, cycling is poised to make a major contribution when it comes to restarting the economy. As people rush back to their jobs, many will be leery about exposing themselves to crowded conditions in mass transit. If everyone jumps into their car, it’ll result in paralyzing gridlock, not the best way to restart an economy. One solution is to get more people to commute to work on their bicycles. This shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, given the recent resurgence in the popularity of cycling
Proof that cycling can be a very useful tool for dealing with the pandemic can also be found in what other countries are doing. For example, in May, the UK announced a $3.4 billion package to promote cycling and walking. It is being described as the “largest ever boost for cyclists and pedestrians”. In France, the government will be offering $75 per person for bike repairs to encourage cycling in the post lockdown period.
It’s worth emphasizing that the role cycling can play in helping to deal with the pandemic has emerged by itself for everyone to see, including federal policy makers. It’s as if proof-of-concept was delivered to the government on a silver platter, with no need to do any research, brain storming, or demonstration projects. Unfortunately, the government will likely view the current situation as nothing more than an interesting phenomena, and will continue to treat cycling as a niche issue that doesn’t warrant federal action.
What the federal government should really be doing is moving ahead with concrete action to implement a national cycling strategy. It could eliminate pointless tariffs on bikes, offer tax incentives for people who cycle to work, and provide subsidies to people for buying and maintaining bicycles, especially for low income groups. It could develop a detailed program to encourage federal employees to commute to work by bike, something which could also serve as a demonstration project for the private sector.
Above all else, the federal government should establish a billion dollar, or perhaps a multi-billion dollar, program to build cycling infrastructure across the country. The lack of safe and secure cycling infrastructure is what keeps Canadians from using their bikes more.
Whatever the case, the federal government has to take a real leadership role on this issue. It’s not enough to make a few earnest statements of support, while off loading the responsibility for taking action to the provinces and municipalities.
And finally, the resurgence in the popularity of cycling brought about by the pandemic presents the Prime Minister with a once in a lifetime opportunity. With so many people interested in taking up cycling, there may never be a better time for the federal government to launch a national cycling strategy.
By taking advantage of this, the government will not only be promoting cycling as a way to deal with the pandemic, it will also be putting in place a very effective tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change. The Prime Minister has already linked the pandemic and environmental issues in at least one other federal initiative, so he should not hesitate to do so again by moving ahead with a national cycling strategy.