RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So much of everyday life has changed because of the pandemic. That includes the most basic things, like how we get from point A to point B. In some European cities, bicycles are in big demand as commuters are trying to avoid public transportation. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and NPR's Frank Langfitt in London report on how two cities once dominated by cars are trying to adapt.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has promised to transform Paris from a car-centered town to a pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly city, and the changes are already quite dramatic.
It's incredible. I'm in the middle of the Rue de Rivoli, which is a main thoroughfare in Paris - or at least it used to be. It's now completely blocked from all car traffic, except for a taxi lane, through the summer. When cars do come back, they'll have only one lane.
The mayor's campaign to reduce cars in Paris has angered many motorists, but cyclists, like Lenaic Pujol, call the transformation remarkable.
LENAIC PUJOL: (Through interpreter) People have understood. They see it's actually easy to take your bike and go. They are changing their attitudes. Thanks to the confinement and the new bike lanes, Parisians are reoccupying the streets in another way.
BEARDSLEY: In a crowded bike shop in Paris's 15th arrondissement, manager Baptist Pic takes a break between customers. He oversees a chain of seven shops in the city.
BAPTIST PIC: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Pic says Paris is radically transforming. The valves were opened last summer with new bike lanes on major avenues, and then a crippling public transport strike this winter encouraged even more people to get on their bicycles. And then came the coronavirus.
PIC: (Through interpreter) Because of COVID, we've doubled our sales this year, especially of electric bikes. The week confinement was lifted, we ran out of bikes at every single store.
BEARDSLEY: Pic says he has a 10-week waiting list for repairs after the French government offered a 50 euro incentive to fix up an old bike. Sensing the momentum, France has also created a new bike repair diploma offered at vocational high schools. The country hopes to turn out 500 bike repair technicians a year.
Just like the 1970s oil shocks which turned Amsterdam into a cycling town, the trauma of the pandemic is transforming Paris. Journalist Lindsey Tramuta has lived in the French capital for 15 years. She says she always wanted to bike to work but considered it too dangerous.
LINDSEY TRAMUTA: And then the pandemic happened, and I couldn't fathom the idea of being on public transportation again. And when I also read that Hidalgo had added 50 kilometers of bike lanes and had blocked cars from even some of the busiest avenues in the city, I thought, OK, this is maybe my chance to get acclimated.
BEARDSLEY: Things are likely to get even easier for cyclists like Tramuta. Just before recent local elections, the socialist mayor joined forces with France's Green Party.
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ANNE HIDALGO: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Hidalgo easily won a second term. With support from her environmentalist allies, her so-called war on cars will now only intensify. The mayor's next plan is to reduce the speed limit on all roads in the French capital to just 20 miles an hour.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi. This is Frank Langfitt in London. I'm standing in a new designated bike lane along Hyde Park. And basically, what the government's done here is they've taken a lane of traffic away from cars, given it over to bikes and then protected it with these plastic temporary barriers.
MANUELA BORELLI: They're very convenient, especially on this road where it's very traffic.
LANGFITT: Manuela Borelli (ph), an architect, was riding home from work.
BORELLI: You need the separation. You need the protection. I think this is a chance to provide the infrastructure. And when the infrastructure is there, more people will be inclined to cycle more.
LANGFITT: Will Norman, London's Cycling commissioner, says the city has to expand cycling because of the math of the pandemic.
WILL NORMAN: With social distancing, the tube and the bus are only going to be able to carry about potentially less than 15% of their previous capacity. Millions of people will have to continue to go to their jobs. And if a fraction of those journeys end up being by car, London's going to get gridlock.
LANGFITT: Mayor Sadiq Khan plans more temporary bike lanes like the one along Hyde Park and to turn the city of London, the Mile Square (ph) financial district, into one of the world's largest car-free areas. Again, Will Norman.
NORMAN: It's a real opportunity with transforming the city. What we've got here is the potential for 10 times more cycling in London, potentially five times more walking in London.
LANGFITT: So that's the official version, but it's going to be a lot harder, probably, to transform this city. Right now, I'm on a bike heading to Trafalgar Square, and I'm trying to navigate around a bus that is pulling in. Wow. Oh, boy. And so, I mean, a lot of people, as much as they love to ride here, it is a crowded city. The streets are narrow. And people are worried about safety.
MAURICIO BORGIA: It's too many buses. You know, they don't see you.
BEN ALLCHURCH: I know there's a lot of people that don't cycle because they don't feel safe.
EDIE GREVE: I've been hit twice by drivers not looking.
LANGFITT: That was Mauricio Borgia (ph), a bike courier, Ben Allchurch (ph), who works in an art gallery, and Edie Greve (ph), who works in advertising. London plans to spend $100 million to build new bike lanes and widen sidewalks during the pandemic. But the mayor only controls 5% of the city streets. The rest is controlled by local borough governments or councils. Jed Brown (ph), a cycling instructor, explains.
JED BROWN: Certain councils who are into it have done a lot, but it's far too piecemeal depending on the individual council, the individual cycle champions, really.
LANGFITT: And some sectors are pushing back against the government's plans, including the trucking and taxi industries.
STEVE MCNAMARA: We see the seizing of London's roads, which is what some of this is, on the guise of it being an emergency as a little bit over the top.
LANGFITT: Steve McNamara is general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association. He says if cabs can't get access to most roads in the city...
MCNAMARA: Oh, it will be devastating. It'll be absolutely devastating.
LANGFITT: But McNamara knows the coronavirus is changing London. He wants the government to see the city's traditional black taxi not as a problem, but a COVID-ready solution.
MCNAMARA: We drive a purpose-built vehicle. It's got a, you know, partition between the driver and the passenger. It was designed for Friday night drunks, but it works just as well for corona.
LANGFITT: The virus has sparked a crisis which the mayor and environmentalists see as an opportunity to create cleaner and healthier transport for many Londoners.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
(SOUNDBITE OF HYAKKEI'S "SEVEN-COLOR SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.