With the world pressing emergency alarm on Covid-19, it will be interesting to see if the current crises prompt’s a behavioral change in travel pattern and thus reduction in global carbon emissions.

WHO has declared corona virus as a pandemic.

The world is facing health crisis with tens and thousands of cases reported in more than 100 nations.

Tedros Adhanom, Director General WHO at press briefing last week said “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction”.

“We have therefore made the assessment that Covid-19 can be characterized as a pandemic”.

“WHO’s mandate is public health. But we’re working with many partners across all sectors to mitigate the social and economic consequences of this pandemic.

This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector – so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight”.

Government authorities and health agencies have issued advisories imposing travel restrictions, urging people to avoid large public gatherings, calling-off conferences, trade summits, shutting down parliaments, cancelling visas, locking down tourist hot-spots and closing boundaries.

Industries have swung into action rescheduling sporting events, fashion shows, music, films and product launches, auto shows, book fairs, seminars and all kinds of public congregations to prevent contact between infected individuals and mitigate further chances of escalations of the life threatening virus.

Companies have directed employees to work from home, use tele-communications, video conferencing for meetings and avoid unnecessary business travel.

Religious ceremonies have been put on hold on advice of priests urging devotees to pray from home.

Several university campuses and private educational institutes have released circulars asking students to put home, or switch to remote learning platforms while some have postponed exams until further notice.

Cities are encouraging ‘Social Distancing’ suggesting people stay clear of leisurely activities such as shopping runs, birthday parties, pubbing and eliminate possibilities of increase in casualties.

The European Parliament issued a memo urging employees to avoid public transport. “Walk or bike or, as a last resort, use your private car,” Kristian Knudsen, the director general for personnel, wrote. “The risk of transmission of Covid-19 in public transport is much too high.”

Mass transit systems like trains, metros and buses are riskier choices for commuting and pose a greater threat of catching a virus, because it is next to impossible to avoid the large crowds. One is vulnerable if an infected fellow passenger sneezes or coughs inside compact bogies, stations, buses and check-in counters. Using common utility facilities like ticketing machines, holding safety handles, pressing lift buttons, arms rests etc. can be carriers of virus if it was previously used by an infected person.

At this critical situation, all must keep away from cramped up spaces as consequences can be catastrophic.

To avoid crowded trains, New Yorkers are opting to use a bicycle for commuting to curtail exposure to corona virus. Public bike share company ‘Citi Bike’ has reported a surge in usage with more than half a million trips between 1st March and 11th March – 67% rise compared to same period last year.

Ridership demand has grown in Chicago as well with Citi Bike recording a big jump in its bike share program. Trips have doubled from 40k to 80k during the same period of comparison.

As Europe locks itself to prevent the spread of Covid-19, bicycling in Netherlands  sees less movement of cyclists with reduced vehicles and public transport but bike shops remain open. Cycling is an essential transportation service in the Netherlands and thus not part of the governments closure plans. Restricting its use is next to impossible but bike lanes have fewer users since the outbreak as people choose to take caution.

As Italy reported highest number of deaths across Europe due to corona virus, it has imposed restrictions on competitive and leisure cycling. Similar measures are taken in Spain as the government has banned all forms of ‘pleasure’ transport including motoring for leisure. However, bicyclists are allowed to reach workplace, home, shops and carry out physical activity.

Having your own personal transport makes sense and gives the traveler better control of his journey in terms of hygiene and contact with strangers. Cycling to work can minimize the health risk that use of public transport involves. However, it does not make an individual immune to the virus. Precautionary measures like hand washing immediately after commute and avoiding handshakes does keep you safer, especially if you are availing shared bicycle programs.

A vendor in Mumbai outside a children’s park awaits to make a sale. He is into this business from last 14 years. As sales plummeted, he is aware of the crises and hoping to see a recovery soon.

Major Bike Share companies in India so far has not gone on record announcing any change in ridership data, trends remain a mystery in the absence of ridership monitoring mechanism with the transport authorities. Community events and rides in Mumbai are cancelled as Mumbai Police has banned all kinds of group tours, preventing gathering of people in beaches, parks etc. till March 31st.

Cycle or not to cycle is a tricky call, be pragmatic and if you are feeling low, have symptoms that makes you feel ill, self-quarantine and seek medical advice. It is also crucial to avoid any kind of injuries as medical industry and health experts are under stress to manage the pandemic.

On the contrary, there are optimistic views suggesting this could be a time to scale-up cycling and consider it as a safer alternative to confined modes of transport. As isolation increases, a bicycle can serve as a private commute through this course of social distancing but how quick the authorities are able to create facilities is a big question.

A fitness cyclist zips past on a street in Mumbai.

Corona virus has reduced the pace of global economic and social activities and the situation could remain like this in the coming weeks. The other side effect of the virus is a temporary dip in carbon emissions. The rationale to this is provisional shutdown of factories, drop in air travel and demand for oil.

Transport sector is a major contributor to global greenhouse gases and with outbreak of Covid-19, the world could have an interim decline in CO2 levels. A look back in history reveals, global disasters concerning economy tend to trigger a temporary decline in carbon emissions. For instance, the 2008 global economic recession caused a temporary dip in emissions.

A study by Carbon Brief suggests, ‘even though China is the origin of corona virus and world’s biggest carbon emitter, measures taken by authorities shows that a sharp 25% cut in carbon dioxide can bring less traffic and clean air with only a small reduction in economic growth’.

‘If this trend continues, analysts say it is possible this will lead to the first fall in global emissions since the 2008-09 financial crisis. Even a slowdown in CO2 could buy time for climate action and, more importantly, inspire long-term behavioral changes – particularly in travel’ the study says.

Corona virus has disrupted a number of events linked to the fossil fuel industry and could result in carbon savings. The pandemic could leave us with clear learnings on how we live, travel, shop, consume etc. and likely to bring a new dimension to our lifestyle.

In a compelling tweet Greta Thurnberg, the teenage climate activist appealed to her 4 million twitter connections “In crises we change our behaviour and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of the society. Join the Digital Strike”

In her subsequent tweets, she suggested people to shift the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement online till Covid-19 is dealt with. “We listen to the science and right now the science says mass gatherings will cause harm. Take It Online”.

Suddenly, we have found our cities to be more livable with less traffic, clean air, flexible work schedules and a sense of satisfaction with more family time. Companies have realized that work from home is a doable approach and millions of people have adopted the change in no time staying on course with their productive levels.

Going virtual is an efficient way of managing business instead of commuting to office as the benefits far outweighs the conventional practices of operating from plush offices. This is something the scientists, politicians, business leaders, behaviorist and local authorities must take cognizance of and work together with a renewed strategy in battling climate change and balance human progress.

Although it’s too early to estimate a positive response from the outbreak of corona virus with regards to drop in carbon emissions and behavior change, but it will certainly redefine the way we function in our daily lives.

Only time will tell if Covid-19 sanitizes CO2 from the earth.


*This article does not encourage you to ride and you must adhere to the guidelines given by the local authorities in your city.

Cover image: Nicholas D’Souza.


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Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai

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