NAJIB SAAB 1/6/2020

When people went back to work in Geneva recently, breaking weeks of lockdown, they were surprised by unusually crowded roads. They first attributed that to an increase in the use of private cars, to avoid catching viruses due to close contact in public transport. However, they soon discovered that the congestion was actually due to allocating a lane of the road for bicycles.  

Geneva is not alone in changing its habits. London and Paris have already allocated billions in funds to build special bicycle lanes. Paris has already embarked on building a bicycle network of 650 kilometers. The trend has also spread to Latin America and several US cities, from Bogota and Lima to New York and Washington. The bicycle movement has attracted official support from many European countries and cities, with pledges to build assigned lanes most recently coming from London, Milan and Barcelona. These cities are seeking to reduce congestion in public transportation, such as trains, buses and the metro, while at the same time maintaining the low levels of air pollution that have been achieved during these past months, albeit as a byproduct of the lockdown.  

Whereas using a bicycle to go to work, the supermarket or school was a well-established way of life in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, bicycles were used only for sports and leisure in most rich countries. The attempts of some Arab cities in the past years to introduce bicycles as means to commute in cities have failed, as was the case in Beirut, because they did not include building special lanes. Attempting to cycle between cars in the busy streets of Beirut was a sort of suicidal endeavor.  

While some countries have found in the slowdown of business and emerging habits triggered by coronavirus an opportunity to transform into a diversified, low-carbon economy, other countries have already taken active measures in that direction, years ago. This wave had also reached the Arab region, as manifested in the Green Growth Strategy of the UAE and the Saudi National Transformation Program. It was striking, in the midst of such a gloomy situation, to learn that Dubai Roads and Transport Authority could achieve huge savings in energy and water consumption during the past year, whether by using solar panels on its buildings to produce electricity, introducing electric buses and cars as major part of its fleet, or reusing bigger portions of treated water. While Abu Dhabi has dedicated bicycle lanes for the safety of users, these remained restricted to sport and leisure, falling short of serving schools, offices, factories or shopping centers.  

Last week Twitter announced that its employees, currently working from home, could choose not to go back to their offices indefinitely, as productivity was not seriously affected during lockdown. If this approach is understandable from a company whose work is based on building a virtual world communicating via the internet, it acquires added value when it comes from an organization whose presence is actually based on commuting on wheels in the real world. For when OPEC ministers held their most recent meeting, they did not arrive, as usual, in planes and cars, but “met” through a video conference.  

Under the weight of the pandemic, the world discovered that developing communication programs to facilitate online meetings and conferences is just as important today as developing efficient engines and fuels for transportation. While airlines teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, and the revenues of plane and car manufacturers and public transport operators have collapsed, the profits of telecommunications software developers have swelled. It is almost certain that this sector will evolve rapidly, in response to the emerging needs that virtual communication requires.  

Some believe that the advent of mass remote communication will completely eliminate the need for personal contact in the future. But this assumption is unrealistic, because face-to-face contact, be it in small meetings or large conferences, will remain inevitable. Twitter will come to discover the significance of face-to-face group meetings to stimulate innovation and creative ideas, even if office presence becomes limited to two or three days per week instead of five. However, the current experience should lead to reduced travel and replacing many personal meetings with remote communication, supported by better software applications.  

It is inevitable that physical commuting will resume, as humans are not introvert creatures by nature. But this will happen at a different pace and in a different manner. Factories will equally go back to production to meet people’s needs. This means that oil and gas will remain, in the next few decades, an essential part of the energy mix, but for more efficient and less polluting uses. With shale oil losing its competitiveness due to the high cost of extraction, especially in North America, the demand for oil and gas from traditional fields will rise.  

We end with bicycles, where we started. It is startling to see that most of those who work for international organizations in Geneva, calling for sustainable development and the transition to a green economy, as part of their mandate, commute to work in their private, tax-free cars. In contrast, the friend who relayed the news on the onset of the age of bicycles in the streets of Geneva, is manager of a financial company, who commutes to work every day on his bike, dressed in a business suit.  

Not every official of an organization whose terms of reference are about environment and sustainable development is environmentally-conscious, nor is every banker or businessman an enemy of the environment. People can only be trustworthy when they practice what they preach.