After coronavirus, bicycles will have a new place in city life

June 15, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

Just days before New York City began lifting coronavirus-related restrictions on June 8, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control threw a wrench in the proceedings. In new guidelines, it recommended that workers commute by car rather than public transit to reduce transmission of the coronavirus.

New York officials quickly pointed out that the recommendation was unfeasible for the city and worried that the CDC guidelines might lead to more car traffic. But there is an alternative to “carmageddon”: bicycles, which let people avoid enclosed spaces, where the risk of catching the coronavirus is greater.

Workers, it appears, are adjusting their commutes accordingly. Although limited, data points to an increase in cycling and the use of bike-share services, whereby people rent bikes for short periods.

Rising demand for bicycles (and disruptions in manufacturing caused by the coronavirus) have led to bicycle shortages from New York to North Dakota. In Beijing, there has been a 150% increase in bike-share use since lockdowns there began easing, according to research firm ITDP. Meanwhile, Europe-centered bike-share operator Nextbike reported a 35% year-over-year spike in ridership in April and May. In London, the transit authority has projected a 10-fold increase in cycling. Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share service says it has seen a rise in ridership as well, although it didn’t share specific numbers.

New York City data is more complex, but it shows hints of future growth. In early March, before lockdowns went into effect, but as awareness of the coronavirus was rising rapidly, the city’s Citi Bike bike-share system saw ride volume grow 67%. In April, according to Citi Bike general manager Laura Fox, lockdowns reduced the number of rides by 60% compared with the same month in 2019. But by May, with lockdowns still in place, use was only off 20% from 2019. Fox believes that points to significant growth as the city reopens.

She also suspects that changes in commuting habits will be permanent, pointing to what happened after a 2005 New York City transit-worker strike and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Both events severely disrupted the subway system, and increased bicycle ridership in the city by about 20%. Those increases were sustained (though those gains were for bicycling in general, not for use of Citi Bike, which was founded in 2013).

A cycling boom could be further fueled by the economic fallout from the coronavirus, according to Ken McLeod, policy director of the League of American Bicyclists. The average cost of car ownership in the U.S. is nearly $9,300, according to the AAA. Annual public transit costs range widely but are generally closer to $1,000. Pricing for bike-share systems also varies, but an annual pass for Citi Bike is just $169. If unemployment remains high, those cost differences could be widely appealing.

Even cities that have been slow to adopt bike-share services are moving to accommodate the anticipated shifts. “There’s suddenly a strong openness to figuring out how to launch a new system,” says David Spielfogel, chief policy officer for Lime, a bike and scooter-sharing company that recently acquired rival operation Jump.

Adding more bikes is only part of the battle, though, because studies have shown that people’s willingness to bike is closely linked to how safe they feel. Bike lanes, especially when physically separated from auto traffic, are widely considered the best way to keep cyclists safe.

New York has responded to its new bike-centric reality by closing some streets to car traffic and adding nine miles of new bike lanes, many leading from outlying boroughs into Manhattan to serve commuters. They are temporary, but Citi Bike’s Fox says they could become permanent. London has created several car-free zones meant to be friendlier for biking and walking and is also creating temporary cycling lanes along major corridors.

Paris may be making the most dramatic changes, with hundreds of miles of new bike lanes. That city’s mayor has further declared that cars will be permanently discouraged from entering the city center, a change already in the works but previously with a 2024 target date. Milan and Madrid are also accelerating efforts to be friendlier to bikes.

There is an additional challenge, however: Evidence has shown bike-share programs are more widely used by more well-off people. Citi Bike services, for instance, are scant in some poorer parts of the city, such as East New York and the Bronx. That’s the opposite of what the moment demands, according to Waffiyyah Murray, program manager of the Philadelphia-based Better Bike Share Partnership.

“During the pandemic, there has been a greater need for bike-share,” says Murray, “Especially [from] those who don’t have the option to work from home.” Several bike-share systems have provided free or expanded service for health care workers, for example, and Better Bike Share has found that other essential workers are increasing their bicycle commuting as well.

Citi Bike is already expanding in underserved areas of New York City. Lime, meanwhile, touts its “dockless” bicycles, which can be parked anywhere, as a more affordable way to expand access as cities face budget crunches.

“[Cities] can’t be investing millions into docked infrastructure,” says Lime’s Spielfogel. “It’s much easier to put some paint on a street and call it a preferred parking spot for dockless bikes.”

Though nascent, this raft of behavioral and infrastructure changes could have major implications for the future of cities. The decline of car traffic during coronavirus lockdowns has already given many city residents their first glimpse of clear skies in years, a preview of the possible long-term environmental benefits of increased cycling. And of course, cycling is beneficial to cardiovascular health.

“We’ve gone through this crisis together,” says Fox of Citi Bike. “More cycling is something in this moment that could be a bright spot, in terms of how we think about sustainability and our cities going forward.

“It just feels like now is a time when alternative modes of transportation have a moment.”

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