The COVID-19 Bike Boom

For people living in cities, the arrival of COVID-19 brought with it uncertainty about some of the most basic structures of urban life. The buses and subways that so many rely on suddenly feel like too-close quarters to be fully safe. Sidewalks — once mainstay of movement, lingering, and people watching — now feel narrow, claustrophobic, and risky. One poll found 48 percent of Americans felt that public transit now posed a health risk, and 40 percent were taking trains and buses less often in response to COVID-19.

For many, the question of how we move around our cities now and in the future has a two-wheeled answer: the bicycle. In cities around the world, bicycling is booming.

The question is whether cities are ready for the COVID-19 bicycle boom.

Bike Sales Up

Across the U.S., bicycle manufacturers have observed an unprecedented rise in demand since the arrival of COVID-19.

Brompton, the largest bicycle manufacturer in the UK, saw a five-fold rise in online sales.

Brooklyn Bicycle Co. a small manufacturer based in New York, saw a 600 percent increase. The company sold a year’s worth of inventory in 45 days.

Brooklyn Bicycle Co. President Ryan Zagata told Bicycle Retailer that this is happening across the country. “What I hear from shops is, if it’s under $1,000, or even better, under five or six hundred or lower, it’s sold within five minutes of being assembled and put on the floor.”

The demand is so high that BikeRent, a bicycle rental company in New York City, has pivoted to sales.

In their quarter one earnings report, Pacific Cycle, which owns Schwinn, noted that sales tracked with the pandemic, “accelerating in the last two weeks of March as consumer demand for bikes spiked amid the pandemic lock-down orders.”

Further evidence of the bike boom can be found in #BikeMatch, a program launched by Transportation Alternatives shortly after New York City shut down to connect frontline New Yorkers with spare bicycles. In just two months, the program saw 682 participants in New York alone, and 24 cities and counting have replicated this model.

Bike Mechanics Busy

COVID-19 has brought with it a proliferation of well-spaced lines outside essential businesses: supermarkets, pharmacies, and surprising to some, bike shops. Evidence of the coming bike boom can be found in the lines of people waiting for a tune-up or a patched tire.

Bike shop owners like Charlie McCorkell, owner of Bicycle Habitat, a chain of three bike shops in New York City, say the same. While McCorkell closed the shops for two weeks in early April to help flatten the curve and currently uses sidewalks for sales instead of allowing customers in the stores, the need for bikes has been non-stop.

“Right now, all of our bike suppliers are out of the bikes we sell our customers, including the biggest two U.S. bike suppliers Trek and Specialized,” says McCorkell. “We are running on fumes regarding bikes to sell and I am predicting that in three or four weeks our showrooms and storage will be empty of bikes.”

Cities Prepare for the Bike Boom

Cities around the world have sensed what so many manufacturers and shop owners are seeing in their stores. A bike boom is coming. Further evidence can be found in the first cities to begin to recover from the crisis, like Beijing, which saw a 187 percent increase in bike share use after restrictions on the city were lifted.

Photo by Vlado Vince

In light of all the evidence of the coming bike boom, many of those cities have been getting ready.

When Philadelphia saw a 150% increase in cycling during the coronavirus outbreak, the mid-sized city responded with a nearly five-mile road closure to open space for cycling.

More than 130 German cities have begun to build pop-up bike lanes. Bogota is opening 72 miles of new bike routes, Mexico City is opening 80 miles of bike lanes, and Paris is building more than 400 miles, including temporary “corona cycleways.” UK bike manufacturer Brompton has gone so far as to argue that there’s a moral obligation for those who can bike to do so, leaving transit empty for those who need it.

In fact, so many cities have responded to COVID-19 by reclaiming street space for cycling that a trend has emerged of supporters maintaining spreadsheets to catalog them all.

New York Unreadiness

A different story is unfolding in New York.

In contrast to global leaders, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed only an extremely limited response to the coming bike boom.

At the beginning of the pandemic, public bike share use in New York City jumped 67 percent and bike traffic on the East River bridges rose 52 percent, but de Blasio closed just one and a half percent of the city’s 6,000 miles of streets to cars. Even these few “Open Streets” lack the connection of a transportation network and appear largely to not be intended for such.

Photo by Scott Heins

Bicycle Habitat’s Charlie McCorkell agrees that New York City is not ready for the coming bike boom. “We really are not, if social distancing is a factor in making our streets usable,” he explains. “We keep hearing from our customers that they will not return to mass transit, but will drive or bike.”

One of those options New York cannot afford. Prior to COVID-19, the vast majority of New Yorkers commuted by public transit, and still, with just 22 percent driving, the city’s streets were already paralyzed by gridlock. This means that if even a small percentage of New Yorkers who once took the subway choose driving instead, the city will come to an absolute standstill.

New York City must provide people with alternatives, and if cities around the world are any evidence, the best alternative has two wheels and a crank.

How To Prepare for the Coming Bicycle Boom

“Bicycles really expand the radius of your community,” explains Brooklyn Bicycle Co.’s Ryan Zagata. “A lot of these people are not going to go back to the subways. And cities now aren’t seeing very much vehicular traffic so they have a tremendous opportunity to capture these new cyclists and retain them as full-time commuters.” He has at least one suggestion as to how New York can rise to meet the bicycle boom: bike commuter streets.

“I’d love nothing more than to see New York City shut down one of its major thoroughfares and make it a permanent north-south (bike) commuter street,” he told Bicycle Retailer. “Now is the time, now that bike commuters have started. I’d love to see these cities make the necessary infrastructure investments to help keep these new commuters feeling safe.”

New York City needs ideas like that in every borough.

If the subways are not safe for large crowds, then build an aboveground network of bike streets that mimics the subway map. If spaces for biking are already overcrowded, then take space from cars. Some New York City streets host more bike traffic than car traffic. Those popular bike lanes should be expanded into bike-exclusive streets. The crowded bicycle paths on the New York City bridges and greenways should be turned over to pedestrians and some of the adjacent car lanes should be repurposed for cycling.

Preparing for the coming bike boom could be seen as a transformation of the streetscape, but according to Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director Danny Harris, it is simply a matter of need and priorities. “If Mayor de Blasio knew that everyone in New York City was buying cars, he would likely start a highway widening plan. The data shows that bikes are booming and the mayor must quickly build a safe and protected bike network across the five boroughs.”

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Transportation Alternatives

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Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.