In 18 years working in bicycles, Eric Bjorling had never seen anything like April 2020. With no end to the pandemic in sight, people were desperate for things to do. “They had time on their hands, they had kids, they needed to physically go outside and do something,” says Bjorling, head of brand marketing at Trek Bicycles, one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world.
So began the pandemic bicycle boom. US bike sales more than doubled in 2020 compared to the year before, according to research firm NPD Group, reaching $5.4 billion. Bike mechanics got overloaded as people dragged neglected bikes out of garages and basements. And local governments responded to and then fueled the shift by adapting urban environments with unprecedented speed, restricting car traffic on some streets and building temporary bike lanes on others. “During the pandemic, many things were possible, policy-wise, that before we didn’t think possible, especially at that pace,” says Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.
Almost three years later, the legacy of the bike boom, and the accompanying changes to urban infrastructure, is murky. In many places, it has been hard to lastingly convert residents to cycling, especially for the kind of trips that might otherwise be taken by car: to work, school, or the grocery store. Bike sales have slowed from their frantic pandemic-era high: NPD Group data shows the value of sales dropped 11 percent this year compared to 2021, though they’re still well above 2019 levels.
And though clear data on those fast turnaround transportation projects is hard to find, observers say some air has gone out of the tires. It takes more than a few quick tweaks to escape the pull of car-centric thinking baked into many US urban environments.
PeopleForBikes, a cycling advocacy nonprofit, tracked some 200 US cities that made changes to their streets during the pandemic, and “for the most part, a lot of them have gone back,” says Patrick Hogan, the group’s research manager. His team’s data suggests that people riding for recreation rather than utility are more likely to have stuck with pandemic-era bike habits, indicating that many people still don’t see cycling as an easy or safe way to get around.
A survey of Americans conducted by researchers at Arizona State University before, during, and after the pandemic found that, despite governments’ work to promote cycling during the pandemic, the share of people cycling has not changed. It is a tale as old as time—people are optimistic about becoming better versions of themselves, and then life gets in the way.
“People were enthusiastic, and they reported that they expected they were going to walk and bike more because they were really enjoying it,” says Deborah Salon, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University who worked on the survey. “Unfortunately, we don’t find any evidence of that actually happening.”
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That’s not great news for cities or their residents. For one thing, cycling is a nice way to get people up and moving, which is good for both physical and mental health. Bicycles might get residents out of cars and off congested roads, which could prevent traffic deaths and make people happier.
City leaders also increasingly see bicycles as a powerful tool in their long-term effort to get people out of cars and reduce transportation-related emissions, which are responsible for a quarter of all emissions worldwide. In a paper published last summer, researchers concluded that if the entire world traveled like the Danes and Dutch, who take at least one in five trips by bike, the health benefits from extra exercise and reduced emissions would cut annual global deaths by somewhere between 340,000 and 620,000.
The places that saw people hop on bikes and stay there have a few things in common, says Buehler, the Virginia Tech professor. He and a colleague at Rutgers University studied 14 cities around the world and found that those that upped the share of trips taken on bikes often used the pandemic lull in traffic to expand or execute preexisting infrastructure changes. They built protected bike lanes to make people feel safer while pedaling. (Research suggests that more than anything else, concerns about the safety of cycling, and especially fear of getting hit by cars, keep people off bikes.) Most critically, bike-friendly cities restricted private car use.
Paris, never much of a cycling city, has spent the past two decades expanding its bicycle infrastructure. But during the pandemic the city accelerated, building 32 miles of temporary, protected bike lanes and reducing the speed limit on many city streets to under 20 miles per hour. The number of cycling trips spiked 60 percent compared to 2019. Brussels also built temporary lanes and banned cars from a park that was once a busy thoroughfare, and it plans to nix 65,000 on-street parking spaces by 2030. It saw the share of trips taken by bicycles more than double, from 3.5 percent to 10 percent in early 2022.
Sustaining the recent biking blip might not only require a new way of considering space but also of thinking about the bike. “The bike industry hasn’t yet provided a product that it could viably say, ‘Yes, this could replace the car,’” says Bjorling, the Trek marketing director. But bike makers appear to be getting closer: Sales of ebikes also spiked during the pandemic.
Ebikes are more expensive than traditional bicycles but also move faster, haul heavier loads, and can help people not physically able to use a conventional two-wheeler. Lyft, which runs bike- and scooter-share systems in some of the largest US cities, has seen a sustained increase in bike trips and expects 25 percent growth over last year, with a significant contribution from ebike rides.
It is still too early to measure the full effects of the pandemic bicycle boom. Work-from-home policies have reordered commutes—some residents may not be biking because they’re not going anywhere. Other effects may be longer-term. Tab Combs, a transportation policy researcher at the University of North Carolina who has tracked Covid-era infrastructure projects around the world, sees evidence that cities have changed the way they think about building stuff altogether. They’ve found new ways to engage the public; they believe they can put up temporary infrastructure and change it later. “These [transportation] interventions, most of them actually were ephemeral,” she says. “But what we’re learning is that the experience of doing it is going to have a long-lasting impact.”
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That’s how it worked in Tucson, Arizona, says Andy Bemis, a senior project manager with the city’s Department of Transportation and Mobility. Tucson established a walk- and bike-friendly “Slow Streets” program that restricted car traffic in some places, and the city set up an outdoor dining program that allowed restaurants to occupy curbside parking spots. Tucson accelerated its “bike boulevard” program, which defines a network of streets where walking and biking are prioritized over other modes of transport. Amidst a nationwide spike in dangerous driving behavior, Tucson also used planters and rubber mats to build temporary traffic circles and speed bumps to slow down traffic.
Not all of Tucson’s projects became permanent, Bemis says. But the department has emerged with a better understanding of how to engage the community. Fewer public meetings are held in government buildings, where only the usual suspects—whiter, wealthier, older people—tended to show up to comment on public projects. Instead, the department has moved more public engagement outside, into parks, with ice cream and movies and even sometimes childcare to attract a wider swath of city residents. Two voter-approved ballot measures, one that passed in 2018 and another voted through in May, give the city hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in making it easier for walkers and cyclists to get around. “For many years, we’ve been the Department of No,” says Bemis. “And though right now we certainly can’t fix every problem, we can start.” Now that the biggest boom has passed, cities will have to figure out how to keep rolling.