American cities on a roll

Yet this time biking is more than just a pastime. The coronavirus has made bikes essential.

Although data about the likelihood of transit-based coronavirus transmission is still thin, the public is worried about entering a subway car or bus. Public transit agencies, meanwhile, must contend with operating the system while maintaining social distance restrictions. In London, officials estimate its network can operate at just 15% capacity. So people are opting out of public transit for bikes and cars.

“We are seeing evidence that in cities opening back up, commuters returning to work are shunning public transportation and increasingly relying on shared bikes,” says Asad Hussain, a mobility analyst for private equity research firm PitchBook.

Many cities have responded by facilitating cycling and walking. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan said the city will ban cars on many city streets, creating one of the largest such zones in the world. Brussels rapidly repurposed car lanes for bikes, then made those changes permanent. France is dedicating more than 400 miles of cycling lanes throughout the Paris metropolitan area, and spending €20 million ($21.9 million) to subsidize bike repairs, install temporary bike racks, and offer cycling courses. 

In America, the path is less certain, says PitchBook’s Assad. In Europe and Asia, where car ownership is less common, a shift toward shared mobility—ride hailing and shared fleets of bikes and scooters—is underway. But the United States’ penchant for cars, extensive automobile infrastructure, and relatively cheap prices means personal car ownership is likely to increase in the short term.

Some American cities are pushing hard against that trend. Oakland has closed 74 miles of city streets, around 10% of its total, to through traffic. It plans to expand its “slow streets” initiative, a concept spreading to Portland, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington DC and elsewhere, reports CityLab. New York has turned to bikes as an essential alternative to its subways: 12,000 critical workers have been using free memberships on Lyft’s Citi Bike program, and the company says weekend ridership is approaching record levels again after hitting 80,000 rides on May 16, not far from its 100,000-ride peak last year.

But for biking to truly be a viable alternative in the US, it has to be safer. Beyond accessing a functional bicycle (only half of Americans have one), aspiring bikers’ top concern is personal safety and protection from cars. Prioritizing bikers means building dedicated infrastructure, says Augustin Wegscheider who leads the Boston Consulting Group’s mobility practice. “If you just add more bikes, and the infrastructure is the same, you’re not going to get behavioral change,” said  Wegscheider. Case studies in New York showed bike lane upgrades increased ridership by women by more than 40% in 2019.

The pandemic has created the largest urban transportation experiment in a generation. With many streets reclaimed, at least temporarily, by bicyclists and pedestrians, they may be safer for cyclists than at any time in modern history. In New York City, collisions with bicyclists fell to 113 in April, down 62% compared to the same month last year—and half the rate seen in 2013, previously the lowest on record (data only go back to 2012).


Whether bicycles resume their place at the heart of American city life depends on what cities do next.

Warren Logan, director of mobility policy and interagency relations in the Oakland mayor’s office, says that the city’s slow streets initiative merely gave people the opportunity to reclaim public space once occupied by vehicles. Unlike most traffic programs that cost millions of dollars, the price tag for closing 74 miles of streets was almost nothing: some street barricades, staff time, and printed signs Logan estimated cost less than $1,000.

“What we did was not that much,” he said. “We just reminded people they deserve slow streets and they already told us which streets were already slow and safe. We delivered on something we already said we were going to deliver. We just sped it up.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note the bicycle Michael Coleman used with a child seat was a new hybrid, not a road bike and corrects the spelling of Augustin Wegscheider of Boston Consulting Group.  

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