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Will Covid-19 finally turn a straphanging NYC into a city for bikers?

A man wearing a protective mask rides a bicycle on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan during the outbreak of Covid-19 in New York City on March 24.
Reuters/Mike Segar
The office is changing.
  • Max Lockie
By Max Lockie

Deputy news editor

Published Last updated

The global pandemic has changed the way people get to and from work—if they’re going at all. In most cases that means fewer miles driven, vacant public transit networks, and empty airplanes. One transportation method has bucked this trend—the bicycle.

Affordable bicycles have been almost impossible to keep in stock since pandemic lockdowns took hold in the US. The national outdoor gear store REI said cycling equipment sales are up fourfold over last year. “We do not expect sales to slow down in the near term, as long as supply can keep up,” Ron Thompsen, REI merchandising manager, said in an email.

Across the US,  recreational bike sales increased by 121% and ebike sales rose by 85% in March over last year, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. Overall, bicycle and bike shop services have shot up to $733 million, a 44% jump over last year.  Tyrone Williams, co-founder of the popular downtown Manhattan bike shop, Dah Shop, told Quartz that he’s seen around a tripling of business during the pandemic.

It’s unclear how many of these new purchases are replacing older bikes or are just being used for recreation instead of transportation. Just around 7% of Americans ever cycle to work, according to a large 2018 survey from market research firm Corona Insights, with far fewer doing so on a daily basis. And those commuters are more likely to be low-income, suggesting they choose to bike due to a lack of options. But as the pandemic has reduced transit options for everyone, people of all income ranges are reconsidering their rides.

As we’ve seen with everything from retail trends to the future of science, the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating pre-existing trends.

A recent national survey backed by a leading bicycle manufacturer found 85% of Americans think cycling is safer than public transportation, while 63% ride their bike to relieve pandemic-induced stress. Bicycle commuting isn’t just a good way to get around while limiting your risk of infection: Switching to a bike is one way that individuals can reduce air pollution in their communities, one of the factors associated with elevated Covid-19 death rates.

While bicycle commuting is making inroads, its widespread acceptance is by no means a foregone conclusion. New York City is a particularly dynamic laboratory to test its adoption.

Taming the mean streets

At the beginning of New York City’s pandemic lockdown, mayor Bill de Blasio urged residents to “bike or walk to work if you can.” For its part, the city has stepped up to provide 12,000 essential workers with free memberships to Citi Bike, the bike-sharing network that has a local monopoly on app-based bicycle rentals.

New York has always had a complicated relationship with bicycles. It has made strong efforts in creating a bike-sharing network and hundreds of miles of protected bike lanes, but safety and security measures still need to be improved before a critical mass of subway riders feel comfortable on two wheels.

Before the pandemic, city figures estimated that close to 500,000 bike trips are taken on a given day, up threefold since 2004, but still a far cry from the 5.7 million subway rides on an average weekday. After plunging around 90% at the depths of the coronavirus lockdown, subway ridership has crept back up from its March nadir—nearly crossing the one-million daily rider mark for the first time in months.

Bicycle commuting has seen steadily rising levels of adoption in New York over the past decade, with government figures showing a 55% growth of biking to work from 2012 to 2017 compared to a 27% increase in peer cities. Women have also joined the ranks of bicycle commuters at twice the rate of men since 2014, although nationally bike commuting remains a disproportionately male endeavor.

Just under 10% of New Yorkers say they ride a bicycle at least several times a month, a 26% increase from 2012-2017, and about 50,000 New Yorkers said they ride to work everyday. In a survey, 64% of New Yorkers who ride bikes said they would cycle to work if it was a practical option for them.

Safety concerns—including an outright fear of death—are major reasons that many New Yorkers won’t ride bikes on city streets. Bicycle safety came in last in a 2017 quality of life survey by the non-profit Citizens Budget Commission. And as the number of cyclists has increased, so too have accidents. Five years after de Blasio launched his “Vision Zero” program to end traffic fatalities, 29 cyclists were killed riding their bikes in New York City in 2019—the most since 2000. Midway through the year, the mayor pledged $58.4 million to install 80 additional miles of protected bike lanes, which are designed to keep cars from driving, parking, or idling in front of cyclists.

A recent survey by Transportation Alternatives, a New York City-based advocacy group, found that 99% of cyclists feel safer in a protected bike lane, and that 94% of frequent riders have encountered a vehicle in a non-protected lane over the last month. Dedicated bike lanes could also cut down on injuries and fatalities, which climbed sharply in March but have since declined in most, but not all, parts of the city.

Reuters/Jeenah Moon
Illuminating new pathways.

While European cities including London, Milan, and Paris have announced or initiated major expansions of their cycling networks, New York City has been slow to expand on its 480 miles of protected bike lanes. Around 30 new bike lane installations or improvement projects are currently planned or underway across the five boroughs, but during a pandemic, the city has come up short. Despite calls from high-ranking officials, city-backed studies, and a new promise to greatly expand its efforts, the city has added less than one mile of new bike lanes during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a non-profit organization that tracks bike usage in the US. That’s far fewer than the 16 miles added in Denver,  22 miles added in Baltimore, and 30 miles added in Minneapolis.

“Part of the reason it’s hard to get lanes put in is there are just too many cars,” said Doug Gordon, a safe streets advocate and host of the War on Cars podcast, in an interview with Quartz. Gordon advocates for car reduction strategies including congestion pricing, new laws preventing curbside idling, adjusting parking pricing, and taking away lanes from cars so “people have attractive alternatives to driving.”

How to transform a city

If bicycle commuting is going to continue to make gains in New York, much of the load will be carried by Citi Bike, New York City’s bike-sharing service launched by mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The introduction of Citi Bike in 2013, and the addition of 400 miles of bike lanes, by Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, transformed the city for cyclists. Citi Bike, whose parent company, Motivate, was purchased by Lyft in 2018 for around $250 million, has grown from an initial rollout of 6,000 bikes mostly relegated to Manhattan to the largest bike-sharing operation in the US with over 12,000 vehicles across all five boroughs.

After posting nearly 10% year-over-year growth in daily ridership during the first two months of the year, average daily Citi Bike rides have declined steadily during the pandemic—to a daily average of about 23,000 in April, down from more than 40,000 in January and nearly 60,000 one year earlier. The reason for the decline is unclear, but stay-at-home orders, the temporary exodus of New Yorkers trying to escape them, and a sharp decline in tourism probably have something to do with it.

When New Yorkers return from their summer homes and tourists return to the streets, they’ll find a Citi Bike network that includes battery-powered ebikes alongside the traditional fare.

Citi Bike introduced ebikes to its fleet in 2019, but quickly pulled them off the streets due to safety concerns. The blue ebikes returned in February of this year just as Covid-19 was beginning its silent spread across the five boroughs with a promise to add thousands more as the city reopens. But ebikes remained technically illegal and prone to theft, creating a situation where more affluent bikers paid a ten-cent surcharge to ride Citi Bike’s ebikes, while working-class delivery workers were arrested  for delivering food to New Yorkers’ tables. That rule was mercifully relaxed during the Covid-19 crisis and eliminated as part of the city’s most recent budget.

Bicycling experts and advocates who spoke with Quartz were unanimous in their support for the spread of ebikes. Trek Bicycles’ nationwide BCycle bike-sharing network has begun rolling out 100% ebike systems that do away with Citi Bike’s two-tiered pricing systems, says Trek CEO John Burke. “Ebikes are the future,” Burke said, adding, “We’re seeing four times the adoption rate on ebikes vs traditional bikes.” In Madison, Wisconsin where the entire BCycle fleet was converted to ebikes, total ridership doubled in 2019 alone.  “It’s 100 out of 100 smiles on people’s faces when they ride an ebike,” Burke said.

A war on cars?

Whether or not this bicycle surge will last beyond the coronavirus pandemic depends on several factors. Adam White, a lawyer who represents injured bicyclists, told Quartz that anecdotally he’s seen many New Yorkers purchase vehicles to avoid returning to the subways. The Centers for Disease Control and other government bodies “made a mistake in furthering a fear of mass transit,” White said.

The key to mass adoption of bike commuting in the city, as White sees it, is improving street design, creating more protected bike lanes, and establishing a more extensive network of interconnected, protected bike lanes. Gordon agreed that bike lanes and other safety features don’t go far enough if they only cover portions of cyclists’ commutes. “They need to feel comfortable from the minute they walk out their door to the moment they arrive,” he said.

For activists like Gordon and White, creating safer streets for cyclists also requires taking cars off the road. That includes proposals to raise the price of driving through congestion pricing and car parking reform, as well as offering tax credits to companies that shift to cargo bikes for deliveries or offer free or reduced Citi Bike memberships to employees.

Beyond infrastructure and incentives, the city could enhance bicycle safety by focusing on “recidivist reckless drivers” who accumulate numerous violations during a period of time, White says. The Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program would have required repeat offenders to take additional driving courses developed by the Department of Transportation or risk losing their vehicles. However, the measure was not included in the current city budget, effectively killing the program.

In addition to worries about reckless drivers, bike commuters have another concern that car drivers can surely relate to—parking. While the city does offer several on-street solutions, Gordon said bike parking is another hurdle to mass adoption, “Especially if [people] are buying these expensive ebikes, having a secure place to park the bike is the difference between buying a bike and not.”