On March 20, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a shelter-in-place order due to the coronavirus. Under the order, only essential businesses could remain open. Laundromats, child care services, and auto repair shops were among those exempted from the order. Conspicuously absent? Bike shops.
Bike advocates were indignant. Okay, fine, bike advocates are always indignant, but now they were really indignant. With home delivery the only dining option for many New Yorkers, bicycle delivery workers—already an essential part of the city’s retail landscape—had just become even more crucial. Essential workers also still needed to get to their jobs, and with the city experiencing a pandemic-induced bike boom, no doubt plenty of these people were doing so by bike. All of these cyclists would need mechanical support. Why, then, insist that the shop that repairs your bicycle tires close, yet allow the shop that repairs your car tires to remain open?
The next day, Cuomo changed his tune, and since then local bike shops have reported a business boom—one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak economic landscape. Other cities have also acknowledged the indispensable nature of bike shops in the midst of a pandemic. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed had to clarify that yes, bike shops are essential and may stay open. Philadelphia also exempted bike shops from closure, much to the relief of advocates there. And shop owners in New Orleans report brisk business. Still, the bike shop exemption is by no means universal, and at least one shop is operating in defiance of the New Mexico state government.
It’s disappointing that bike shops didn’t automatically qualify as essential businesses everywhere in America, but it’s hardly surprising. Even under normal circumstances, there’s a default narrative in our culture that riding bikes for transportation is “controversial,” so naturally when a pandemic hits it doesn’t immediately occur to policymakers that bicycles and the businesses that service them are a basic need. In this sense, bicycle retail and service is like a much-loved cult TV series: the decision-makers don’t realize how many people depend on it until it gets cancelled and everyone starts clamoring for it. Moreover, this problem is compounded by the general perception of cycling as a self-indulgent leisure pursuit for weekend warriors—which, if you subscribe to it, evokes images of MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra) going in for bike fittings while Contagion unfolds in real life. Thus, bike shops wind up getting lumped in with more frivolous retail operations, like stores that sell fancy stationary. (Not to throw our hardworking paper purveyors under the bus, but let’s just say that if you got married recently there’s no big hurry to send out your thank you cards.) Meanwhile, all it takes is watching that video of Stephen Colbert changing an inner tube with a screwdriver to understand how absolutely vital it is that our bike shops remain open. (The rims! Won’t somebody think of the rims???)
It’s not just bike shops that are essential, either; it’s the entire bicycle ecosystem. New York City’s bike share program, Citi Bike, saw a 67 percent increase in ridership as the city went into crisis mode, and is working to add stations. Furthermore, its parent company, Lyft, will offer free memberships to healthcare and transit workers as well as first responders. (They’ll also extend a similar offer to users in Boston and Chicago.) To better accommodate riders, the city has announced new emergency bike infrastructure—even more necessary now that the MTA has reduced service, and subways are getting crowded again. Regular people are coming forward and volunteering to run errands for the homebound by bike, and advocacy group Transportation Alternatives is rounding up bikes for people who need them. And while your training program can wait, exercise such as cycling is essential for maintaining mental and physical health while your life is curtailed. To that end, New York City is closing certain streets to motor vehicle traffic so that people can move around freely while maintaining distance. And while advocates point out that the 1.6 miles they’ll be closing represents a paltry share of the streetscape, it’s important to remember that the city has a lot to deal with at the moment.
No matter where we live, we’re all reeling from the countless ways in which the coronavirus has upended our lives, from sowing massive unemployment to causing the inexplicable disappearance of all the world’s toilet paper. But more profoundly, it’s forcing us to acknowledge the simple things we should be doing all the time, like washing our hands and keeping our asses home when we’re sick. The same palm-to-forehead realization goes for bikes. Bike shops are always essential, and cycling is always a great way to get around and to find physical and mental well-being. And we should always be looking for more space in crowded cities to reclaim from cars, even when we don’t all need to be at least six feet apart.
In a logical society we wouldn’t be hoarding toilet paper, we’d be hoarding bikes. And no matter how bad things get out there, a store selling either should remain open.