More People Are Cycling During COVID-19. That Matters.
Cleaner air, quieter streets, more people riding—there's an opportunity here for cities and cycling advocates willing to grasp it
The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has been intense: since late March, one in five workers—more than 33 million Americans—have filed for unemployment, a level already far greater than the peak of the 2008 recession. But amid the catastrophe, there’s been a small bright spot: bicycles. Specifically, people are buying new ones, fixing up old ones, and riding more than before.
Some bike shops have reported booming business, far above even the normally busy days of the spring selling season. While other outdoor businesses—gear shops, climbing gyms, and ski areas, for example—have closed or are furloughing or laying off workers, bike shops are working hard, often at reduced capacity, to ensure safe customer interactions. One new shop, Hush Money Bikes in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, even moved up its planned grand-opening date to spring.
There are various reasons for this phenomenon. Amid nationwide stay-at-home-orders, mass-transit ridership is in free fall, leaving essential workers in need of a socially distant way to get around. And many people, especially families with young children at home, are looking for lockdown-compliant ways to get outside and keep everyone as healthy and happy as possible.
As they venture out, those commuters and recreational cyclists—even dedicated riders who’ve been biking for years—are encountering a world they’ve never seen before: streets with less traffic (and sometimes closed to cars altogether), vehicle lanes converted into temporary bike lanes, air that’s cleaner than it has been at any point in decades. Will these new cyclists stick with the bike once things settle on some kind of new normal? And will their numbers and the new riding landscape we’re all experiencing lead to permanent, positive change and safer places to pedal? Some in the bike world think the answer to both questions is yes. But for that to happen, both the industry and cities have to seize this opportunity.
Like all of the fallout from the pandemic, the economic effects on the bike industry have been massively uneven. Although bike shops were designated as essential businesses by federal and many state and local officials, between 10 and 20 percent of such shops have temporarily closed, according to estimates from industry insiders. Those range from single shops like Quick Release, in Chicago, which shut its doors in April out of an abundance of caution, to the five-store Bicycle Village chain in Colorado, whose parent company, Vail Resorts, furloughed 65 employees as part of larger staff cuts.
The boom is also predominantly a domestic phenomenon. Almost all European stores closed (in some countries, like Spain and Italy, riding outside was also banned and has only recently been allowed again). As a result, Specialized Bicycles laid off 46 employees last week, mostly across its European operations. Component giant Shimano reported that first-quarter sales from its bicycle division declined 15 percent from the same period in 2019. Rich Tauer, president of major distributor Quality Bicycle Products told Bicycle Retailer and Industry News that he expects the bike industry as a whole to be down 40 percent from last year.
But within that bleak forecast, there are a number of shops and bike makers doing brisk business, especially in certain categories. According to the NPD Group, which tracks retail-sporting-goods sales, children’s bike sales in March were up 56 percent compared to March 2019. Adult leisure bike sales are up a whopping 121 percent. “In April so far, we’re up over 200 percent” over last year, says Adele Nasr, chief marketing officer at Aventon, which produces a line of affordable casual and commuter e-bikes. Interest is so high that it’s having trouble keeping stock on certain models. Preorders for medium Pace 500 step-through commuter bikes, which sell for $1,399, carry wait times of more than two months.
Affordable recreational bikes and practical models for commuting and errands are in high demand right now, says Rod Judd, director of membership and development at the national bike-advocacy group People for Bikes, where his job involves daily discussions with retailers and suppliers. “Anything under $600 is just flying out,” he says, adding that child seats and trailers have also seen healthy sales. Then there are surges in categories that are clearly pandemic driven, like indoor trainers, which are up 268 percent, according to NPD Group data. During a season when makers expect orders to ebb, they’re instead sold out of many models.
For many sellers, the shift in sales happened suddenly. As Tauer put it to Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, “On March 12 we were still selling lots of [expensive, high-performance] Kevlar-beaded tires, and on March 13 we started selling [affordable] wire-beaded tires.” Midpriced items have only started to see sales rebounds in the last week or so, Tauer says.
New-bike sales aren’t the only things skyrocketing. So are requests for bike service, as riders pull old, disused bikes out of garages and basements. NPD data shows that repair and maintenance demands increased 20 percent in March, compared to March 2019. “If I have any [service] openings, they’re booked quickly,” says Arleigh Greenwald, the owner and sole employee of Denver’s Bike Shop Girl Family Cyclery. She estimates her customers have been about evenly split between those interested in new bikes (especially ones for kids) and those who want to service existing ones. Nate Baker, co-owner of Hush Money, estimates that his service tickets are averaging twice the price of those he saw at a previous bike-shop employer last year. Both shops, like others, have set up social-distancing practices such as curbside drop-off and disinfecting customers’ bikes before and after service.
Demand for performance bikes has also been surprisingly durable at some brands. Trek Bicycles, one of the largest companies in the industry, has seen sales of high-end models decrease. But popular direct-to-consumer brand Canyon Bicycles has had “tremendous sales activity in all categories,” says Blair Clark, president of the company’s U.S. division. “Certainly, we’ve had a greater percentage increase in fitness bikes and lower-end mountain bikes,” he says, noting that those are smaller portions of Canyon’s business to begin with. But, he added, “We are still selling as many top-shelf bikes as we can keep in stock.”
Like all of the fallout from the pandemic, the economic effects on the bike industry have been massively uneven.
Who’s buying all these bikes? And what kind of riding are they doing? In April, Trek commissioned a survey of 1,004 American adults through the research firm Engine Insights, and it found that 21 percent of respondents who own a bike have been riding more during the pandemic. Most of those surveyed (63 percent) said riding helps relieve stress and anxiety.
Based on the Trek survey data, as well as interviews I did with shops and riders, there seem to be three broad groups of people riding more these days. The first are existing enthusiasts. Baker’s Hush Money clientele are generally well-off and possibly have been less affected financially by the pandemic. “A lot of that crowd has high-end bikes, and they have more time than ever to ride right now,” he says.
The second group consists of family cyclists, who ride casually for recreation. Danielle Swiontek bought her first bike last summer to enjoy the local trails in Goleta, California. A longtime swimmer, she told me she’s riding more now that her gym and pool are closed. “It’s a beautiful spot, right above the ocean,” she says of the nearby Ellwood Bluffs trail network. “I rode this morning at seven, and it was cool and the sun was rising. I could hear birds and see bunnies. It’s near wetlands, so often I come across egrets and other waterfowl. In this time of COVID-19, I really crave a kind of meditative aerobic exercise, and mountain biking is meeting that need.”
Jon Blankenship, who lives just outside Nashville, Tennessee, recently bought a flat-bar fitness bike (a Cannondale Quick 6) to get back into cycling after a nasty crash pushed him away from riding some years ago. “I want to spend time riding with my two daughters, ages seven and four, and get them into cycling,” he says. He’d been researching bikes for a couple of months before the pandemic struck and says he has more time to ride right now than he anticipated.
Finally, there’s a group of cyclists who are riding primarily to get to and from work and commute around town. “Public transportation is not necessarily the easiest or safest route right now,” says Aventon’s Nasr. “People are finding alternative ways to get around, and bikes make sense. Some of the markets where we’re growing most are where public transit is most popular.” Trek’s survey found that 85 percent of respondents perceived cycling as a safer mode of transportation than transit, and 14 percent were using bikes in place of it.
Some retailers are bracing for a potential bust if the economy deteriorates further and more service workers are laid off. Financial concerns are already preventing some would-be bike buyers from closing deals. “I have had several people reach out about electric bikes for their commute,” says Bike Shop Girl’s Greenwald, “but they are wary of spending money until they can go back to the office.”
Still, as new and returned cyclists venture out, they’re noticing a different riding environment. Lockdowns have produced dramatic improvements in air quality, seen in before and after shots of chronically smog-choked cities like Los Angeles and New Delhi, and in data on pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and the ultrafine particulate matter PM2.5. Researchers at UCLA’s environmental health sciences department found a 40 percent drop in PM2.5 levels in Los Angeles in the second half of March. That’s largely because people are driving less: nationwide, passenger-vehicle traffic through April 24 was down by more than 40 percent from normal, according to Inrix, a transportation intelligence company which analyzes real-time traffic data.
And with parks and open space packed with people seeking fresh air and exercise, cities around the nation have enacted policies to limit car use in order to allow residents to walk and bike with safe social distance. Minneapolis, Denver, and New York City have all closed some streets to vehicles or transformed car lanes into temporary bike and pedestrian lanes. Among the earliest and most ambitious cities in this regard was Oakland, California, which closed 74 miles of city streets to through traffic.
Riders are not only finding streets temporarily closed to motorists. Many who’ve taken yearslong hiatuses from the sport are noticing that safe-cycling infrastructure has increased significantly in the past few decades. John Burke, the longtime president of Trek Bicycles, regularly lobbies Congress for funding for bike lanes, and he estimates that thousands of miles of bike paths and lanes have been built in the U.S. in the past 25 years. (However, Burke points out that for all the progress we’ve seen, bike infrastructure in many places is still lacking, and there’s much room for improvement. Federal funding for bike lanes, a huge source of support, has dropped dramatically during the Trump administration.) The improvements are hard to ignore. “The biggest thing is that people who are getting back on bikes are seeing that there are amazing places to go ride your bike,” he says.
The safer, healthier riding experiences cyclists have enjoyed over the past six weeks can’t be unfelt. And to the extent that this has caused people to rethink assumptions about car-centric transportation—to see how much public space we’ve ceded in the form of roads and (often free) parking, and how we’ve marginalized other forms of transportation—it could provide a foundation for major change.
It’s up to cycling advocates to harness that new energy and attention. “Advocates in cities and states are going to be able to tell so much better of a story in mayors’ offices, state houses, and Congress than they’ve ever been able to,” says Burke. The biggest thing that will sustain the boom, he thinks, is whether there are safe places to ride. “That’s issue number one, two, and three,” he says.
Advocates, be they national or local, need to use the power of that story to make temporary bike lanes permanent and challenge car-first thinking. Burke and Trek are avowed supporters of People for Bikes, as is Canyon. But Burke notes that the broader bike industry doesn’t always back the efforts of People for Bikes (in an op-ed last year for Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, Burke claimed that only 37 percent of bike-industry companies were full-paying People for Bikes members). Stronger, more unified support is essential to success, he says.
“The bicycle is a simple solution to some of the most complicated problems in the world,” says Burke, ticking off issues like traffic congestion, rising rates of obesity, and climate change. But for those solutions to happen, officials need to steer the country’s streets away from car-centric designs and philosophies.
“In this time of COVID-19, I really crave a kind of meditative aerobic exercise, and mountain biking is meeting that need,” Danielle Swiontek says.
One city that’s already making progress is Milan, in hard-hit Italy, where officials recently announced a plan called Strade Aperte that will convert 22 miles of streets to bike and pedestrian lanes, even after lockdowns are eased. Meanwhile, UK transport secretary Grant Shapps recently announced plans to allocate $2.46 billion to improve infrastructure for cycling and walking, in part through “pop-up” facilities that can be quickly implemented during shutdowns. The U.S. is home to some like-minded officials, such as Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf. “When we close streets to cars,” she said, announcing the city’s closures, “we open them up for amazing possibilities.”
As states ease stay-home orders, people will have to figure out how to get to work and run essential errands. Vehicle traffic is already increasing as states and cities start to reopen, according to Inrix data. Public transit may not be the attractive option it once was, and ridership will likely stay low for the near future. Without more federal aid, some transit agencies may suffer widespread service cuts or fail altogether. Bicycles are a safe, socially distanced alternative, but many might simply choose to drive, perhaps even in greater numbers than before. “I think there will be some natural decline” in bike ridership, says Blankenship, the Tennessee cyclist. And Swiontek, in California, wonders whether the logistical realities of work and family life will limit new cyclists’ abilities to keep at it.
Blankenship, a self-described optimist, says he’d like to think new riders will remember how nice an afternoon cruise with family or a peaceful ride with friends can be. Says Swiontek, “I’m hoping that, once we can go out in public again, everyone drives a lot less. We are stretched so thin the way our world was, or is, constructed. I’m hoping to hang on to the slower pace once we are able to go back to work in a face-to-face setting.”
Whether this is a temporary bump in the bicycle’s popularity—the product of an idle society seeking comfort and sanity in familiar things—or the start of a future where bikes help solve some of society’s most complex problems is up to us. We have the power to remake our world.