If You Build It, They Will Come: Bicycles are winning

COVID-19 has created an opportunity to change US “car culture”, to bring it under control.  The question is, will it be permanent?

COVID-19 brought “regular” transportation to a standstill or at least reduced it, with more telecommuting, unemployment and other issues.  Fewer cars on the road means more space became available, and bicycles have provided a flexible, efficient and cheap solution to transportation. You can’t “socially distance” on a metro train or bus, but bicycles can travel the same speed several metres apart.

COVID-19 creates new momentum for cycling and walking. We can’t let it go to waste!

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our cities in many ways. While the number of motor vehicles on the road has plummeted during lockdown, an increasing number of people have turned to walking and biking, moving speedily and safely through once congested streets. The shift has brought some visible changes: local air pollution has dropped by up to 60% globally, and cities that used to be covered with a thick blanket of smog are experiencing their first blue skies in a long time.

But what will happen now that cities are gradually getting out of lockdown? At the moment, many urban residents feel that public transport puts them at a higher risk of being infected, and perceive private vehicles to be safer. As a result, car use has recovered much faster than mass transit so far—morning traffic in major Chinese cities is now even higher than 2019 averages. That means higher levels of air pollution, more congestion, and a lower quality of life.

But there is an alternative to rampant motorization. If the current public health crisis makes individual modes inherently more appealing to users, why not use this as an opportunity to promote cycling and walking, which would produce greater social benefits, reduce pollution, and improve urban livability?

But encouraging people to ride more requires usable roads.  In cities like New York where riding lanes were disjointed, there wasn’t much of an increase.  But in cities like Portland and Minneapolis, networks of usable “safe” (slow) roads brought out riders in huge numbers.

If you build it, they will come.  From October 2020:

Some cities shut down streets for pedestrians and other uses during the pandemic. A study looks at whether people are using them.

In the nearly eight months since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, cities across the county have closed roads, extended bike lanes and turned parking spaces into dining spots as a way to give Americans more space to move around safely during the health crisis.

Now, with the pandemic stretching on and many cities considering extending those closures through the winter, new research offers some indication of how the spaces are being used.

The study, by the traffic analytics firm Inrix, looked at five cities: Washington, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and Oakland, Calif. It found that in general, traffic volumes on the restricted streets — whether pedestrian, bike or car — remained well below pre-pandemic levels, a finding that is not surprising considering that overall traffic is down as well. As traffic volumes began to increase amid states reopening, so did activity levels on the restricted streets, Inrix found.

However, traffic varied based on the designated use of the roadways. In dense cities such as New York and Washington, for example, activity on the “slow streets” or “safe streets” was underwhelming, with usage lagging behind overall city travel.

Cities that created larger and well-connected networks of slow streets, geared toward recreation, such as in Minneapolis, saw higher numbers of people using the facilities, Inrix found.

Protected bike lanes built for commuting in New York didn’t attract as many commuters because fewer people were commuting, while there are indications of activity picking up in the open-street restaurants and even more on the recreation-focused streets, said Bob Pishue, an Inrix transportation analyst.

[. . .]

The “Open Streets” movement has been embraced by cities around the world in recent years. The programs have various names — open streets, slow streets, safe streets and more — and vary from city to city, but they all have the same goal: restricting vehicle traffic to reduce pollution and promote healthier lifestyles.

The pandemic accelerated the trend, attributed to the need to provide people a place for physical activity while social distancing. Some cities implemented policies to encourage walking, biking and scooter use in neighborhoods and city centers. Some turned busy parkways where commuter traffic had largely disappeared into safe havens for pedestrians and bicyclists.

For people who are unemployed, it’s a cheap means of transportation.  And for those wanting fitness while gyms were forced to close, bicycles provided that option.  Much like when an earthquake hits, bicycles have become and can be used as a cure-all for transportation, and that’s happening now, with COVID-19.  With any luck, the environmental and social impacts will have long term effect.

Social impact?  Yes.  Moving slower and being able to hear and see faces and voices (instead of being in a car) mean human contact.  I doubt there is anywhere near the level of aggression and road raging amongs cyclists that there is amongst drivers.  Talking builds communities, the isolation of vehicles separates them.

Safer roads, social distancing, fitness and transportation, environmental impact – what’s not to like?  Riding season may be over in colder climes, but the effect may last into 2021 because the pandemic likely won’t be over until at least 2022.


  1. Allison says

    I live along US route 9, just north of New York City, which used to be the main highway from NYC to Albany, and I’ve noticed an increase in the number of bicyclists going by. Recently, a bicycle/pedestrian path opened on the Tappan Zee Bridge (a 3+ mile long bridge over the Hudson), and I think a lot of the traffic is bicyclists going to the bridge path, in some cases from the train station. So I don’t know that this really means an uptick in bicycle commuting.

    One problem is that one has to have strong nerves to bicycle on the main roads here. Most are two lane (one in each direction) without a lot of room for a car to pass a bicycle, and pretty much at capacity. And the shoulders (to the extent there are any) have the usual problems: storm drain grates, potholes, and parked cars and delivery vans. The less fanatical bicyclists use the sidewalks, even though it’s illegal. (I used to bicycle to and from the train station, but after a few years, my nerves wouldn’t take it any more.) There are bicycle paths and routes in my county, but they’re mainly set up for people who want to drive to the path and bicycle up and down the path and then drive home. They’re not really set up for people actually trying to get somewhere. I plan to use the bridge to bicycle to and from the Pride center across the river (once COVID is under control), but most of the bicycle traffic on the bridge consists of people who drive to one of the parking lots at either end and bicycle across and back.

    • says

      Seoul, Taipei, and many other cities ripped out overpasses and cut down the number of lanes. Car apologists said it would increase congestion. In reality, it did the opposite. People stopped driving (using more public transit) or avoided the areas. Pollution went down, roads got safer, and local businesses got more foot traffic.

      New York could cut out an entire lane an protect it with jersey barriers to make it safe and improve traffic flow. The problem isn’t how to do it; the problem is the complete lack of spine amongst politicians.

  2. jrkrideau says

    When Ontario went into lock-down in March, bicycle shops were classified as essential services.

    Riding season may be over in colder climes

    Not really. Properly dressed and with studded winter tires I commuted to work year-round in Ottawa for years though it was only a 7 km commute . With well maintained roads, winter commuting is rather pleasant.

    I did have to take a taxi one day as the grease was starting to thicken and the gears were not working well. It was ~ minus 50.

    BTW, a great advantage of a bicycle and probably one reason they were so handy after earthquakes is that when one meets an obstruction, one can often get off the bike and carry, drag or toss it over, under or around the obstruction.

    Bicycles also have good carrying capacity. I have good quality panniers (20 litre volume for each pannier) and it is not unusual to have a 10kg bag of flour it one and a pile of groceries in the other.

  3. says

    Bicycles are great where they can be ridden away from traffic. I love how I can pick up my bike and carry it over fallen trees and gates designed to keep motor bikes out of forest paths. The spread out city of Adelaide is perfect for cycling because there are nearly always quiet parallel streets and paths to take you to your destination.
    Of course in the city centre there are still old money conservatives who threaten legal action if a bicycle path is installed in the street past their offices, taking away some parking spots. The final design of the east-west path through the CBD will have a dog leg as a result as the council backs away from expensive court cases.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Lofty
    Bicycles are great where they can be ridden away from traffic.

    From a commuter’s point of view they are fine with automobile traffic too. Commuter traffic tends to be fairly predictable and so easier to ride in.

    I prefer little or no automobile traffic but at least half of that is the reduced noise level. In really congested, stop-and-go traffic one can ride by automobiles as if they are boulders on the roadway.

    BTW, always wear a mirror when riding in traffic. 🙂

  5. Ridana says

    I would love to ride a bike to get around, but the thieves won’t let me. No matter how I lock it up, or how public the area, every bike I’ve ever owned has been stolen. If they can’t steal the frame, they steal the seat, or even the pedals. I can’t disassemble my bike and carry half of it around with me every time I want to go somewhere, and I can’t afford the time, money and energy it takes to keep replacing them. The universe has apparently decreed that the rest of this journey will be on foot.

    • says

      Are you willing to ride a kickboard scooter? Many can be folded and brought inside with you to prevent theft, even taken on public transit. Sure, you can’t carry as much as on a bicycle, but they’re still faster than walking with the advantage of brakes and easy to balance on (something skateboards lack). There are even electric ones with decent range (30-40km).

    • jrkrideau says


      Not ideal if you are in that bad a bike thief area but you can—so my friends tell me—collapse and fold the bike, stick it in a bag and go in about 1-2 minutes and you end up with what looks like a piece of wheeled luggage in some cases or just luggage in others.

      Supposedly the Rolls Royce of folding bicycles, the Brompton and another interesting & lighter folder, the Helix.

      These two are a bit pricey but there are lots of less expensive choices.

  6. Ridana says

    Heh, the very thought terrifies me. I can envision hitting a pothole and going flying, breaking many essential bones upon landing. 🙂

    • says

      You could choose a kickboard scooter that has a handbrake, like a bicycle. Bicycle helmets and gear for skateboards or rollerblades (elbows, knees, gloves) would be enough to protect you.

  7. Jazzlet says

    There are a variety of very good folding bikes available, at various prices, I’ve ridden a Brompton whicch haandle very well, fold simply and safely as well as having decent carrying capacity when folded.

    • says

      The Strida folding bicycle (triangular shaped) was a tempting idea, but that rubber “chain” drive put me off. I’ve broken cranks on regular bicycles while going up hills, never mind lighter bikes like that. Now they seem to be out of business.

      • says

        A friend of mine has a Strida and once rode it on a 100km charity ride. They’re quite tough. All the people on carbon fibre road bikes did a double take though as he powered past them up every hill. Down hill was another matter as the Strida only has one gear.