2020: A Year of Bicycling Backwards

The corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic has had many devastating impacts, from death or long-term health issues for too many, to economic hardship, as well as some supposedly “silver lining” effects. Among the latter, one was an observed trend in a number of places around the world of increased numbers of people bicycling.

Violinist Christian Adam, literally bicycling backwards

For me, however, it has led to an absolute cessation of cycling. In that sense I’ve been “bicycling backwards” in 2020, with respect to what is sometimes called a boom in cycling for many others.

That decision on my part had to do with a calculation early during the pandemic of the small but not negligible chances of my being in an accident of some sort, and then contracting a potentially fatal virus during emergency care and treatment. That in turn comes from years of experience “sharing the road” (including an accident in 2009) and an evaluation of risks on the streets of my current area – East Lansing and Lansing in Michigan.

Cycling boom?

Increases in use of bicycles for transportation and recreational have been reported since the (northern hemisphere) spring in a number of countries and localities. I’ll list a few representative articles below chronologically for reference and possible later analysis, but one factor that I’m paying attention to is how infrastructure for cycling figures in the trend (which I’ll discuss briefly further down).

Infrastructure a conditioning factor

Much as there’s a trend to more cycling, there is also a block where infrastructure is insufficient. It seems that most of the places where we have seen increases in use of bicycles this year are those where bike lanes and paths are relatively safe and their networks well-developed.

There is significant research indicating a correlation between good bicycle infrastructure and numbers of people who cycle.1 And there’s also research indicating that better infrastructure – especially physically divided lanes – favors both more people biking and their safety (as well as being better for car drivers).2 Type of infrastructure matters, as an article about the latter research notes: “painted bike lanes provided no improvement on road safety.”

Numbers in safety?

Also, it sounds like the “safety in numbers” argument has it backwards – the numbers tend to come when cyclists feel relatively safe. So any analysis of the current boom in cycling should dig deeper into where the boom is really happening, and what people’s feelings are about biking there relative to places where bike sales may have been up earlier this year, but actual biking numbers maybe fizzled after the initial enthusiasm wore off.

Although the area of Michigan I’m currently in does have some bike trails that are mainly suitable for recreation, the major effort to provide for cycling here has been in the form of bike lanes demarcated by painted lines and signage. That’s not insignificant, involving sometimes a “traffic calming” measure of reducing a four-lane road to one each direction, a middle turn lane, and bike lanes by the curbs, which can be unpopular with car drivers. It’s a step in the right direction, in my opinion, but still leaves cyclists exposed when for whatever reason the sharing doesn’t work as planned.

In any event, I did not see a noticeably higher number of cyclists on the road here this year.

ER improvements?

As indicated above, my decision not to bike last spring was premised in part on uncertainty about conditions in emergency rooms (ERs) during the early stages of the pandemic. One deals with risks in biking as a matter of course, but this was for me a tipping factor. It may be, with better understanding about COVID transmission and how to slow or prevent it, time to adapt the layout of the facilities, and more availability of personal protective equipment for medical staff and patients, that ERs now are safer in this regard. However, I still wouldn’t want to tempt fate.

My hope is that with the COVID vaccine and chance that we’ll get past the worst of the epidemic and can focus on the more mundane, but important, issues of improving bicycle infrastructure. And I hope to start biking again.

One final note. This past July, my son was out biking and hit a gravelly patch on a turn. He ended up with some pretty nasty road scrapes from the spill, for which I might have recommended a trip to an ER or emergency care facility in normal times. We were able to use a combination of saline solutions, alcohol pads (lucky to find), topical antibiotic, and various bandages over a period of several days, without any infections or other complications arising. (A tetanus booster at the pharmacy, for which he was due anyway, was the only outside intervention.) Thankful for that and that his injuries hadn’t been more serious to start with.

  1. Angela Hull & Craig O’Holleran (2014) “Bicycle infrastructure: can good design encourage cycling?,” Urban, Planning and Transport Research, 2:1, 369-406, DOI: 10.1080/21650020.2014.955210
  2. Wesley E. Marshall & Nicholas N. Ferenchak (2019) “Why cities with high bicycling rates are safer for all road users,” Journal of Transport & Health, Vol. 13. DOI: 10.1016/j.jth.2019.03.004


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