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.
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.
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).
- “Biking Provides a Critical Lifeline During the Coronavirus Crisis” World Resources Institute, 17 April 2020 (global perspective, discussion of infrastructure, & mention of US having 5x the cycling mortality rate of the Netherlands)
- “Cycling ‘explosion’: coronavirus fuels surge in US bike ridership” The Guardian, 13 May 2020 (cites among others, National Association of City Transportation Officials & Eco-Counter)
- “Changes in transport behaviour during the Covid-19 crisis What can we learn from the lessons of the past” IEA, 27 May 2020 (broad & global perspective on transport, mentioning cycling and citing Citymapper on trends and a paper by Fiona Rajé & Andrew Saffrey on “The Value of Cycling“)
- “After coronavirus, bicycles will have a new place in city life” Fortune, 15 June 2020 (particular attention to example of New York City, and to bike-sharing)
- “Bicycles have enjoyed a boom during the pandemic. Will it last as car traffic resumes?” Los Angeles Times, 25 June 2020 (cites studies by Eco-Counter, Rails-to-Trails, and PeopleForBikes)
- “Can coronavirus pandemic bring a cycling revolution to India?” Deutsche Welle, 15 July 2020 (suggests current boom could be shortlived)
- “Keven Moore: Cycling has increased during COVID-19 pandemic, and so have the safety risks” Northern Kentucky Tribune, 16 July 2020 (one of the few articles to link safety issues to reporting on the cycling boom)
- “Cycling and COVID-19: Why investments to boost cycling are important for a sustainable recovery” International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), 30 July 2020 [cached version] (short article with 4 sets of recommendations)
- “COVID-19 pandemic a catalyst for creating more bicycle-friendly cities in Africa?” Union Cycliste Internationale, 1 September 2020 (particular attention to the example of Uganda)
- “How to Ride Safely Amid Coronavirus Concerns” Bicycling, 14 December 2020 (a FAQ article “updated as new information becomes available”; it does not go as far as secondary risks of COVID infection in the aftermath of an accident or serious spill)
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.
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.
- 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
- 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