If you’re a transportation wonk (like us), chances are you’ve been caught up in the daily churn of articles pontificating or predicting the (largely unknowable) future. It feels, to quote something we read recently, like:

“We’re all looking for a unified field theory for what’s going on. We have all these disparate pieces of information. Everyone’s got their own telescope looking up into the sky, measuring different things. It’s hard to put it all together.”

So true. And while we don’t have all the answers, we at least wanted to try to understand what the past year has meant for bikes. And what is likely to happen in the future.

So, here’s our best attempt to make sense of bikes in a pandemic world … situated in a divided country, grappling with systemic injustice, led by a new administration.

First question: Is this “bike boom” for real?

In short: Yes, but figuring out exactly how much of a boom is unknowable. Predicting how travel patterns will change again once workers return to the office is even more opaque. But we’ll break down what we do know.

Let’s look at ridership: According to EcoCounter data, bike counts grew by 16% in the United States during 2020 compared to 2019. Weekend bike count growth was particularly strong, a full 29% higher than the year before.

While these increases feel good, we need to remember that many commute trips still aren’t happening right now. Plus we’re not sure that those being counted now will continue riding once offices and businesses reopen. As StreetLight Data pointed out in a fall 2020 report, bike ridership actually fluctuated widely depending on location: Marked differences in stay-at-home compliance, work-from-home practices, safe bicycle infrastructure, and even climate impacted the degree ridership increased with six of the ten U.S. metros – those with the highest rates of bike commuting actually saw a decline in the total bike miles travelled.

PeopleForBikes may have come the closest to understanding the true number of new riders in the U.S. and whether ridership growth is sustainable. The national bicycle advocacy organization reported survey findings showing that “during the COVID-19 pandemic, 10% of American adults engaged with bicycling in a new way” and that the majority of those new to riding “plan to continue riding at least once per week in the coming year.”

(For an excellent summary of the increase in biking in Europe and the United States, check out COVID-19 Impacts on Cycling, 2019–2020, a study by researchers at Virginia Tech and Rutgers University.)

Bottom line: It appears more Americans are riding bikes now than past years, although ridership is actually down in some major metros. We’re hopeful that those who took up biking during the pandemic end up loving it enough to do it for their commutes.

Next question: Is Biden/Buttigieg good for bikes?

There’s no doubt that the new administration will be better for bikes than the previous one. How much so is hard to say, but here’s what gives us hope:

  • Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, released in late April, is promising when it comes to bikes. The League of American Bicyclists blogged that the plan seems to go “further than we’ve seen a White House, or a US Department of Transportation go before.  Generally, we agree. We like that Biden included $20 billion to improve road safety for all users … especially for “cyclists and pedestrians.” We like that he’s harping about Vision Zero. Although not specifically bike-related, we like that he’s earmarked $20 billion for communities destroyed when highways were constructed through them, proposing (in some cases) to remove them and rebuild people-centered connections. While there’s some good stuff jammed in there, we’re not sure how it will ultimately be implemented (and what will get gutted as it wends its way through Congress).

Credit: Seattle Bike Blog

  • “We also need to create some alternatives so that you don’t have to drag two tons of metal with you everywhere you go.” (Preach, Pete!)
  • “…things like scooters and e-bikes. All of these things, I think, hold a ton of potential for breaking us out of the old paradigm of how you get around.”
  • “We definitely want to do everything we can to encourage the adoption of bike commuting by more Americans.” (Pinch us)

We do believe that Buttigieg wants to enact major change and boost bikes in the process. But he has his work cut out for him given Transportation’s budget is fairly fixed (with most funds headed to highways) and has little ability to create policy. On the other hand, Buttigieg is a real live Capital City Bikeshare bike commuter and reports that it’s “pretty good. I’m trying to mystery shop the bike infrastructure around here.” That’s an excellent sign in our book!

  • Electric bicycles may finally see a federal boost thanks to a new bill that would offer Americans of all income levels a refundable 30-percent tax credit for purchasing a pedal-assist bicycle.

President and Dr. Biden enjoying a bike ride. Credit: Jim Watson AFP via Getty Images

Bottom line: The Biden administration isn’t specifically focused on bikes, although he’s been known to go on the occasional outdoor ride. Still with Buttigieg at the reins, the climate crisis backdrop, the restructuring of public space during the pandemic, and the spotlight on equity issues, we think bikes will fare pretty well. At least until 2024.

How is public space changing to accommodate bikes? Will changes last?

We don’t know about you, but we were overjoyed when streets in our cities closed to cars and became semi-protected havens for bikers, walkers, skateboarders, etc. Not to say that there weren’t equity problems with the rollout, but we haven’t seen this kind of collective investment and focus on non-car spaces since, well, ever, in our lifetimes.

How collective is the investment? According to PeopleForBikes, “approximately 200 U.S. cities changed the functionality of their streets to accommodate increased outdoor activity,” as a response to the pandemic. This figure includes everything from slow streets to parklets to reducing car speeds. (Note: For full accounting of these interventions, check out “Shifting Streets” COVID-19 Mobility Dataset or try a super simple map documenting Slow Streets initiatives in the United States).

All of these changes improve safety and access and encourage more people to ride bikes. What’s more, there are indications that pop-up infrastructure is helping new riders: In Paris, a study found that six out of ten riders using the city’s “corona cycleways” were new to biking. Granted, Paris (and Mayor Anne Hidalgo) notoriously favors bikes over cars … thanks Anne!

Credit: Oakland Department of Transportation

But can we expect that the spaces cities created will be preserved once the pandemic risks subside? A new study doesn’t make us hopeful: Of 30 large U.S. cities that instituted Slow Streets or similar programs, only five were moving to make the changes permanent at the time of their research.

Credit: Frances Bryant/ Legacy Magazine

Anecdotally, we’re seeing this play out. In New York City, where “more than a quarter of the street miles opened to residents during the pandemic have closed due to a lack of funding and volunteers.” D.C. is literally pulling out the stops. San Francisco organizers are mounting a defense to keep a long stretch of street through Golden Gate Park permanently closed to traffic, but it’s going to be a fight. There are even (unfortunate) reports of motorcade protests of slow streets in the U.K.

In spite of all that, we are sensing a shift in the general consciousness — that cities and spaces should be for people. We see this in Oakland’s rethinking of it’s Slow Streets rollout after the city found that certain residents had been left behind. We also see this in Denver’s recent street design guidelines which, as one local news station put it, if the city’s transportation plan mirrored the food pyramid, “cars would be the equivalent of junk food.”

Cyclists in Golden Gate Park. Credit: Sergio Ruiz via flickr

Bottom line: We believe that some (many?) of these COVID-era street changes will remain, although we can’t back that up with strong evidence. Cities have at least set a precedent…it will be tough to take outdoor dining and parklets away from residents once they’ve enjoyed them. Plus the emphasis on equity and inclusive-planning leads us to believe that we’ll at least see more “people-first” designs and the deprioritization of cars.

How do we ensure that our bike work is just and equitable?

There just isn’t a tidy summary or neat analysis to be had here — we’re in the middle of growing pains, and it’s messy. But ensuring our internal practices are diverse, equitable, and inclusive AND thinking critically about how to make our spaces, our policies, our programs (and ourselves) anti-racist is deeply important work.

It helps us to think of our journey to becoming anti-racist like biking a roundabout: You can start from any point and start pedaling around ― observing, questioning, learning, and growing. Internally, we’ve had many many discussions about how we embody DEI (or don’t yet) as a business. But we’re here; slowly pedaling around. And this is what we know so far:

  • Before moving forward, we’re looking back. For us this means surveying our employees to understand their lived experiences, how they view DEI in the workplace, and where improvement is needed on our end. This will help us create a baseline, then a plan.
  • We’re taking cues from others in the industry. For instance, we learned a lot by studying PeopleForBikes’ approach. We also appreciate the efforts of the Radical Adventure Riders whose Industry Pledge survey identified three main buckets for improvement: workplace diversity; accountability mechanisms; and engagement initiatives. (Recently, we signed the RAR Cycling Industry Pledge and hope to learn and grow with others in our field.)
  • We set up an internal task force to lead a work plan around DEI efforts, and we’ll continue to be open about our efforts. 

Like y’all, we’ve also been boning up on how the built world reflects its creators — often cis-gender white males. Since this space is far too broad to distill down, we offer several learnings that took us a little by surprise:

  • We really dug into why “bike lanes are white lanes,” and had to agree that public spaces look and feel different depending on the skin and body you inhabit. And often “progressive” infrastructure projects still don’t serve certain users (BIPOC, women, trans folx, those with physical limitations, etc.). “City planners think they just do bike lanes,” Warren Logan, the director of mobility policy and interagency relations in the Oakland mayor’s office, told CityLab. “But this is the industry that not that long ago rammed a bunch of freeways through neighborhoods and totally disconnected people. We need to reconcile that there is a history of trauma in what we do.”
  • We’re asking ourselves, “what if urban planning didn’t exist”?
  • And we know now that living “car-free” is a privilege, as there are many people who bicycle because it is their only option, who are saving to buy a car or want a car because of the cultural significance and symbolism of car ownership. If you want more on this, we highly recommend Bicycle / Race by cultural anthropologist Adonia Lugo. For a shorter version of Lugo’s findings, see this.

Bottom line: In general, we all need to talk way more about justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, advocacy, intersectionality, and how people experience transportation infrastructure, programs, and systems. It’s hard, because to us, our work seems so obviously good. Corinne Kisner, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, put it this way: “I think there’s a tension between planners wanting to act fast, because their work is so critical to reduce fatalities and greenhouse gas emissions — the reasons for this work are so compelling and historic. But the urgency to move fast is in conflict with the speed of trust, and the pace that actually allows for input from everyone who’s affected by these decisions.”

Bottom bottom line: We hope this helped you wrap your head around what’s going on in the world of bikes right now. It was helpful for us to sit down and try to untangle some of the threads. Of course there are many facets of the bike industry and urban planning that we didn’t have space to address. And we expect everything to change tomorrow. But even this brief snapshot conveys that bikes and thinking around bike infrastructure has certainly changed during a pandemic. And we have an opportunity, a duty, to keep up the momentum.

Bikes Make Life Better is dedicated to helping employees at large organizations use bikes for healthy sustainable transportation. They’ve helped design bike programs, facilities, and fleets for Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Netflix, Stanford, Uber and others.