For most industries, the pandemic of 2020 will go down as one of great … change, not to put too fine a point on it. In our corner of the transportation world, we — the bike professionals — are hoping that this is finally the moment when biking moves out from the fringes and finally gets the civic support it deserves and needs to become THE way people move around their communities.

We’ve seen  positive strokes in this direction when it comes to adoption: The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reports that since March 2020, rides on rail trails have increased 79% since 2019. Data from urban areas is also heartening: From March – mid June, Eco Counter reported, there was an average 21% increase in U.S. urban-area ridership compared with the same timeframe, 2019. Perhaps the greatest happy increase is in U.S. bike sales: According to PeopleForBikes data, In the summer of 2020, bike sales were up as much as 190% compared to 2019.

Can we use these circumstances to our advantage? Here’s why now — possibly more than any other time in recent history — is the best time to nudge people to use pedal-power.

  • Disruption of routine: Research shows that timing matters when it comes to changing behavior. Jessica Roberts at Alta Planning + Design summed it up: The best time to influence people to change is when “their habits are in flux, and when they are open to trying new things and revising their own self-image. That might be right after moving homes, getting a new job, or a major life transition (like kids moving out of the home).” Or, as it turns out — although no one outside of epidemiologists saw this coming — during a global pandemic.
  • A captive audience: For the most part, life as we know it has moved online, and our digital media diet has increased sharply. Anecdotally, more people are signing up for webinars; more eyeballs are on email newsletters; and click-through rates are going up. So if we have a salient message or a compelling story to tell about biking, now would be a great time to ship that content … and if you’re still reading this: case in point. ;-)

Content Format Ideas: 

  • Biking is the new “going out”: Most U.S. citizens are under orders to stay at home, except when it comes to essential trips and exercise (the socially-distanced kind, of course). Biking is one of few options for going anywhere. To the grocery store. To escape the rugrats now on an extended summer break. Or to get a dose of nature. A study published last summer found that those who spent two cumulative hours in nature a week were generally considered healthier than those who spent less time outside.
  • Increased road safety: Safety concerns are always in the top reasons cited by people who are interested in biking (or riding more) but don’t. With people sheltering in place, traffic everywhere is significantly reduced, and there’s hope that cities will rethink the priority given to cars going forward. So with a major barrier to cycling removed, at least for now, we should be encouraging our customers and constituents to try biking.
  • Bikes have more cultural cache: In the past few weeks, the bicycle has taken on a much greater meaning. They represent freedom; the world outside the home; autonomy. For me personally (and, I’m already a daily bike commuter) biking reminds me of a time when I used to use my imagination more. So if you need me, I’ll be at my new “bar”:

Framework for Promoting Biking During Covid-19

Whenever we design any new program, we use a framework developed by the Behavioral Insights Team at Alta Planning + Design (again; thanks, we love you guys). The goal is to move people through the following progression, and in the context of Covid-19, we’re looking for employees at our clients to:

For now, we’re going to nix “encourage others to try it” in the name of social distancing. But building bike communities, whether they be in-person or virtual, is generally a good endgame.

And now, let’s get tactical. Below we’ve outlined ideas and things to try related to each phase. Note that most can be applied within the context of a virtual campaign, but the ideas also stand on their own or can serve as a jumping off point for your company’s specific plans.

Generally, we like to target those who are “interested, but concerned” in biking, and during a pandemic, this pool widens to include those who are familiar with bicycling — for example, perhaps at one point they were considered “strong and confident” cyclists but then became parents and stopped riding to work in order to drive the kids to school.

To reach folks with a try it message, it typically works best to segment, i.e. sift users with similar circumstances (those who live in the same neighborhood; work on the same team or at the same company; new parents; whatever) and then develop content tailored to them. And whenever possible, use high-touch personal marketing.

Here are ideas to move folks from “interested, but concerned” into the “try it” bucket:

  • Educational videos: Folks are getting used to staring at their screens, so providing them with specific digital EDU around dusting of their bikes is perfect. At Bikes Make Life Better, we started a YouTube channel and added short video tutorials geared towards those riding for the first time (or first time in a while). The League of American Bicyclists also has stellar bike videos.
  • 1:1 video consultations: Mechanics and bike staff at a couple of our clients are offering video consultations for employees who have any issues with their bikes or have other questions they would like addressed. We’ve offered everything from general routing support; to troubleshooting an indoor trainer set up; to helping an employee with their mountain bike build (over several sessions…phew!)
  • Live demos, classes, or Q&As: Staff at one of our clients is running virtual bike classes with topics ranging from Commuting 101 to Fix-a-Flat to Bike Buying and Anatomy to more. Anecdotally, attendees tend to be folks who have never participated in bike events before, a good indication that this disruption in routine is bringing folks out of the woodwork. Another client is hosting a Q&A session with a panel of “Bicycle Champions” that anyone in their work network can join. In terms of platforms, we’ve found that Zoom and Facebook Live work well. And generally we opt for the split screen of instructor webcam and presentation slides. For more ideas of how to pull off virtual programming, check out our Online Bike Forum with Facebook’s bike program managers.
  • Send them to a shop: For complex repairs, we recommend trying velofix, a mobile bike repair service that operates nationwide. Housecalls are a huge part of their business, and they’ll have the parts and tools needed to get folks rolling. Since bike shops are considered “essential services” and remain open, another option is to send them to their local shop. 
  • Special newsletters: We’ve been sending “special editions” to employees at our clients to encourage riding right now. Content ranges, but includes everything we mentioned above and then some: Guides to buying indoor trainers, how to ride safely during the pandemic, to a video of Stephen Colbert changing a bike tube in his garage.
  • Promote bike media: We’re streaming tons of movies and TV shows anyway right now. Why not watch some great bike docs? In fact, our favorite tale of bike triumph, Motherload, is now available to rent for $7.

Once folks have their bike in good working condition, it’s time to go for that inaugural ride. In our experience, people have lots of questions that should be addressed before they’ll attempt this. Again, we like to use education to answer questions and alleviate concerns of first-timers. Consider content that covers stuff like: How to properly fit a helmet; what gear to choose; basic rules of the road; and how to plan a route. Essentially, we want to make sure that newbies have a good first experience and will progress on to the next phase.

Developing a new habit takes work and dedication, so providing new riders with incentives to keep going helps. Below we have some tested and untested ideas:

  • Test ride to work: Encourage your cohort to try the ride to work now when there are fewer cars on the road. This helps them get familiar with its turns, timing, and generally boosts confidence. We usually recommend having folks plot the route on Google Maps first, then making tweaks after riding it. If possible, offer new riders 1:1 route assistance either via email, phone, or video chat.
  • Solo challenges: Pushing folks to record their rides (via LovetoRide, RideAmigos, Luum, Rideshark, etc.) and rewarding them for participation is still a go. Another idea is to hop on an existing challenge in your region. In the Bay Area, for instance, the local bicycle coalition created an engaging yet safe challenge: Go for a minimum of three bike rides before a deadline; take photos of your surroundings; then share at least one photo to be entered into a prize drawing. One of our clients hosted a “Bike Week” from April 20 through 24 to coincide with Earth Week. Employees were encouraged to share pictures of themselves riding inside; on a solo ride; dressed in a kit during a video conference; helping a child ride; or doing anything remotely related to cycling.
  • Make it an adventure or mission: Biking gets us out in our world, and although we don’t have access to many of our normal places at the moment, there are still many wonders to behold. Need ideas? Find gems in Atlas Obscura. Participate in the City Nature Challenge in April and May and help document and identify the species of the world. Encourage geocaching (finding treasures hidden by other geocachers) by bike. Create a bike bingo card (see Kirkland’s as an example) or a home-baked scavenger hunt. Perhaps issue one bike challenge per day in a month with decent weather and package it like an advent calendar (ok, I admit, I’d love a bike version of this).
  • Promote family rides: Parents are looking for stuff to do with their kids right now, and biking is a great option. See the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition’s Family Biking Guide for ideas on how to get started.
  • Advanced EDU: This is the phase where people may start to thirst for more cycling knowledge. We recommend offering modules on Urban Riding and How to Ride in the Rain. We also think this is the time to introduce fitness tracking apps, like Strava, if there’s an appetite.

Here’s where we hope (we pray) that those who took up biking in 2020 will stick with it. And there’s good reason to think they will: People will be loathe to hop back on public transit or into their carpools or vanpools. And, assuming shelter in place orders are lifted in a few months, the weather will be excellent for biking. Here are some things to consider:

  • Celebrate cyclists: One thing we keep hearing from our super commuters is that they want to party once we’re all back at the office. We know it may not work to host a gathering once we’re all back, but finding some way to celebrate or reward cyclists who ride to work on Day 1 is likely to be motivating. 
  • Make accommodations: Make sure the bike commuters have a good experience once they arrive at work. This means having adequate bike parking (or policies allowing bikes at desks), showers, lockers, and other amenities. Also start thinking about ways to support bikers while maintaining social distancing measures. I.e. if there was already a line for the showers during the AM crunch, you may want to consider allowing employees to time shift or maybe relax your dress code. ;-) For more detailed guidance, check out our Workplace Bicycle Safety Re-entry Guidelines.
  • Reach out if you have questions: We know from experience that every organization is different. Bikes Make Life Better can help you develop a custom Bike Back to Work plan to suit your specific audience and needs.

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.