Pandemic Pushes Bikes Into New Popularity. Will It Last?

June 10, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating a boom for bikes, given the urge for social distancing and the lure of nearly car-free streets. Above, a masked bicylist. Photo: Allan Rostron, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Pandemic Pushes Bikes Into New Popularity. Will It Last?

By Joseph A. Davis

If you’re an environmental reporter in search of local stories reflecting a long-term, coronavirus-driven change to the U.S. landscape, you might give the trusty bicycle a spin.

Bikes are big and getting bigger, a trend that started well before COVID-19 hit, but accelerated by the pandemic as people afraid to travel by bus and subway look for alternatives. 

Bikes not only offer social distancing. Also inviting to cyclists are the almost car-free streets of recent months. One writer asked: “Could the pandemic usher in a golden age of cycling?”  

This bike boom is serious. Bike shops are back-ordering because of heavy demand. And the New York Times reports that in March, nationwide sales of bicycles, equipment and repair services nearly doubled (may require subscription) compared with the same period last year.

Even the indoor stationary exercise bike business has grown in recent years, including high-end social, online bikes with instructors shouting mottoes. It’s easy to imagine how Peloton might appeal to the quarantined elite. But if ordered today, there’s a long wait.  


Why it matters

Bikes have had an eco-friendly reputation for a long time. 

They help keep the environment healthy since they don’t emit carbon dioxide or other pollutants. And they help keep riders healthy through exercise. 


As the pandemic-struck world 

becomes more friendly to bicycles, 

it just may decide not to go back.


In many urban areas, bikes also largely diminish traffic and parking problems. They are an excellent transportation option where distances are moderate. They cost far less than cars, and can even be less expensive than public transit for many trips.

As the pandemic-struck nation (or world) becomes more friendly to bicycles, it just may decide not to go back. New riders may stay converted and bike-friendly infrastructure may stay in place permanently.   


The backstory

Few today (other than a few fit old dudes with handlebar moustaches) remember that bikes preceded cars on American roads. 

Horses were fine on mud roads. But beginning in the late 1870s, the “good roads movement” pushed governments to lay down actual pavement — so they could ride their high wheel (“penny farthing”) bikes. This was the origin of the League of American Wheelmen (which evolved into today’s League of American Bicyclists). 

Some while later, cars were invented. And of course, as you may be sadly aware, cars came to dominate not merely American roads, but American life as well. Long story.

But bikes did live on in the 20th century — as the ride of Europeans, kids, sports and adventure types and people lacking big money. There was a bike shop in almost every mid-size town. People fixed bikes and rode them forever. Getting around by bike was still one of the lovely things about small-town life.

Bikes enjoyed a renaissance starting around the 1970s for a number of reasons, including the burgeoning of the modern environmental movement. The technology and demographics, as well as the business, have evolved further since then. 

Bikes stayed popular … and got more expensive as the technology (once considered “mature”) improved. And in still later decades, the emergence of still-more-organized local and national bicycle advocacy groups led to softening of the once-hostile streetscape to make it safer and friendlier for bikes.


Story ideas

  • Visit one or more of your local bike shops. Are they open? How is business? What are their special interests?
  • Does your municipality have marked or protected bike lanes? Are there enough? Do they solve conflicts between cars and bikes? Is there a plan or a budget?
  • Are there bike trails or multi-use jogger-biking trails in your area? Are they connected? Is there excessive traffic? Traffic conflicts? When?
  • Are there maps of bike routes in your area? Are they good enough and up-to-date?
  • Does biking figure into your state or local transportation planning? How?
  • What other ways does bicycling fit into your local culture? Is there a road-racing or track-racing culture in your area?
  • Is off-road biking a big thing in your area? Where and how do people ride? Are there trails intended for dirt-bikes? Do off-road bikes conflict with conservation goals in any local parkland or forests? 
  • Is there a “bike sharing” program or business in your community? How does it work? How is participation? Are there problems? How are they resolved? Does it compete with other modes, like e-scooters?
  • What is the deal with electric bikes and scooters? Are there many in use near you?
  • Check out some of the bicycling events near you for in-person narratives. These might be races, group (club) rides, bike-to-work days or bike-to-school days. They may be advertised at your local bike shop.    


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 23. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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