Across the country, transit ridership is plummeting. The epicenter of the crisis, New York’s subway, has seen a 90 percent drop over the past two months. Similar trends are underway with virtually every major U.S. transit network, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Here in D.C., a mere 350 people are riding the Metro each day.
Part of this stems from the fact that 15 percent of Americans are out of work and many more are working from home. But it also comes down to an understandable — if unfounded — concern about catching the virus on mass transit. After all, as my Mercatus Center colleague Salim Furth observes, there seems to be a more robust relationship between infection rates and car ownership.
Regardless, many Americans are wary about riding the train — job or no job — and it’s unlikely transit ridership will recover. But when all this ends (if all this ends), how will Americans get to work? The small increase in remote work that’ll follow this crisis will partly address the problem. For millions of urban residents who may be cash-strapped or need to commute to a dense downtown, simply buying a car isn’t an option.
If recent sales figures are any indication, bicycles could fill that void. According to industry figures, reported bicycle sales doubled year-over-year in March. If you have had the displeasure of visiting your local bicycle shop lately, you have probably seen the long lines and sparse inventories firsthand. The demand has been so high that our country is running out of bicycles.
This could just be an attempt to find a new form of exercise as gyms remain shuttered through the summer. But many transportation professionals are expecting a boom in bicycle commuting as normal life resumes, and with good reason. According to the initial results of one survey by planners at Arizona State University, 20 percent American workers anticipate they’ll commute by bicycle more often in the months to come.
The exercise story fails to explain another coronavirus trend, too: the rapid embrace of micromobility. Sales of e-bicycles skyrocketed in April, with one Seattle-based manufacturer reporting a 300 percent increase in sales over 2019. By providing a little extra support to riders, electric micromobility stands to take the sweat and work out of riding a bicycle — but only if regulators allow it.
State and local regulation surrounding electric bicycles and scooters remains profoundly confused, with 17 states currently lacking any clear rules. But the e-bicyclists aren’t exactly waiting around. Amid a surge in ridership among essential workers making deliveries and commuting to hospitals early in the pandemic, New York finally gave in and legalized e-bikes in late April. More cities are likely to follow.
Especially in major cities, the headwinds, so to speak, were already behind bicycle commuting even before the coronavirus pandemic. Here in D.C., bicycle commuting has increased by at least 12 percent since 2010, though from an admittedly low base. This has been helped along by the explosive success of bike-share systems like Capital Bikeshare, which one study finds account for a fifth of the recent growth in bicycling.
Will cities be ready? Outside of a few outliers like Minneapolis and Portland, the United States has some of the worst bicycle infrastructure in the developed world, making regular bicycle commuting a hard sell for most Americans. And where we do have competent bicycle infrastructure, it’s often overburdened. Protected lanes in places like Manhattan were already packed before the crisis, and one recent survey of New Orleans trails noted a 255 percent increase in bicycle ridership. When life returns to normal — and bicycle commuting surges — current infrastructure isn’t going to hack it.
Not all U.S. cities are sitting on their hands, though. In April, Oakland, California, announced a plan to open 74 miles of public streets exclusively to pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency vehicles. Seattle, Washington, recently announced the opening of a more modest 20 miles. Activists in cities from Houston to Philadelphia are calling for similar programs. It’s a nice short-term gesture for cooped-up residents, but without permanent bicycle infrastructure — like protected lanes and dedicated trails — it could be a flash in the pan.
The past few weeks have seen a non-stop parade of bad coronavirus takes, often to deadly results, making the case for humility clear. But the evidence for an impending bike surge is straightforward, and the risks of preparing for it are minimal. In the best-case scenario, we avoid chaos on the streets as the economy reopens. In the worst-case scenario, we make our cities just a little happier, healthier and cleaner.
• Nolan Gray is a professional city planner, a fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and senior contributor to Young Voices.