Podcast: The COVID-19 Bicycling Boom

Martin Morzynski Living on Earth Podcast

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Jenni Doering of Living on Earth interviews StreetLight’s Martin Morzynski about the data behind the U.S. bicycle ridership boom in this podcast.

Listen to the 4-minute interview for pandemic insights on which U.S. metros are seeing a sustained surge in bicycling, which have lost ground, and why. From empirical bike ridership data to tactics employed by American cities to incentivize ridership, Jenni and Martin exchange their observations about the COVID “biking boom.”

Would you rather read than listen? Below are interview highlights and data snapshots behind the story.

Transportation Data and Privacy Podcast

Podcast summary:

Finding U.S. metros where new bicycling habits are likely to hold post-pandemic:

Martin Morzynski: Vehicle Miles Traveled across the U.S. cratered in April 2020, with shelter-at-home mandates keeping Americans off the roads. By June 2020, the NPD Group was reporting massive gains in bike sales, with Road-Sport Performance bike sales growing 87% YOY in June, Transit-Fitness bike sales growing 52%, and Children’s bike sales growing 40%. With millions of new bikes in American households, we wondered where across the U.S. new biking habits were forming — and one way to test that was to measure the gain in ridership in June, and again a few months later in September. Des Moines, Iowa was one city that saw 50% year-over-year gains in June, and the 50% gains still held in September. Fourteen other metros join Des Moines in the cohort of cities maintaining 50%+ growth between June and September that StreetLight analyzed.

U.S. metros where bicycling gains subsided with the gradual “return to normal” VMT:

By September 2020, many cities saw a return of total Vehicle Miles Traveled, commensurate with gradual reopening of the economy. StreetLight’s analysis of the U.S. “biking renaissance” pointed out a cluster of nine cities where residents took to bicycling during the initial spring of COVID-19 — registering gains of more than 50% in June but reversing most of those gains by September — with every month lower than the prior.  Perpetually warm Miami is a great example, reaching 50% YOY growth in June but showing a mere 5% YOY growth in September. California’s sprawling Central Valley metros of Fresno and Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade gave back all of their June gains by September, as did Tuscon, AZ. Bakersfield, CA had surpassed 70% YOY gains in June but recorded only 20% YOY gains in September. 

Top 100 U.S. CBSAs

Top 100 U.S. CBSAs YOY Change in Bicycle Travel — Sep 2020
Source: Autumn COVID Bicycling Trends eBook

On bicycling in America’s large cities:

Many large cities with developed bike infrastructure saw bike commuting plummet with the onset of work-from-home among office workers in 2020. Office buildings downtown emptied, and so did bike lanes normally carrying bike commuters to them. We observed this first-hand near StreetLight’s San Francisco headquarters. The one-directional Folsom Street bike lane, previously busy with hundreds of bikes headed from the city’s Mission District to the Salesforce campus and other offices, was mostly empty in September. 

And by September, the only U.S. metropolis to have fully recovered in total bicycling activity was New York City. Despite office commutes remaining virtually non-existent, New Yorkers took to the streets on bicycles, riding for leisure and a variety of errands, with weekend biking stronger than weekday. But all other major cities remained in the red. This includes Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even the historically bike-forward Portland and San Francisco.

On why some cities were more successful at retaining gains in ridership: 

Some of the cities that held their gains were in warm-weather states with good recreational cycling infrastructure. These include Daytona Beach and Orlando, Florida. But many cities across the U.S., including Denver, CO and Oakland, CA moved quickly during the initial onset of COVID to announce “slow streets,” closing many roadways to vehicles to let bicyclists and pedestrians roam safely. On April 10th, 2020 Oakland designated an unprecedented 74 miles of neighborhood roadways as slow streets. 

In summary, for many cities, COVID created the impetus to move quickly to secure “temporary infrastructure” for active transportation — but also to use the lull in car traffic as an opportunity to accelerate permanent infrastructure. San Francisco created miles of protected bike lanes in the city’s normally car congested areas near downtown and has seen resident interest in retaining some key corridors as “slow streets” post-pandemic.

Transportation Data and Privacy Podcast