The Rise of The Cyclist
The introduction of lockdown measures to control the spread of coronavirus in countries across the globe has resulted in a huge increase in the number of bicycles on the world’s roads. From keen cyclists enjoying the opportunity to spend more time on two wheels, to those of us buying new machines or dusting off garage-dwelling bicycles and enlisting them to help us enjoy the outdoor exercise advised by many governments or commute safely to work (avoiding crowded public transport), cycling has become a favourite pastime for many people.
“For many, bicycles have also become a symbol of freedom in the pandemic – an opportunity for mental as well as physical release from the confines of lockdown life.” – Miranda Bryant, The Guardian, May 13th 2020
Since the beginning of lockdown, bike shops in many countries have been placed alongside pharmacies and supermarkets on the list of essential services that could remain open, and people have certainly been taking advantage of their services! From tiny independents to popular chains, bike shops have reported unprecedented increases in sales of bikes and cycling accessories, as well as increased demand for repair services.
Sales have soared by more than 600 percent this year compared with the same period in 2019 - Brooklyn Bicycle Company
In the UK, the Bicycle Association reported that bike sales increased by 50% in April compared to the same time last year and, even more interestingly, seven out of ten customers were new or returning cyclists. Bike shops are reporting that lockdown has resulted in their bread-and-butter demographic of middle-aged men being joined by more female customers and more under 35s looking for a new bike. There is also an increased demand for electric bikes, as older people look for an alternative for getting from A to B.
In Australia, Melbourne’s bikeNOW usually sells mid-high end machines worth $4,000 - $15,000 to perennial cycling enthusiasts, but the lockdown trend is for cheaper, entry-level bikes for families looking for new ways to stay active and maintain social distancing guidelines.
“We are already seeing people who hadn’t biked before are trying it for the first time… We are going to see a lot more of that as the city starts to come back to life.” Polly Trottenberg, New York City’s Transportation Commissioner
Throughout Europe, America and Australia bike retailers are struggling to keep up with an unprecedented rise in demand. In the States, Eco-Counter, an organisation that collects bike data, shows that bicycle counts have significantly increased across most of North America since the introduction of lockdown measures, with the most substantial growth being in the south-west of the country, where bike use is up by over 100%.
In Australia, Bicycle Network – the country’s foremost representative body for cyclists – found that the number of cyclists on Melbourne’s shared cycleway was up 79% in some areas.
The demand for bikes under £1,000 and for kit such as cycling helmets and repair supplies such as inner tubes has led to an international shortage of these items. Bike retailers usually source adult bikes from China and South East Asia but production was disrupted by coronavirus precautions. In the UK the demand for these bikes is such that they are now being shipped quickly from Turkey and Europe to fulfil a backlog of orders. The USA is suffering the impact of the production disruption in China more than most, as most retailers have been holding limited stock since 2018, when Trump introduced new tariffs on products made in China, so stock sold through very quickly.
The surge in popularity that cycling is enjoying may be down to the perfect combination of quieter roads, cleaner air, many people having more free time and the realisation that cycling may well be the quickest safe way to get to work in the coming months, but there is hope that it will continue long after lockdown.
As lockdown measures are gradually eased and more people return to work, crowded, enclosed environments such as commuter trains and buses will still be treated with caution by many people. Recent research suggests that 61% of the British population will be apprehensive of using public transport after lockdown. In Australia, Melbourne bike store bikeNow are predicting there will be a second surge in demand for bikes as restrictions are eased but people are unwilling to risk public transport to get to work, especially as the Southern Hemisphere enters the winter flu season.
However, not everyone plans to use the two-wheeled alternative to the bus or the train for their everyday journeys. According to Autotrader, 56% of UK drivers currently without a car plan to buy one after lockdown and a study by the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies in Sydney showed the number of people who thought travelling by car was the safest form of transport had grown by 84 per cent. Stats from China show that in post-lockdown Wuhan private car usage doubled in the city when restrictions were eased.
The problem we are faced with is that if everyone decides to use the car instead, we risk the prospect of sitting in gridlocked traffic, polluting the environment and going nowhere fast. With this in mind, many cities worldwide have temporarily closed lanes previous used by motor traffic and devoted them to cyclists and pedestrians.
Health and environment activists are campaigning for many of the temporary pedestrian and cycle paths that have been put in place to become permanent features of our cities. Milan has unveiled plans for major extension of it cycle paths after lockdown and many people are hoping that similar projects will be rolled out in other busy urban centres too.
So the future is looking brighter for cyclists, but there is a long way to go to before we compare favourably to mainland Europe in terms of attitudes to cycling and the infrastructures in place to support cyclists. Cycling UK reported that, in 2018, cycling accounted for only 1.7% of all journeys, a figure that has fluctuated very little since the year 2000. In the same year, cycling accounted for only 1% of all vehicular road mileage in Britain. It is a similar story in America, were pre-coronavirus, fewer than 1% of New Yorkers cycled to work. Even in Portland, where cycling commuting is more popular than in any other American city, only 6.3% of commuters ride bikes.
Compare that to the Netherlands, where bicycles are prioritised over cars and to Copenhagen (one of Europe’s most cycle-friendly cities), where, in 2016, 41% of all journeys to work or school were made by bike, and you can see how far other places have to pedal to catch up!
“Whether this is a temporary bump in the bicycle’s popularity—the product of an idle society seeking comfort and sanity in familiar things—or the start of a future where bikes help solve some of society’s most complex problems is up to us. We have the power to remake our world. “ Joe Linsey, Outside, May 13th 2020
Just maybe the combined effects of coronavirus, an increasing population, an infrastructure usually overloaded with motorised vehicles and increasing concerns about climate change will lead to long-term changes to our attitudes and our roadways. We are quietly optimistic, but the momentum for change will inevitably dwindle as the risk from coronavirus subsides, so it will be necessary to keep the pressure up on governments and city councils to drive initiatives forward.