Biking Provides a Critical Lifeline During the Coronavirus Crisis


As the world works to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 3.9 billion people are under full or partial lockdown orders, as of mid-April. Cities have curtailed many public transit operations because of declining ridership and health concerns. While these measures are essential for preventing the spread of the disease, they present challenges for the many people who still need to get around cities for essential tasks like buying food or caring for a loved one. And mobility for essential workers like health care providers is more important than ever.

Some evidence suggests many people are turning to cycling as a resilient and reliable option to fill the gap. Many urban cycling networks have seen a surge in traffic, including in China, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Philadelphia, cycling has increased by more than 150% during the COVID-19 outbreak. Some governments are responding to the spike in demand by opening emergency bike lanes and giving essential workers personal access to their own bikes from shared fleets.

At a time when city leaders are rethinking many past assumptions, this trend is a unique opportunity to embrace cycling as an integral part of urban transport systems – not just as an accessory. Cities need more resilient, more equitable mobility – not only to weather the current storm, but to prepare for future crises.

Amidst COVID-19 Lockdowns, Cycling Emerges as a Resilient Way to Stay Connected
Throughout the two-month lockdown of Wuhan, China, ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak, volunteers used bicycles to deliver necessities to residents stuck at home. Some bikeshare companies amped up sanitizing efforts and made their services free of charge to allow access to medical workers and those with urgent needs.

From January 23 to March 12, Meituan Bikeshare, formerly known as Mobike, provided about 2.3 million trips in Wuhan, according to its own data collection, accounting for more than half of all non-walking trips in the city during the epidemic. A total of 286,000 people used the service, with a total cycling distance of more than 2 million miles, equivalent to 81 laps around the equator. Meanwhile, the average daily distance for a single ride increased 10%, showing an increased reliance on bicycles for longer trips.

Similar trends are evident in other cities around the world. New York City’s public bikeshare system, Citi Bike, saw a 67% surge in demand in early March compared with the same period last year. Chicago and Philadelphia saw ridership in their bikeshare programs nearly double during March. One of Philadelphia’s major bike trails experienced a 470% increase in traffic. London issued special guidance for new riders and, before lockdowns shut down all non-essential shops and traffic, bike shops in Dublin were seeing more business than ever.

New Infrastructure to Support Increased Cycling

Some cities are temporarily or permanently expanding cycling infrastructure in response to COVID-19. Bogotá experimented with opening up its 22-mile Ciclovía network, a system of streets normally closed to cars on Sundays, during other days of the week. In a pilot project conducted with NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, the city and a private bike operator are also lending e-bikes to health care workers.

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