In 18 years Eric Bjorling, who worked on the bike, had never seen anything like April 2020. With the end of the pandemic in sight, people were desperate for things to do. “They had time on their hands, they had kids, they had to physically get out there and do something,” says Bjorling, head of brand marketing at Trek Bicycles, one of the largest bicycle manufacturers in the world.
Thus began the pandemic bicycle boom. According to research firm NPD Group, bicycle sales in the US more than doubled in 2020 compared to the previous year, to $5.4 billion. Bicycle mechanics became overworked as people dragged neglected bicycles out of garages and basements. And local governments responded to the shift and then fueled it by adapting urban environments at unprecedented speed, restricting vehicle traffic on some streets and building temporary bike lanes on others. “During the pandemic, a lot of things were possible in terms of policy that we didn’t think were possible before, especially at that rate,” said Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.
Nearly three years later, the legacy of the bicycle boom and the associated changes in urban infrastructure is murky. In many places it has been difficult to permanently convince residents to cycle, especially for the types of journeys that would otherwise be made by car: to work, to school or to the supermarket. Bike sales have slowed from their frantic peak in the pandemic era: Data from the NPD Group shows sales value down 11 percent this year compared to 2021, though still well above levels of 2019 are located.
And while clear data on those high-speed transportation projects is hard to come by, observers say some air has been lost from the tires. It takes more than a few quick tweaks to escape the lure of the autocentric thinking ingrained in many urban environments in the US.
PeopleForBikes, a cycling nonprofit, tracked some 200 U.S. cities making changes to their streets during the pandemic, and “most of them have moved back,” says Patrick Hogan, the group’s research manager. His team’s data suggests that people who ride for recreation rather than utility are more likely to be stuck in pandemic-era cycling habits, indicating that many people still don’t see cycling as an easy or safe way to get around.
A survey of Americans conducted by researchers at Arizona State University before, during and after the pandemic found that, despite governments’ efforts to promote cycling during the pandemic, the proportion of people who cycle has not changed. It’s a story as old as time – people are optimistic about becoming better versions of themselves, and then life gets in the way.
“People were excited and they reported expecting to walk and bike more because they really enjoyed it,” said Deborah Salon, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University who worked on the study. “Unfortunately, we don’t find any evidence that that actually happens.”
That is not good news for cities or their inhabitants. For example, cycling is a great way to get people moving, which is good for both physical and mental health. Bicycles can get residents out of cars and off congested roads, helping to prevent road deaths and make people happier.