It might seem odd that, earlier this month, Stuttgart-based Bosch, a leading global supplier of automotive parts and equipment, seemed to be asking political leaders to reduce the amount of space on roadways they are allowing for cars and trucks.
This makes more sense when you realize that this call for action came from the folks at Bosch eBike Systems, a division of the company that makes electric bicycles. Their argument is simple enough: The COVID19 pandemic has prompted many people to shift from traveling via mass transit to bicycling, and municipal authorities should respond to this change by beefing up the bike infrastructure in their cities and towns.
There’s no doubt that a tectonic shift in people’s interest in cycling is taking place. Indeed, the current situation appears to rival in ferocity the bike boom of the early 1970s, which was sparked by a variety of factors, including: the maturing into adulthood of many baby boomers who were increasingly concerned about the environment; the 1973 Arab oil embargo; and the mass production of lightweight road bikes.
While the ’70s bike boom was largely a North American affair, the current one, like the pandemic itself, is global. Detailed statistics are hard to come by, but retailers in many countries are reporting a surge of sales, for both conventional bikes and e-bikes—the latter of which may be this bike boom’s technological enabler the way lightweight road bikes were to the boom that took place 50 years ago. Dutch e-bike maker VanMoof, for example, reported a 50 percent year-over-year increase in its March sales. And that’s when many countries were still in lockdown.
Eco Compteur, a French company that sells equipment for tracking pedestrian and bicycle traffic, is documenting the current trend with direct observations. It reports bicycle use in Europe growing strongly since lockdown measures eased. And according to its measurements, in most parts of the United States, bicycle usage is up by double or even triple digits over the same time last year.
Well before Bosch’s electric-bike division went public with its urgings, local officials had been responding with ways to help riders of both regular bikes and e-bikes. In March, for example, the mayor of New York City halted the police crackdown on food-delivery workers using throttle-assisted e-bikes. (Previously, they had been treated as scofflaws and ticketed.) And in April, New York introduced a budget bill that will legalize such e-bikes statewide.
Biking in all forms is indeed getting a boost around the world, as localities create or enlarge bike lanes, accomplishing at breakneck speed what typically would have taken years. Countless cities and towns—including Boston, Berlin, and Bogota, where free e-bikes have even been provided to healthcare workers—are fast creating bike lanes to help their many new bicycle riders get around.
Maybe it’s not accurate to characterize these local improvements to biking infrastructure as countless; some people are indeed trying to keep of tally of these developments. The “Local Actions to Support Walking and Cycling During Social Distancing Dataset” has roughly 700 entries as of this writing. That dataset is the brainchild of Tabitha Combs at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who does research on transportation planning.
“That’s probably 10 percent of what’s happening in the world right now,” says Combs, who points out that one of the pandemic’s few positive side effects has been its influence on cycling “You’ve got to get out of the house and do something,” she says. “People are rediscovering bicycling.”
The key question is whether the changes in people’s inclination to cycle to work or school or just for exercise—and the many improvements to biking infrastructure that the pandemic has sparked as a result—will endure after this public-health crisis ends. Combs says that cities in Europe appear more committed than those in the United States in this regard, with some allocating substantial funds to planning their new bike infrastructure.
Cycling is perhaps one realm where responding to the pandemic doesn’t force communities to sacrifice economically: Indeed, increasing the opportunities for people to walk and bike often “facilitates spontaneous commerce,” says Combs. And researchers at Portland State have shown that cycling infrastructure can even boost nearby home values. So lots of people should be able to agree that having the world bicycling more is an excellent way to battle the pandemic.
David Schneider is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His beat focuses on computing, and he contributes frequently to Spectrum's Hands On column. He holds a bachelor's degree in geology from Yale, a master's in engineering from UC Berkeley, and a doctorate in geology from Columbia.