Millions ditched cars for bikes during pandemic

MONTREAL — In the agonies of the virus that upended most of the world, millions of people from Bogota to Berlin saw what life could be like on two wheels instead of four.

Even as commuting to the office and going to school plunged at the height of Covid lockdowns, outdoor recreation, and cycling in particular, surged in country after country as people looked to escape isolation in a relatively safe way. In response, cities worldwide have developed bikeways with new urgency since 2020.

The question is whether people stick with their new cycling habit in these closer-to-normal times.

On Friday, May 19, 2023, Bike to Work Day in the US, the automatic counters that record each passing cyclist in many cities will get the latest numbers.

So far the evidence is incomplete and varies by place. But the numbers suggest that if they build it, people will come.

Case studies led by global urban planning researchers Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech and John Bucher of Rutgers University track what more than a dozen cities have done in recent decades, and specifically during the pandemic, to improve pedal-powered commutes and recreation.

Already a world leader in bicycle friendliness, Montreal did more than any other North American city studied to expand safe cycling in the pandemic. London, Paris and Brussels did the most in Europe. But many more cities worldwide also seized opportunity in the crisis.

“A big paradigm shift in thinking is going on,” Buehler said in an interview. “In transport planning and policy and engineering, we have promoted driving for nearly 100 years. We have made driving fast, we’ve made it convenient. Now all of these cities and places are taking some of the space back. And giving it to bikes.”

Some steps have phased out as the virus has faded, like many of the temporary “pop-up” bike lanes that appeared as if overnight. But many have stuck, thanks to an increase in lanes with permanent barriers against traffic, central arteries where cars can’t go, and other concessions to a pent-up demand to get around without gas.

Environmental concerns have also been a motivation for many people to ditch cars for bikes, a choice that researchers say has clear benefits in reducing the carbon emissions that drive global warming and in curbing pollution broadly. (Ap)