A spate of new studies has shown that both biking and bike safety grew during the pandemic. The research found that more bikes on the streets leads to safer biking and that “build it and they will come” works well for cycling infrastructure. Perhaps the most exciting of the recent studies broke down bike ridership data from 2020 and found that the increase in cycling was greater than the aggregate numbers indicate.
Here are summaries of this exciting new research about biking and bike safety over the past year.
COVID-19 impacts on cycling, 2019–2020
Ralph Buehler, a professor and chair of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, and John Pucher, Professor Emiriats of Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, collaborated on COVID-19 Impacts on Cycling, 2019–2020. The researchers, whose work CalBike has highlighted before, drilled down into the data on increased cycling during the pandemic to reveal a more nuanced picture of the increase in bike ridership.
In the U.S., for example, 12% more people rode bikes in 2020 than in 2019. However, fewer people rode during commute times in cities like Portland, OR, and Washington, DC, dragging down the average. In addition, fewer people biked in specific locations as governments instituted lockdowns and people stayed home during regional COVID flareups. The researchers found similar patterns in cities around the world.
In reality, cycling numbers weren’t steady in 2020 but varied widely in response to local pandemic conditions. When you exclude lockdown periods, the increase in bike ridership is dramatic, almost doubling in Paris and increasing by 17% in New York City.
“If anything good came out of the COVID pandemic, then it is that communities redesigned streets for the use of cyclists, pedestrians, and outdoor socializing,” Buehler told CalBike. This has shown us that we can use street space for things other than cars. This new use is healthier, more pleasurable, and more sustainable.”
“The COVID crisis has demonstrated dramatically the crucial importance of cycling, both as a backup alternative to public transit and as an extremely healthy, safe, and immunity-enhancing form of physical activity for physical, mental, and social health,” Pucher added.
Safety in numbers for cyclists
If you have ever done a group bike ride or just ridden a city street where bikes outnumber cars, you know the feeling of safety and increased visibility from sharing the road with lots of bikes. A new study from the Department of Safety and the Environment Institute of Transport Economics in Oslo, Norway, gives us the data to back that up.
Unlike other studies of the correlation between increases in biking and bike safety, this research was able to control for other factors affecting safety. It used seasonal variations in bike ridership at fixed locations to determine safety in numbers. Notably, the study counted instances of car drivers failing to see bike riders and near-misses that didn’t result in collisions. This is critical because, while collisions between bikes and cars may be infrequent, daily near-misses create a justifiable sense of danger among bike riders.
The study found that, as the cycling season progressed and other road users expected to encounter bikes on the road, there were fewer near-misses. The more bikes there were, the more drivers saw bikes and were able to coexist safely with riders.
Next time you’re in a local planning meeting and someone says that creating facilities that encourage biking will endanger people who bike, you can cite this study. It’s great to have concrete evidence that the more people ride bikes, the safer all bike riders are on the streets.
Provisional COVID-19 infrastructure induces large, rapid increases in cycling
The world’s pandemic year provided a laboratory for researchers to study the effects of better infrastructure on cycling adoption without waiting years for cities to build new bike lanes. Researchers used data from bike counters in 106 European cities to study the effects of pop-up COVID bike lanes on ridership.
The study found that bike riding rose between 11% and 48%, according to data from 736 bicycle counters. Those numbers may be too low since they don’t account for lockdown periods as Buehler and Pucher’s research did. Even using these numbers, the researchers estimated that the bicycling infrastructure added to these cities during the pandemic will pay off, leading to health benefits valued between $1 billion and $7 billion per year.
Increases in biking and bike safety don’t only benefit the health of people who ride and their local communities. A new study that assessed the economics of electric vehicle purchase incentives found that e-bikes are the best investment for the climate as well.