Bike Travel Is Surging Around the World. Will It Last?

TripSavvy / Alison Czinkota

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This past November, a friend asked if I’d bike with her to Tigre, a river town about 40 kilometers away from Buenos Aires where I live. Tigre is a popular day trip for its artisan craft market, the mate museum, and boat tours around the delta, and most visitors reach it by train. I had never biked 40 kilometers, nor had I done an overnight bike trip (the other part of my friend’s plan); a trip like this was something I’d considered in the past but never embarked on due to one reason or another. But this time was different—we had spent most of the year at home or within a short distance of it, so when case counts began to decrease and quarantine restrictions eased, we were eager to get out and explore. 

It took us three and a half hours to reach the center of Tigre, including our stops for lunch and viewing street art along the river. It wasn’t as efficient as the train (which only takes an hour), but it was far more healing after a long winter quarantine to have the sun on our skin and to be moving of our own will and leg power. We felt freed mentally and physically. I noticed a marked difference in my mental state upon returning to my apartment in Buenos Aires. The sense of despair I had been feeling for much of the year had dissipated. I felt less stressed than I had in a long time and empowered, capable of handling new challenges in the pandemic. 

The Rise in Bike Travel Around the World

As the world locked down a year ago, people searched for a way to stay healthy, sane, and socially distant. Like me, they found it on a bicycle. Countries from South Africa to Italy saw bike sales skyrocket. The NPD Group, a market research company, reported the U.S. had a 121 percent spike for the year in leisure bike sales. And when this rapid rise in bicycle transit became apparent last spring, cities and countries around the world rushed to accommodate two-wheeled travelers. 

Some countries, like France, began providing biking subsidies to citizens for repairs of up to 50 euros in designated bike shops, and many city governments around the world began expanding cycling infrastructure. London, Brussels, and Bogota all saw new bike lanes added to main thoroughfares and reduced speed limits for the cars driving alongside them. 

Even in countries where governments were slower to promote biking during the pandemic, citizens started biking anyway. Bike activists in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Nairobi, Kenya, petitioned governments to expand biking infrastructure, while many more citizens began cycling on streets without bike lanes to avoid mass transit lines and potential contagion. The cyclists of these countries showed that while government support helped to grow the bike boom to an extent, the real fuel for it came from individuals themselves. 

While many of these riders were using their bikes as an alternative commute to get to work, seek healthcare, or tend to other essential needs, others bought bicycles or broke out their existing ones simply for a safe and fun way to explore their home cities and countries outdoors. Before the onset of the pandemic, bicycle travel in itself had a strong appeal, offering a multitude of benefits to travelers. 

“It was a way to get exercise, a way to connect with your surroundings more,” says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., a sport psychologist and consultant to USA Triathlon. “You really can’t enjoy your surroundings when you’re going 70 mph.” Those long-standing benefits of bike travel were further amplified by the challenges and stresses of the pandemic, driving more people into saddles this past year.

Is This Trend of Bike Travel Sustainable? 

At some point, life will return to a version of normal where people will feel comfortable enough to travel via more traditional modes, such as planes, trains, and other shared spaces, whether for vacations or day-to-day activity. But during the pandemic, bikes became essential to many. 

“One of the most unsettling aspects of the pandemic is that it’s not something that we can control,” says Taylor. “We have this innate need [for control]. Biking at a very fundamental level gives us a sense of control in terms of moving our bodies, being healthy…a way to get away from all the pressures and the stresses of the pandemic. Overall, it just has this very broad psychological, emotional, and physical benefit.” 

That loss of our control pushed us on to our bikes. Biking became a source of refuge for millions of people when cars, trains, and other modes of transit felt unsafe. But when a sense of normalcy returns, what will that mean for this turn toward leisure bike travel? 

“My guess is that the amount of time spent biking will decline some,” says Taylor. “At the same time, the sheer number of volume and miles being ridden now compared to past years, it’s never going to go back to the way it was.”

Data from Rails to Trails Conservancy (a nonprofit that works to transform rail corridors into trail networks) supports his projection. The organization tracked weekly trail use of cyclists in the U.S. in 2020. Every week since the pandemic’s onset, except one, trail ridership increased. The peak last year was in the first week of April with ridership increasing 217 percent year over year from 2019; by mid-December, it had dropped to a 26 percent increase from the same time in 2019. 

Still, that 26 percent is a significant increase from the previous year. Perhaps the greatest takeaway of bike travel during the pandemic is simply realizing we can do it and that it’s a viable option for short and sometimes long trips. “More people are realizing you don’t need to drive three blocks to go to the supermarket,” Taylor says. 

But does he think there will be a large shift to bike travel from other forms of travel post-pandemic? “I think the pandemic’s been around long enough that some of the habits have been retrained and other habits have been ingrained. I certainly expect [leisure bike travel] will continue,” he says, though he projects it to be mostly half-hour to one-hour rides for the general population.

Friends riding gravel bikes up hill on dirt road on winter afternoon
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

4 Reasons the Enthusiasm for Bike Travel Is Here to Stay

As we continue to predict what trends from the past year will end and which ones will stay, we’re hoping that bike travel is among the few that stick around. Undoubtedly, more traditional modes of travel will make a comeback, reducing the need or desire of some people to travel by bike. So, what will be the driving force to encourage two-wheeled travel? Here are four reasons that this trend could live on.

The Environmental Impact

There’s one obvious benefit and reason as to why biking hopefully becomes a norm for some people: It’s a great eco-friendly mode of travel. A study by the Environmental Change Institute and Transport for London in 2019 compared the effects of replacing short journeys (eight kilometers or less) by car with bikes in Cardiff, Wales. They found that walking or cycling could replace up to 41 percent of car trips overall, leading to a lowering of CO2 emissions in the city by nearly five percent. Other studies have measured the same thing in Barcelona, New Zealand, and the U.S. with similar statistics.

Due to bike travel’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended switching from car commuting to biking as a way to stop the global temperature from rising. As more studies come out, more benefits of biking continue to be discovered. A Swedish study found that 111,000 car commuters in Stockholm could realistically switch to biking, thereby reducing black carbon and nitrogen oxide in the air and saving 449 years of life for the general population per year.

Those benefits of cleaner air, less traffic congestion, and fewer carbon emissions are hard to ignore. And, of course, switching from cars to bikes for shorter distances is easier to do than longer ones. But there’s no doubt that many people will continue to choose their two wheels over four for the health of the environment when they need to get somewhere. 

Mental Health Benefits

For some, mental health will become a driving force. In Buenos Aires, there was a strict quarantine in the beginning months of the pandemic that heavily contributed to declines in mental health. After 100 days of a lockdown in which locals could only leave home to purchase food or medicine, the National University of La Matanza conducted a survey on the effects of the quarantine on residents’ mental health. They found 43.8 percent of those surveyed said they needed psychological attention due to anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, and emotional instability directly tied to their pandemic experience.

When the quarantine eased and we could exercise outside again, we got on our bikes; so much so that the bicycle became the most used form of transportation in the country according to Google Maps analytics. In Buenos Aires, bike ridership increased 98 percent. This was partially due to public transportation still being restricted to only essential workers, but also because people needed to be outdoors.

Improvements to Bike Infrastructure

Another key to preserving the enthusiasm in bike travel comes back to national and local governments. While popup lanes in Buenos Aires have served to reduce road congestion and pollution, governments must enact permanent changes for lasting effects.

In Buenos Aires, the city municipality has declared the goal of having residents take one million bike rides per day by 2023. Throughout the pandemic, the city worked in tandem with the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety to expand biking infrastructure, going from 227 kilometers of bike lanes in September 2020 to 267 kilometers by January 2021. One major change has been the addition of bike lanes to major roads like Corrientes and Córdoba avenues, as opposed to only side streets, which is where the majority of them were pre-pandemic.

To encourage bike ridership, the city could keep speed limits lower for cars sharing the road with bike lanes, as well as turn painted lanes into protected lanes. How many of these changes the municipality follows through with will directly link to the rise or decline of leisure bike travel.

The Appeal of Bike Travel

And for others, the challenge and novelty of taking a long-distance leisure trip by bike will be reason enough, whether they’re new to that type of travel or they’ve enjoyed it in the past. French-Canadian Yvan Frasier had been traveling for a year and a half from Canada’s Northwest Territories to the tip of South America when the pandemic hit, and he got sidelined in Argentine Patagonia. When asked if he thinks a greater amount of the global population will continue taking long-distance bike trips post-pandemic, he’s optimistic: “I think [the pandemic] just made a lot of people realize that life is pretty fragile. I guess that’s why people want to just go out in nature and bike and have some good simple, healthy experiences.”

Frasier particularly enjoys the social and emotional components of it as well. He cites meeting new people, the ability to learn on the road, and the daily physical challenges a long bike trip entails as some of the reasons for choosing bike travel over other forms of travel. 

We don’t know exactly how or when our lives will return to the pre-2020 version of normal, but hopefully biking as a means of travel is here to stay for many people, staying top of mind when we need to go somewhere. In other words, next time you’re planning a trip—whether to the grocery store or farther to a neighboring city—ask yourself: Can I bike there?

Article Sources
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  1. NPD Group. "Sporting Goods, Home Fitness, and Cycling Sales Surge in the U.S., Report the NPD Group." May 7, 2020

  2. Bicycling. "France Wants More People to Bike. So The Country is Paying Them (...Kind Of)." May 4, 2020

  3. The Guardian. "World Cities Turn Their Streets Over To Walkers and Cyclists." April 11, 2020

  4. Africa News. "The Covid-19 Pandemic Sees a Growing Cycling Trend in Nairobi, Kenya." February 19, 2021

  5. World Economic Forum. "New Buenos Aires Scheme Aims for 1 Million Daily Bike Rides." January 11, 2021

  6. City of Buenos Aires. "Boom of Bikes: The Trips and The Women Cyclists Who Circulate The New Bike Lanes of Corrientes and Cordoba Avenues are Multiplying." February 9, 2021