The surprising reasons a bike boom is great for American cities

COVID-19 has drastically changed not only how much we travel but how we get around. With people looking to get out of the house while avoiding public transit, bicycles are suddenly an enticing choice. They promise speed, freedom, and fresh air on newly quiet streets.

Sales of bikes in the US in March were nearly double what they were the previous year, and according to Eco-Counter, a cycling analysis company, biking levels in the western United States increased by 253% in late April. 

Cycling brings plenty of benefits as our lives shrink during the pandemic. It allows us a form of socially distanced travel and exercise, and there’s a clear environmental advantage to swapping out cars and cabs for an emissions-free bicycle journey. There are also other, less obvious advantages, from boosting local businesses to actually making roads safer for everyone ― cyclists, pedestrians, and even drivers.

Yes, while drivers tend to see cyclists as an inconvenience ― an obstacle to avoid, an annoyance to get past ― there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that cities with plentiful and safe cycling infrastructure can make roads better for cars.

The Netherlands is a good example. According to a Waze analysis of 38 countries, the northern European nation, famed for its expansive network of cycle paths, has the most satisfying roads for driving. The roads are quieter because people can choose to bike, rather than drive, for shorter trips. And bike lanes make streets more efficient: A bike lane 11.5 feet wide can carry seven times as many people per hour as a motor vehicle lane of the same width.

Evidence from the US shows that where good cycling infrastructure exists, roads are safer for everyone. A review of 13 years of crash data from 12 large American cities between 2000 and 2012 found that bike routes meant fewer fatalities of all road users ― although that only happened with physically protected bike lanes, not painted lanes, which researchers found were actually worse than nothing. Cities with protected bike lanes saw a 44% decrease in road deaths and 50% fewer injuries, the study found.

Some may be cynical about the prospects of the cycling boom continuing if and when we return to a more normal pace of life. But while the US, with its love of cars, may seem a million miles from someplace like the Netherlands, biking could remain a real option for many trips.

The US commutes in most large metro areas are less than 10 miles, easily bikeable at a leisurely pace in less than an hour. In eight of the 10 most congested U.S. cities, “last mile” traffic speeds ― that is, the speed of a commuter’s final mile of travel ― is 12 mph or less. Add in bike lanes and electric bikes, which can transport riders at 15.5 mph with ease, and it becomes much easier to switch to two wheels. 

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