Can the Bike Boom Keep Going?
“Millions of Americans have been swept up in the adult cycling craze that has emptied bicycle dealers’ showrooms across the nation and swamped manufacturers with a backlog of orders,” a newspaper story reported. In it, one New York City bike dealer says, “Three years ago 80 percent of the bikes were for children. Now it’s just the opposite.”
It sounds like one of the many recent descriptions ofbiking during the Covid pandemic, as thousands of lockdown-weary Americans have snapped up new two-wheelers. Bike sales in March were more than double a year earlier, and cycling shops report long waits and inventory shortages. But those lines come from a 1971 article in the Austin American-Statesman. At the time, the U.S. was in the midst of a massive cycling surge as young Baby Boomers embraced environmentalism. “Bicycles are back—and booming!” declared a 1972 feature story in National Geographic.
Within a few years, however, that boom had popped, relegating bicycles once again to a fringe mode of adult transportation. And that was just one of several boom-and-bust waves of cycling enthusiasm that have marked this mode’s American journey.
The modern “safety bicycle” assumed its current general configuration in the late 1800s, when it became a technological and social phenomenon. As men and women alike took up the mode, New York City’s “Boulevard” — Broadway north of Columbus Avenue — was transformed into a cycling thoroughfare after sunset. In 1895, bike rides accounted for up to 45 percent of trips in Minneapolis, a city that boasted 35 miles of bike paths. In his book The Cycling City, historian Evan Friss documents how the bicycle conquered the streets of late-19th-century American cities, and how that boom came to a crashing halt, with cycle paths abandoned and streets quickly converted to accommodate a newer mobility technology: the automobile.
If today’s bike boom can roll on beyond the pandemic, the benefits could be enormous: Replacing auto trips with bicycles would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality while leaving cities less congested and residents healthier. Bikes and e-bikes are particularly well-suited to provide—cheaply and cleanly—the 60 percent of Americans’ trips that are under six miles.
But history suggests that’s a big “if.”
The federal government could help keep Americans riding, particularly if it made support for cycling a national priority. Officials have numerous policy levers available, all based on two simple goals: keeping cyclists safe and making the activity more affordable.
Such moves would be unprecedented: The typical federal posture toward cycling has ranged between indifference and antagonism. “Bike booms have mainly been fueled by local and city governments,” says Friss, a history professor at James Madison University. He points to the cycle lanes that cities built in the 1890s, such as Brooklyn’s Coney Island Cycle Path that attracted 25,000 cyclists when it opened in 1895, and the bike maps that cities have produced for over a century. There was one period of active federal intervention: During World War II, the wartime Office of Price Administration assumed control of the domestic bike business to build simple “Victory Bikes” as a resource-conserving alternative to driving. (One recent analysis concluded that the effort ultimately undermined cycling’s popularity by limiting production to a bike model few people actually wanted.)
Traditionally, federal policy has subtly pushed Americans away from cycling through autocentric investments like the Interstate Highway System. Federal bodies have also promulgated controversial standards like level of service and the 85 percent rule that have encouraged traffic engineers to prioritize automobile speed over cyclist and pedestrian safety.
To keep the current bike boom going, federal officials’ first priority should be to ensure Americans can cycle without fearing for their lives. Such fears are well-founded — the number of biking fatalities grew 38% from 2009 to 2018. A good place to start would be collecting and publishing updated national information about cycling collisions, something that isn’t easily accessible. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) could require states to submit annual High Injury Network maps that show corridors where a disproportionate share of cyclists and pedestrians are killed or suffer a serious injury. These maps could then be overlaid with street infrastructure such as protected bike lanes to reveal the most dangerous stretches — and build support for safer redesigns. USDOT leaders could also take a “name and shame” approach, rating states for their efforts to protect vulnerable street and road users. (While they’re at it, the feds should close a loophole that lets states set negative safety goals that assume an annual increase in cyclist and pedestrian fatalities.)
Automotive regulations offer another mechanism to protect cyclists. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) manages the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which assigns influential safety ratings to new vehicle models. In the United States NCAP ratings are based solely on risks posed to automobile occupants, despite the rising death toll among pedestrians and cyclists (and SUV and truck models that keep getting taller, heavier, and more dangerous). The European Union’s version, Euro NCAP, is different: Euro NCAP awards top five-star ratings only if a vehicle’s technology will bring it to a halt — or at least slow it — prior to colliding with a cyclist or pedestrian.
Euro NCAP standards specific to cyclists were first incorporated in 2018. “Overnight we saw changes,” says Michiel van Ratingen, the program’s Secretary General. Within a year, van Ratingen says that 80 percent of European auto models had incorporated cyclist detection, something still all but unheard of on this side of the Atlantic. Under the Obama Administration, NHTSA officials had begun to revise NCAP to address safety of those outside vehicles, but the Trump administration killed those efforts.
The federal government could also make cycling more affordable. A simple way to do so would be exempting bicycle components imported from China from Section 301 tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. USDOT officials could work with Congress to make bike expenses and bikeshare memberships eligible for pre-tax commuter benefits, as has already been proposed in House bill HR 7330. And if they want to get really aggressive, feds could revise the $7,500 electric car tax credit to extend subsidies to bike and e-bike purchases, as countries like Italy and France did earlier this year as part of their pandemic response.
Other countries have also made bike promotion a national priority. Ireland’s government has directed fully 20 percent of its annual transportation budget to cycling and walking — roughly ten times the share allocated in the United States — while Britain’s government set aside £2 billion to support cycling and walking infrastructure. A desire to promote environmentally sustainable transportation (read: anything but automobiles) has motivated these moves.
A change in presidential administrations could help the U.S. belatedly join this global movement. Early signs suggest that a potential Biden administration would also place climate change at the center of its policy agenda. That would create a tailwind for cycling, especially since transportation emits more greenhouse gases (GHG) than any other sector in the United States. A recent lifecycle analysis by the OECD found that pedal bikes contribute roughly 1/15 as much GHG as private automobiles per passenger kilometer.
Establishing GHG reduction as a USDOT performance measure affecting state funding would foster inclusion of bike infrastructure across an array of transportation projects. Making reductions in vehicle-miles traveled a performance measure would have a similar effect. “Performance measures would push states to think holistically about their transportation network,” says Caron Whitaker, vice president of government relations at the League of American Bicyclists. “State officials would have to ensure that they provide access for all modes, not just automobiles.”
Compared with prior bike crazes, historian Friss believes that the current one stands a better chance of enduring. “Every boom that we’ve had started despite a lack of cycling infrastructure,” he says. “But even before Covid, mayors and city leaders had been making incremental progress since around 2008.” The protected lanes established in the last dozen years could help provide a foundation for cycling that didn’t exist in 1894 or 1970. So can bikeshare systems like New York’s CitiBike and Chicago’s Divvy, which have been setting all-time ridership records.
Alone, that may not be enough to keep attracting more Americans to cycling after the pandemic ends. But a federal agenda focused on making biking safer and more affordable just might keep Americans on the saddle this time around.
David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, where he examines the interplay between urban policy and new mobility technologies.
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