In 18 years working on a bicycle, Eric Bjorling had never seen it like April 2020. Since the epidemic will not end, people were eager to act. “They had time on their hands, they had kids, they needed to get out and do something,” says Bjorling, head of brand marketing for Trek Bicycles, one of the world’s largest bicycle manufacturers.
So began the epidemic bicycle boom. US bicycle sales will more than double in 2020 compared to last year, according to NPD Group research, to $5.4 billion. Bicycle repair shops became overcrowded as people pulled neglected bikes from garages and basements. And local governments have responded and amplified this change by changing urban traffic very quickly, restricting traffic on some streets and building temporary bike lanes on others. “During this pandemic, a lot of things were possible, intellectually, that we didn’t think were possible, especially at this time,” said Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Tech.
Almost three years later, the legacy of cycling, and the accompanying changes in urban infrastructure, has been shattered. In many places, it has been difficult to convert people to cycling permanently, especially for the types of trips they might otherwise take by car: to work, to school, or to the store. Bicycle sales have fallen since the long-term epidemic: Data from the NPD Group show that the value of sales has decreased by 11% this year compared to 2021, although it is still higher than in 2019.
And while specific information about the speed changes are hard to come by, observers say that some air has gone out of the tires. It takes a quick maneuver to escape the traffic jams that inhabit most US cities.
PeopleForBikes, a bicycling nonprofit, tracked 200 U.S. cities that changed their roads during the pandemic, and “by and large, most have come back,” said Patrick Hogan, the group’s director of research. His team’s findings show that people who ride for pleasure rather than for essential use are more likely to maintain a bike habit during the pandemic, indicating that many people still don’t see cycling as an easy or safe option.
A study of Americans conducted by researchers at Arizona State University before, during, and after the pandemic found that, although governments have worked to promote cycling during the pandemic, the proportion of people cycling has not changed. It’s an old myth—people hope for change, and then life goes awry.
“People were excited, and they said they expected to walk and bike more because they were enjoying it,” said Deborah Salon, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University who conducted the study. “Unfortunately, we can’t find any evidence that it’s actually happening.”
That’s not good news for cities or residents. For one thing, cycling is a great way to get people moving and moving, which is good for physical and mental health. Bicycles can get people out of cars and off congested roads, which can prevent road deaths and make people happy.