As the Coronavirus soared in early 2020, people faced anxiety, uncertainty, and worries over job loss. They did so without the social contacts they had depended on, without sports, yoga, and gym memberships to relieve stress and stay healthy. For thousands, one item beckoned as a symbol of freedom, fresh air, and individual speed and power: the bicycle. Across the country, many returned to their childhood joy; in April, U.S. bike sales soared by 75% over a year previously, reaching $1 billion for the first time ever.
Arlington stood well positioned for the bike surge, with its walkable and bikeable neighborhoods and extensive bicycle trails. Emily Gage, Executive Director of Phoenix Bikes, lauded “the Arlington loop, having that network of trails that connects so much of Arlington together” with 16 miles of a “fairly safe, wide, well-maintained, well-connected network of trails.” Even so, she saw the infrastructure being overwhelmed by masses of new and returning riders. “Personally, I haven’t been on any of the major bike paths around DC or Northern Virginia just because it’s way too crowded,” said Maggie Richardson, Development and Communications Assistant at Phoenix Bikes. Some of the best bike infrastructure in the United States is being overwhelmed.
The numbers support this. The Washington and Old Dominion Trail counter at Bon Air Park West measured 45,383 bicyclists during May of 2018 and 55,295 that same month in 2020 (2019 data is currently unavailable) according to BikeArlington. For the Mount Vernon Trail on Theodore Roosevelt Island, weekend numbers nearly doubled from an average 1,092 per day in May of 2018 to 2,140 in May of 2020. Weekday numbers, however, went down slightly, from 1,301 in 2018 to 1,026 in 2020, perhaps due to the decline in commuting.
Street ridership numbers showed a similar increase on weekends and decrease during weekdays. For instance, from March through May, the Clarendon eastbound counter at Courthouse found a weekday decrease of bicycles from 145 to 113, but a weekend increase from 109 to 158, showing a surge in recreational riding. May weekend numbers swelled even more dramatically, from 95 to 204, perhaps indicating a longer-term change in recreational riding (although this sample is far too small). Just as on the trails, May weekday figures declined from 156 in 2019 to 113 in 2020, indicating that bicycle commuting was still down.
Demand Surged as Supply Plummeted
It is no surprise then, that Arlington bike shops—like those across the country—were unable to keep up with massive increases in demand. Conte’s bike shops, for instance, found themselves with double digit increases in demand. For Phoenix Bikes, which works with youth and repairs old bikes in Arlington, “we are pretty much booked all the time with appointments, and there’s always people e-mailing me and contacting me on social media,” said Richardson.
The situation was exacerbated by a plunge in bikes from Asia, which shut down bicycle production in January and February due to the coronavirus. An interruption due to the Chinese New Year added to the problem, said Wayne Souza, co-owner of Conte’s Bikes, since China has supplied about 90% of U.S. bikes. As with much else in the wake of the pandemic, the limitations of depending on one country for the global supply of bicycles have become apparent, and supply chains are diversifying.
However, Conte’s Bikes was less affected then some other stores, said Souza, since, “in anticipation of this, when it first broke in Asia, we started buying heavily, and stocking our warehouse.” Still, he explained June is a tough month, even though Conte’s quickly switched much of its supply chain to Spain and Germany and found excellent quality bikes at comparable prices.
Phoenix Bikes was certainly unable to meet the new demand. As a non-profit that repairs and reconstructs old bikes, the shop doesn’t “have more capacity to build more bikes.” However, bikes are “definitely selling faster, the demand is huge, so we’re usually putting our bikes up for sale over the weekend” and, despite being closed on Sunday and Monday, “by the end of the day on Tuesday, most of the bikes have sold already,” said Gage. Fortunately, they have been able to repair bikes that people dragged out of storage. Richardson pointed to people who “finally have the time to clean out your garage and then you find, like, three old bikes that you and your family can use.” New people, she added, are “flocking to Phoenix bikes.”
How Has the Pandemic Affected Biking, and How Might it in the Future?
The question is whether bicycling, perhaps the most environmentally friendly form of transportation, with huge health benefits, will maintain its new status as a recreation means of choice and perhaps even become a major commuting tool, as we recover from the economic shutdown. Greg Billing, Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, noted that “this moment, which has created quite a bit of hardship and quite a bit of pain, has also given” the potential “to explore and recapture people’s imagination about what cities could be like.” Bicycling could be a key part of a clean, quiet, sustainable future.
However, a reversion to the “old normal,” with fear of collisions driving bikes from the streets, is certainly possible. “Traffic is coming back, and encounters with cars are simply going to increase,” said Henry Dunbar, Director of Operations for Active Transportation, Arlington. “Is that going to become the barrier that it used to be?” As groundbreaking as Arlington’s infrastructure has been, will it need improving to take advantage of the new circumstances?
Certainly, reduced traffic during the pandemic provided an accidental laboratory for ideal bike conditions. “It’s a very low-risk activity, so that made it a very attractive option,” said Dunbar, “combined with the fact that traffic was down 80-90% in many places.” And, of course, biking has provided a recreation and exercise option at a time when these are scant. “It’s a nice sort of naturally socially distant activity,” said Gage. “People are feeling so cooped up at home, and pretty isolated, a bike is a beautiful counter to that.”
Still, the sense of safety from reduced bike traffic was something of an illusion, as fewer cars meant more reckless driving. Billing pointed to “a lack of traffic has actually caused considerable safety issues, primarily speeding, and frankly a lot of red light running and stop sign running.” It has been the perception of safety, and the beckoning of the open road—or trail—that has called bicyclists out into the streets.
Bicycling during the pandemic has become a social good. It “permits families to do things together in this pandemic environment,” said Souza. “The little ones can have bikes or be driven in a bike trailer . . . and they can all ride at the same pace quite easily.”
Souza added that “the hesitancy, or perhaps the cut-back, on public transportation, coupled with the need to get to work, coupled with the e-bikes, have all come together” to boost bicycle commuting. He explained that electric bikes help, for instance, inexperienced and older cyclists as well as those traversing hilly terrain.
Anecdotal evidence, too, shows a surge of biking during the pandemic. BikeArlington saw numerous questions about how to fix bikes, where to purchase them, and what routes are safest. This includes over 270 inquiries, said Dunbar, using the “Find the Best Route” app on their website, which employs Google maps in conjunction with human knowledge from Arlington officials who live, work, and bike here. And, of course, local bike stores and shops have seen a furious demand.
What Will it Take For Arlington to Remain a Biking Leader?
Arlington has four times been named a Silver level Bicycle Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists, partly due to the county’s notable educational resources. “An outfit like BikeArlington does a great job in carrying the mantle for the general biking population,” said Souza. “Their social media is probably the best in the marketplace.” Beyond maps and customized routes, the website includes information about bike events and classes and even a Rackspotter to help bicyclists find a place to park.
Still, bike advocates think Arlington could do better in improving its infrastructure. Pointing to cracks in the network, and insufficient capacity exposed by the coronavirus, Richardson exclaimed “There has to be better infrastructure because of this, in whatever way we can achieve it, whether it’s more bike lanes through neighborhoods or more trails.” Arlington has also lagged in “slow streets,” that is, streets repurposed for walking and biking. “DC has been a little slow, Montgomery County has been working hard, and they’re repurposing streets for both biking and walking,” said Billing. “We just haven’t seen that happen in Arlington.”
Bicycle advocates particularly call for protected bike lanes, that is lanes separated from traffic, as a key to increasing bicycling for all age groups and skill levels. Because these are lacking in Arlington, bicyclists must often go out of their way, “in most cases, we’re talking a block or two,” to find a comfortable route, said Dunbar. Although the stress map of bike routes makes it easy to find safe and pleasant routes, it still does take a bit of extra effort, increasing the perception that bike routes are a lower priority than cars. “It’s one thing to put a stripe in road, it’s another thing to put up some physical barriers, where cyclists feel much more comfortable,” said Souza. He predicted that greater perceptions of bike safety would mean “tons of people riding bikes, whether to a local pub, to dinner, on a casual ride, or to commute.”
The pandemic has severely curtailed Phoenix Bikes in its primary purpose, helping young people from a variety of backgrounds learn the freedom and expertise of bicycling. “We’re reaching far fewer youth right now,” said Gage. “Normally, we would be reaching throughout a summer over 100. We’re not going to come, probably, even close to that.” For two months, these programs were simply wiped away, although a few have returned, mainly via Zoom.
Notably, Phoenix has restored its earn-a-bike club, albeit only for a small group of girls from Swanson Middle School. After dropping off a bike and set of tools at the homes of participants, Phoenix then supplies instruction over the Internet, and at the end of the summer, successful students get to keep their newly rebuilt bike. Phoenix also has a one-hour workshop every Saturday, done over Zoom, on both mechanics and cycling fundamentals. Their only live training is just starting up in the parking lot of Our Lady Queen of Peace church, where they teach a group of youth who already know and interact with each other, using precautions such as taking temperature to minimize the risk of spreading the virus.
As Phoenix Bikes restores some of its programs, the coronavirus is slowly lifting in this region, albeit with a wariness as the pandemic rages across the United States. Billing called for aggressive action to be ready for future problems: “As a region we need to be ready for our own potential second wave or third wave.” The initial wave, understandably, surprised the region, “but I think it’s very realistic that we may have to do that again,” said Billing. “And we should be far more prepared.” Biking infrastructure needs to be better, and jurisdictions should be ready to quickly reinstitute and expand the developing slow street network.
Still, a new paradigm might be emerging out of the wreckage. “I think that bicycling is going to stay,” said Richardson. “I think people get hooked on it.” Alongside the immediate health emergency, the climate crisis adds urgency to the desire for cleaner, healthier transportation. Souza expects that people will increasingly cycle “as a statement that, ‘I am trying to reduce my carbon footprint, and as a result I am getting healthy, and I don’t have to worry about a parking spot.”