Millions ditched cars for bikes during the pandemic. These cities want the habit to stick

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Cyclists are counted as they ride past the Rosslyn Bikeometer on National Bike to Work Day in Arlington, Va., Friday, May 19, 2023. The Bikeometer monitors the volume of bike usage on the Custis Trail in Arlington, Va. A Rutgers-Virginia Tech study of cycling in more than a dozen cities in North America and Europe finds that many new bikeways were built during the height of COVID-19. And these efforts were rewarded with increased cycling in places that undertook robust development. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

MONTREAL, QUE – In the agonies of the virus that upended most of the world, millions of people from Bogota to Berlin saw what life could be like on two wheels instead of four.

Even as commuting to the office and going to school plunged at the height of COVID lockdowns, outdoor recreation, and cycling in particular, surged in country after country as people looked to escape isolation in a relatively safe way. In response, cities worldwide have developed bikeways with new urgency since 2020.

The question is whether people stick with their new cycling habit in these closer-to-normal times.

On Friday, Bike to Work Day in the U.S., the automatic counters that record each passing cyclist in many cities will get the latest numbers.

So far the evidence is incomplete and varies by place. But the numbers suggest that if they build it, people will come.

Case studies led by global urban planning researchers Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech and John Bucher of Rutgers University track what more than a dozen cities have done in recent decades, and specifically during the pandemic, to improve pedal-powered commutes and recreation.

Already a world leader in bicycle friendliness, Montreal did more than any other North American city studied to expand safe cycling in the pandemic. London, Paris and Brussels did the most in Europe. But many more cities worldwide also seized opportunity in the crisis.

“A big paradigm shift in thinking is going on,” Buehler said in an interview. "In transport planning and policy and engineering, we have promoted driving for nearly 100 years. We have made driving fast, we've made it convenient.

“Now all of these cities and places are taking some of the space back. And giving it to bikes.”

Some steps have phased out as the virus has faded, like many of the temporary “pop-up” bike lanes that appeared as if overnight. But many have stuck, thanks to an increase in lanes with permanent barriers against traffic, central arteries where cars can’t go, and other concessions to a pent-up demand to get around without gas.

Environmental concerns have also been a motivation for many people to ditch cars for bikes, a choice that researchers say has clear benefits in reducing the carbon emissions that drive global warming and in curbing pollution broadly.

Here are snapshots of what some of the most ambitious pro-cycling cities on three continents have done for cycling before and during the pandemic. The findings are drawn principally from the MIT-published book “Cycling through the COVID-19 Pandemic to a More Sustainable Transport Future,” by Buehler, chair of urban affairs at Virginia Tech, and Pucher, professor emeritus at Rutgers’ School of Planning and Public Policy:

WASHINGTON

In 2001, the U.S. capital offered cyclists a meager 3 miles (5 kilometers) of bicycle lanes, unprotected. By 2019, the network topped 100 miles, and bicycling as a share of all travel in the city increased fivefold. In 2020 and 2021, the city picked up the pace even more, building nearly 20 miles (32 km) of protected lanes, much safer than merely marked lanes on streets shared with cars.

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MONTREAL

An innovator in urban biking since the late 1980s, Montreal was the first large North American city to develop an extensive network of physically separated on-street bicycle lanes, the book says. It was also first to introduce a large-scale bike-sharing system, with its BIXI bikes in 2009.

In the five years before the pandemic, Montreal’s cycling network grew by 34%, topping 1,000 km (600 miles). Almost a third of that is made up of off-street paths and much of the rest is safely separated on shared roads.

The city’s pro-biking mayor, Valérie Plante, easily won reelection in 2021 on a platform of green initiatives. Underway is a major expansion of a new express bikeway network, Réseau Express Vélo or REV, that would double the city’s already sweeping cycling network in four years.

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AUSTIN, Texas

Considered the most pro-cycling large city in the U.S. South, Austin doubled its network of protected on-street bike lanes to around 60 miles (97 km) in the first two years of COVID. From 2010 to 2019, the city had tripled its network of conventional on-street bicycle lanes, to nearly 300 miles (480 km).

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BOGOTA, Colombia

Bogota is a breakout success. By some measures, over 9% of trips in the capital are by bicycle, putting it in the top tier globally and a model that other cities in Latin America are trying to emulate.

That’s according to a study published before the onset of COVID-19 by Bogota civil engineers Daniel Rosas-Satizábal and Alvaro Rodriguez-Valencia. They attribute a “remarkable increase in bike ridership” to mayoral leadership, advocacy groups and a “latent bicycle culture” that emerged when officials put money into making streets safer.

When the pandemic broke out, Mayor Claudia Lopez turned traffic lanes over to bicycles, among other steps, adding 85 km (53 miles) to the city’s network of bike paths.

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WESTERN EUROPE

Paris saw cycling spike 60% in 2020-2021. Seen a quarter century ago as bicycle-unfriendly, the city has since taken striking measures to get people on wheels, even subsidizing one third of the cost for people to buy 85,000 electric bikes or cargo bikes from 2009 to 2022. Cars were banned or relegated to single lanes on certain roads along the Seine River through the center of Paris.

London more than doubled its protected bike lanes when the virus bore in, bringing the total to 260 km (160 miles) in a year. This, after tripling their length in the decade before. Bucher and Buehler say the pandemic brought about the most rapid transformation of the streetscape in Greater London in decades, resulting in a sharp rise in both walking and cycling.

Back in 1998, 10% of trips in Berlin were by bicycle — a share many cities can only dream about even now. By 2018, that had grown to 18%. That's in part because of Berlin’s configuration as a city of many neighborhood centers, with more people living close to where they work and shop. Early in the pandemic, city officials expedited a plan creating more bicycle lanes to meet demand.

In Brussels, cycling jumped 22% in 2020, then declined in 2021 but was still 14% higher than in 2019. That suggests that some people who took up biking when COVID arrived gave it up but more stayed with it. The city plowed 74% more money into cycling in 2020-21.

Brussels seems committed to making things more difficult for cars in the core. It plans to eliminate 65,000 parking spaces for cars by 2030, and is reconfiguring central streets to reserve the most direct routes for cyclists and public transit.

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NEW YORK

The city built over 60 miles (100 km) of protected bike lanes from 2019 to 2022, usually connecting them to protected intersections, and a larger number of regular bike lanes. Docking stations for CitiBike bike-sharing exceeded 1,500 in mid-2022, up from 860 in 2019.

During COVID's peak in 2020, over 80 miles (130 km) of mostly neighborhood streets were closed to motor vehicles altogether during certain hours; that's since been pulled back to 20 miles (32 km).

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MINNEAPOLIS

From 2000 to 2017, Minneapolis bikeways more than doubled in length, cycling tripled and the share of cyclists who suffered severe injury or death plunged by nearly 80%, a not uncommon development in cities that aggressively expanded their networks. In the pandemic's first month, the city announced it would quickly add 15 miles (24 km) of bike routes, closing many roads to traffic except for neighborhood residents.

Along with Montreal, Quebec City and select other cities in northern climes, Minneapolis is also big on bicycling through brutal winters. Researchers place Minneapolis with Denver and Chicago as mid-America standouts in advancing safer cycling.