In 18 years working in bicycles, Eric Bjorling had never seen anything like April 2020. With no end to the pandemic in sight, people were desperate for things to do. “They had time on their hands, they had kids, they needed to physically go outside and do something,” says Bjorling, head of brand marketing at Trek Bicycles, one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world.
So began the pandemic bicycle boom. US bike sales more than doubled in 2020 compared to the year before, according to research firm NPD Group, reaching $5.4 billion. Bike mechanics got overloaded as people dragged neglected bikes out of garages and basements. And local governments responded to and then fueled the shift by adapting urban environments with unprecedented speed, restricting car traffic on some streets and building temporary bike lanes on others. “During the pandemic, many things were possible, policy-wise, that before we didn’t think possible, especially at that pace,” says Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.
Almost three years later, the legacy of the bike boom, and the accompanying changes to urban infrastructure, is murky. In many places, it has been hard to permanently convert residents to cycling, especially for the kind of trips that might otherwise be taken by car: to work, school, or the grocery store. Bike sales have slowed from their frantic pandemic-era high: NPD Group data shows the value of sales dropped 11 percent this year compared to 2021, although they’re still well above 2019 levels.
And although clear data on those fast turnaround transportation projects is hard to find, observers say some air has gone out of the tires. It takes more than a few quick tweaks to escape the pull of car-centric thinking baked into many US urban environments.
PeopleForBikes, a cycling advocacy nonprofit, tracked some 200 US cities that made changes to their streets during the pandemic, and “for the most part, a lot of them have gone back,” says Patrick Hogan, the group’s research manager. His team’s data suggests that people riding for recreation rather than utility are more likely to have stuck with pandemic-era bike habits, indicating that many people still don’t see cycling as an easy or safe way to get around.
A survey of Americans conducted by researchers at Arizona State University before, during, and after the pandemic found that, despite governments’ work to promote cycling during the pandemic, the share of people cycling has not changed. It is a tale as old as time—people are optimistic about becoming better versions of themselves, and then life gets in the way.
“People were enthusiastic, and they reported that they expected they were going to walk and bike more because they were really enjoying it,” says Deborah Salon, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University who worked on the survey. “Unfortunately, we don’t find any evidence of that actually happening.”
That’s not great news for cities or their residents. For one thing, cycling is a nice way to get people up and moving, which is good for both physical and mental health. Bicycles might get residents out of cars and off congested roads, which could prevent traffic deaths and make people happier.