COVID-19 May Change the Way People Think About Bikes

CC BY 2.0. Sign on my local bike shop door/ Lloyd Alter

They are not toys, they are transportation, and they can be a big help in this crisis.

The doors are locked at my local bike shop, but they are very much open for business, and tell me that they are actually not doing badly at all. They are selling a lot of kids' bikes (we are still allowed outside as long as we keep 6 feet away from non-family members). But most of their work is doing service and tune-ups for people who are dragging their bikes out of basements and garages after years of being ignored.

This isn't just happening in Toronto; according to Sarah Butler in the Guardian, "The bicycle industry has seen a surge in business in recent weeks, particularly for bicycle menders as people get old bikes out of their sheds in a bid to avoid public transport during the coronavirus outbreak." The director of the Bicycle Association says:

Cycling has a strategic role to play in local transport resilience – key workers are able to get to work in towns and cities without public transport or relying on lifts.”

The Importance of Cycling As Transportation

As always, it is a struggle to convince authorities that bikes actually are transportation and not recreation; when California was ordered to "shelter in place," bike shops were not considered essential services. They all complained and the mayor changed the rules.

They had the same fight in New York City, where the governor's office had to be convinced. According to Streetsblog,

State Senator Todd Kaminsky of Long Island said Cuomo’s office eventually came to realize that bike shops that provide repairs are indeed essential. “In the wake of the coronavirus more people are avoiding crowded mass transportation, cycling provides a socially-distant, and environmentally-friendly mode of transportation and exercise,” Kaminsky said in a statement. “I’m proud to have worked with Empire State Development and the governor’s office to ensure that bicycle shops were included as an essential service.”

Bike delivery is an important part of the New York City food system, especially now when the restaurants are all closed to the public. As Gersh Kuntzman of Streetsblog notes, the whole thing is silly.

The battle itself was absurd, considering that the executive order closing most state businesses had huge carveouts for essential transportation and support for transportation. Lawyer Steve Vaccaro had pointed out that Cuomo had specifically stated that delivery services, including food delivery, were essential services. “The point is that if something is essential, then the industry that supports the essential thing is also essential,” said Vaccaro. “That is the logic that gets you to bike repair and maintenance being essential.”

In fact, everything about the way people on bikes are treated in North America is absurd. Right now there are so many people competing for sidewalk space that some cities are converting the almost empty traffic lanes to create more space for bikes, runners and pedestrians. It's got to the point where people have stopped complaining about cyclists and are complaining about runners instead, which is a nice change. It really is time for a reallocation of road space to give more room for people who walk, and a safe, separated space for people who ride bikes or use other micromobility platforms. It's also time to recognize how useful and important bikes can be in a crisis like this.

A Case Study From the U.K.

Gocycle e-bike

© Gocycle

Some bike retailers, like London's Fully Charged, are giving health workers free use of Gocycle e-bikes, helmets and locks, to help keep them out of the subways. From The Verge:

“We’ve all seen the images of packed tubes in the capital in the last few days,” Gocycle’s founder and designer, Richard Thorpe, said in a statement. “With far less traffic above ground and the reduced number of trains being made available, eBikes are probably the best solution for essential NHS workers to move around the city.”

Carlton Reid

© Carlton Reid/ Photo credit Ellie Reid

More significantly, cyclists are being mobilized to act as volunteer couriers for the National Health Service (NHS), in what is being called the “biggest call out for volunteers in England since the Second World War.” Author Carlton Reid is ready and waiting to help, but the app hasn't pinged him yet. He explains in Forbes:

One of the reasons is the supply far outstripping demand. 750,000 people answered the U.K. government’s request for volunteers to be NHS couriers—650,000 are likely to be accepted, says the doctor who developed the Uber-like app that hooks up volunteers to deliver medicines and other supplies to those cocooning at home, unable to fend for themselves.

The app was originally set up to get help to people suffering from cardiac arrests before the emergency services can get there. But now they are putting it to wider use.

Family and hospital doctors, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, and social care staff will be able to request help for at-risk patients via a call center run by the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), which will match people who need help with volunteers who live near to them.

Reid notes that the app has been used in many parts of the world, including the US, since 2015, and that it has saved many lives. Dr. Mark Wilson, who developed it, says, “It’s great to see it now coordinating so much needed help at this time of crisis.” Reid is ready to roll:

NHS Volunteer Responders—some of whom, like me, will ride bicycles when called into action—can be asked to deliver medicines from pharmacies. Those planning to use cars could be called on to drive patients to hospitals for appointments or deliver equipment between hospitals. The U.K. government initially asked for 250,000 volunteers—this target was reached within 24 hours. More than 750,000 citizens had signed up within a further two days.

This really should be rolled out in North America, where bikes are still considered by many to be playthings or annoyances. In the UK they have had to stop recruiting until they can finish processing the 3/4 of a million volunteers they have already; I suspect that it would be as oversubscribed in North America as it was in the UK. And then perhaps people would stop complaining about cyclists and drivers would keep out of the bike lanes; they are doing important work.