Throughout lockdown, rusty bikes were dusted off in garages around the world and sales of new bikes surged. The question is now: can it last?
Covid-19 brought about a dramatic increase in bicycle sales in response to the pandemic. Heightened anxiety over public transportation and a surge in exercise has meant that more and more are choosing to use one of the most basic forms of mobility, leading to a so-called “bike boom”.
The phenomenon has been well-documented: suppliers have struggled to keep up with demand; cities have redesigned their streets to accommodate an influx of riders; manufacturers are trying to forecast the longevity of the bike’s newfound popularity; economists are considering whether e-bikes’ rising popularity will enable more commuters to get to work. An industry that was already thriving before the pandemic has suddenly accelerated. But what will that mean for the future of bicycles?
Cycling has long been one of the fastest, most flexible and reliable methods of transport. Even before the pandemic, millions relied on bicycles to do their jobs or get to work. But when stay-at-home orders temporarily curtailed daily life across the globe, the role of bicycles transformed. One in 10 American adults reported having ridden a bike for the first time in a year (or longer) since the onset of Covid-19, according to research by People for Bikes, an industry coalition based in Colorado, US. And in March 2020, ridership on trails in the US peaked at a threefold increase compared with the same period in 2019, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit promoting the development of disused rail lines into trails for walking and cycling in the US.
“People were at home with nothing to do, a bike sitting in their garage with flat tires,” says Morgan Lommele, director of state policy at People for Bikes. “One of the barriers to bicycling across the ages is anxiety about a thing with 100 moving parts: people worry, ‘How do I store it? How do I fix it?’” But lockdown changed that. “Suddenly, everyone had the time to tinker.”
Fitness apps such as Strava reported huge surges in cycling in unexpected cities such as Los Angeles and Houston. And the data points to similar trends across Europe. “Since the beginning of lockdown in March, we’ve seen a rising demand for bicycles,” says Edoardo Girardi, general manager of Full Speed Ahead Europe. In many regions, gyms and swimming pools have been closed for weeks, “which could be one reason for the increased demand”, says Girardi. “Another could be government incentives.”
Indeed, some nations rewarded the purchase of new bikes or bike maintenance expenditures in a bid to encourage ridership during the pandemic. Italy, for example, allocated €210m (£190m/$250m) toward a cash-back programme through which Italian residents who purchased a vehicle without an engine were eligible for a €500 (£450/$590) stipend, while France has established a similar programme.
With lockdown measures and social distancing firmly in place, bike retailers suddenly became an “essential service” and were given exemptions from shutting down by governments, putting them on a par with grocery stores. But bicycle manufacturers depend upon a multifaceted, geographically dynamic chain of production, with parts arriving from across the globe – a chain upended by the pandemic.
Will Butler-Adams, managing director of UK-based Brompton Bikes, says that the company’s raw metal supplier closed down, while a shipping container carrying their goods sat in Rotterdam for a week, leading to scaled back services and an equipment imbalance. “We saw the lockdown coming months before it happened, because many of our suppliers are in Asia,” says Butler-Adams. “What we weren’t prepared for was the speed at which it hit.”.
Brompton sent vulnerable employees home in early February in an effort to minimise health risks, and flew in emergency stock from suppliers in Asia as factories in the UK shut down almost overnight. Because many bicycle components, including drivetrains, derailleurs and brakes, continue to be manufactured almost exclusively in Asia, some in the industry predicted that the coronavirus would shift bike manufacturing toward the UK, says Butler-Adams. In fact, Brompton’s suppliers in Taiwan have continued a robust output, while the company had to scramble for raw material at home, where factories were operating at reduced capacity.
“Where we’re in trouble is our European and UK stock,” says Butler-Adams. “Luckily, we had additional supplies in preparation for Brexit – if we didn’t have that emergency material, we would have had to shut down. But of course we’re now going into Brexit with no Brexit stock.”
With bikes in such high demand, the company saw a new opportunity: providing nurses, doctors and physicians with bicycles so that they could commute to hospitals and avoid public transportation. Brompton raised £375,000 ($490,000) for its Wheels for Heroes campaign, which supplied nearly 800 bicycles to more than 3,000 health workers in the UK. Brompton also boosted production by 30% and has plans to recruit nearly 200 workers within the next year.
Is the bike boom simply a market response to the pandemic, like so many others – outdoor dining, puzzle sales, sourdough bread baking – or will changes such as new bike lanes, corporate commuting incentives and leisure cycling become permanent? “Most of the growth we see is in recreation cycling, which is a gateway to transportation biking,” says Lommele. “People for Bikes is researching the temporary changes cities made as a result of Covid-19, and whether those changes will become permanent.” Among their questions of interest are what factors may help new riders maintain ridership, and how urban design changes brought about during the pandemic may affect cyclists.
Some changes seem like they may be built to last. Paris added hundreds of kilometres of pop-up cycle lanes along the Rue du Rivoli, while in London a designated bike lane now runs along Hyde Park. Increased access to bike paths creates more incentives for ridership, which in turn reduces traffic and emissions. Meanwhile, bicycle retailers cannot meet the current demand for road bikes in the $500-$1,500 (£380-£1,140) range, leading consumers to look online for used bikes, fix up their old two-wheelers, or shell out cash for more expensive models.
While buy-in from consumers, urban designers and elected officials may make it seem like a robust trend, some business leaders remain sceptical, wondering if it makes sense to invest in boosted bicycle capacity long term given the economic anomalies of 2020. “It’s unlikely that this demand will keep up,” says Girardi.
Of course, expanding bicycle ridership depends on more than just an expansion of manufacturers or even access to specific bicycle parts. There’s another, overlooked aspect to the bike boom: the concurrent rise of e-cargo bikes, a phenomenon that has the potential to entirely remodel transportation. Known in the logistics industry as light electric freight vehicles (LEFVs), e-cargo bikes have electrical pedal assistance and can be ridden on roads and bicycle lanes, speeding goods and services to their destinations without getting caught in traffic or spewing emissions. In many cities, an LEFV can travel faster than a traditional delivery van because it can be ridden along bicycle bridges and other shortcuts.
For now, good old-fashioned cycling is enjoying a renaissance. Bicycles provide a socially distant way for essential workers and commuters to get around, a healthy alternative to gyms or subways, and a new vision of city streets. “Lockdown meant that suddenly the streets quietened, the air was clean and people felt safe,” says Butler-Adams. “Yes, there was fear of public transport, but mostly it was the joy of experiencing cities as they could be.”
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