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Biking Boom or Bust? Cities See New Numbers Post-Pandemic

A new report by StreetLight Data shows the shifting trends in biking travel across major metro areas. In some cities, biking activity has surged about 50 percent, while others have seen declines for one reason or another.

Shifting commuter patterns and other transportation disruptions over the last two years haven’t quelled the buzz about bicycling. But are Americans actually biking more?

Well, yes and no.

This mixed finding comes from mobility data analytics firm StreetLight Data, which has been examining biking activity before, during and following the COVID-19 pandemic to better understand how this particular mode may be ebbing and flowing within the larger transportation ecosystem.

Biking activity in the U.S. was largely flat in July compared with the same period in 2020, the company’s research found. But, biking activity in summer 2020 was up 10 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. That’s the big picture: Overall, the nation is biking slightly more than we were before the novel coronavirus pandemic.

However, as is often the case with big data, the interesting nuggets are in the details; and in those details you can find some not-hard-to-reason trends. In some cities — like San Francisco — where a number of white-collar office workers used to bike to work, cycling activity has dropped. Namely, because many of those folks are working from home.

Meanwhile, in say, Birmingham, Ala., or Nashville, Tenn., biking activity was up about 50 percent this summer compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“We can only hypothesize about Birmingham, but it has some unique bike culture benefits from the city’s annual professional cycling event as well as the BBC [Birmingham Bicycle Club], the city’s cycling club that was founded 40 years ago and is active,” said Martin Morzynski, vice president of marketing at StreetLight Data.

Anecdotally speaking, folks do seem to be biking more in Nashville, said Lindsey Ganson, director of advocacy and communications for Walk Bike Nashville, a biking infrastructure advocacy group. However, this isn’t because the city has taken on large biking infrastructure projects, she added.

The city has not invested in encouraging biking in “any real strategic way,” said Ganson. “We’re slowly, slowly adding some bike lanes.”

Officials at StreetLight Data point to employer benefits like a program at Amazon where the company pays workers $175 a month to commute by bike, as an effort to encourage biking in Nashville. Biking activity in the region surged 45 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to StreetLight Data.

“We do have a lot of folks now, and have always had, who use their bikes to get to the bus. So it’s part of that first-mile, last-mile effect,” Ganson pointed out, adding that Spin has also reintroduced a bike-share operation.

Perhaps just as quizzical is what’s happening in another state capital on the West Coast. Biking in Sacramento, Calif., jumped nearly 15 percent in 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels. And then, by summer 2021, biking activity was down 5 percent from pre-pandemic levels. The region includes more than 1,200 miles of bike lanes and other infrastructure.

Downtown Sacramento is home to a significant state government workforce. The pandemic upended these daily commuter patterns, which have not yet fully returned to the levels seen in 2019. With so many of these workers continuing to telecommute, bike rides to work have also dropped, said Debra Banks, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates.

“Plus, city hall has not brought anyone back into their spaces downtown, and now that a majority of people are working from home, commuter trips into town are much fewer and farther in between,” Banks added. “I myself have a six-mile commute one way to our offices and I only make the trip two times a week, which I used to do four times a week.”

The city also waived downtown parking charges during the pandemic, said Banks, offering even less incentive to bike or use public transit. Those charges are set to return in January 2022.

Sacramento, like other cities during the height of the pandemic, experienced reduced traffic, making neighborhood streets more inviting for cyclists. On some blocks, the city closed the street entirely to auto traffic, giving the space to outdoor dining or biking, all of which helped to boost cycling activity in 2020.

“But old habits have returned across the board, and it’s become more rare to see your neighbors take a stroll or a bike ride,” Morzynski remarked.

“Based on the experience of StreetLight team members living in the Central Valley, we believe a combination of these factors is in large part the culprit, with short-lived biking habits giving way to a car-enabled lifestyle,” he added.

Top 5 Metros seeing cycling activity growth from 2019

  1. Columbia, S.C.
  2. Tulsa, Okla.
  3. Greenville-Anderson-Mauldin, S.C.
  4. Knoxville, Tenn.
  5. Birmingham-Hoover, Ala.

Five metros seeing the sharpest decline in cycling since 2019

  1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.
  2. Tucson, Ariz.
  3. Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa.
  4. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Mass.
  5. Portland, Ore.
Source: Streetlight Data
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.