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Interest in biking grows amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

By Anne Calef

February 8, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted—among an infinite number of things—bicycling patterns across Greater Boston. Unlike many COVID-driven shifts, this one presents a real opportunity for positive change:  lasting mode shifts when more people resume their work commutes. The lion’s share of pre-pandemic bike trips occurred during rush hour (weekday trips between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. or 4:00 and 6:00 p.m.), and, not surprisingly, those trips have declined dramatically. However, cyclists are taking more off-peak recreational trips, bike rides are longer and the number of casual bike share customers is increasing. Some cities have been responsive to these changing dynamics and have used this period of reduced car commuting to add miles of new protected bike lanes to make biking easier, more accessible and safer. When rush-hour commuting resumes, such infrastructure investments will be critical to encouraging some of these new recreational cyclists to consider doing their commuting by bike as well. Longer-term mode shifts will be instrumental in helping reduce both regional CO2 emissions and road traffic harmful to people’s quality of life, even apart from climate change effects. This brief relies heavily on Bluebike system data because of the difficulty of tracking private bicycle usage. Where possible, we incorporate alternative data sources, including bicycle counters installed beneath bike lanes on major thoroughfares.

Changes in bike ridership across Massachusetts have followed a “distinctive regional pattern” with bike usage decreasing in the inner core and increasing in surrounding suburbs and smaller towns. Using anonymized and aggregated cellphone location data from StreetLight Industries, MassDOT published a map of changes to bicycling activity from 2019 to 2020, shown below. Cycling declined in Boston throughout the spring, summer and fall likely due to a drop in commuting trips as well as the closure of college campuses. Many other cities and towns with colleges (Springfield, Amherst, Williamstown) also saw a significant decrease in cycling. 

Bike activity increased across much of the state.

Source: MassDOT

Data from Greater Boston’s bikeshare program, Bluebikes, also shows a decline in ridership near employment centers and universities. In 2019, Bluebike ridership from March to December was clustered around Harvard Square, Kendall/MIT and Downtown Boston. As many companies switched to remote work and universities shuttered their campuses, Bluebike stations in those areas experienced the steepest declines. Meanwhile, ridership increased outside downtown Boston, particularly in more residential areas and around health centers. The Bluebike station outside of the Geiger Gibson Community Health Center in Dorchester, for instance, experienced the largest percent change in riders, while Charles Circle, near MGH, was the most popular bike station from March to December 2020 with 30,296 trips.

Bluebike trips have declined during peak commuting hours but have returned close to pre-pandemic levels during off-peak hours. In October 2020, Bluebike usage during peak commuting hours was just 50 percent of 2019 levels, while off-peak usage had nearly returned to normal (96 percent). However, by December 2020, year-over-year off-peak usage fell slightly to 88 percent, while peak cycling usage increased to 61 percent. This slight shift could be due to many of the off-peak users being new cyclists, as will later be discussed, who could be less eager to brave winter conditions than more experienced commuters.

The Broadway Eco-Totem Bicycle Count in Cambridge also showed steeper declines in peak commuting trips than off-peak trips. Using detectors embedded under the pavement of Broadway near Kendall Square, the bicycle count showed that since shutdowns began in mid-March trips during peak commuting hours have decreased by an average of 65 percent while off-peak trips have only decreased by 34 percent. Weekend trips have actually increased throughout pandemic—by as much as 37 percent in October. Similar to off-peak Bluebike trips, weekend trips in Kendall Square began to decline in the fall, ultimately returning to pre-pandemic levels in early December. The growth in weekend trips suggests an increase in cycling for leisure and recreation, including trips by new riders who may be more reluctant to cycle during cold winter weather.

One type of Bluebike trip that has consistently been higher during the pandemic is loop trips, which begin and end at the same station and thus are often for leisure or exercise. The number of loop trips in 2020 was almost double that of 2019 throughout most of the summer, before declining in the fall and returning to pre-pandemic levels in late December.

Bluebike trip length also increased during the crisis period, particularly during the summer. Like loop trips, longer lengths suggest more cyclists are using Bluebikes for recreation, not simply transit.

This change in trip purpose has also brought a change in riders. Particularly in the summer, the share of trips taken by non-subscribers, who use either day passes or pay for the single trip, has steadily increased. The growth in non-subscriber usage is also coupled with a decline in subscriber usage, another indication of a shift in how Bluebikes are being used.

The rise in casual Bluebike users affirms reports of a growing interest in cycling since the pandemic began. Bike shops have reported shortages as demand for bike repair services and equipment have also surged.

Cities and towns have seized this trend and the parallel decrease in road traffic as a unique opportunity to accelerate infrastructure improvements that make cycling easier for residents. Boston, for instance, added 6.5 new miles of bike lanes in the midst of the pandemic, and Cambridge has expanded its City Bike Plan to include key connections to the network. Everett plans to include bike sharing docks in its new “Mobility Hubs” and Methuen plans to implement new cycling and pedestrian protections. Many cities are drawing on funds from MassDOT’s Shared Streets and Spaces program to implement these infrastructure projects. In September alone, MassDOT awarded $868,301 to fund, among other things, new dedicated cycling facilities in Pittsfield, expanded bike racks in Arlington and four new bike share stations in Boston.

As interest in biking grows, so does the demand for cycling infrastructure, such as bike parking, and the need for safer, slower streets for cyclists. Cycling industry analysts expect that, after a predictable decline in the winter, expanded bike use will continue in 2021. As commuting resumes, programs such as Shared Streets and Spaces will be critical to transitioning this increase in recreational cycling to long-term shifts in mobility patterns. Investments in infrastructure can build on these current trends and also encourage new demand for alternative forms of mobility. Electric bikes that are equipped with a motor, battery and controller are booming—e-bike sales were up 190 percent year over year in June and 179 percent in October—and micromobility companies are anticipating post-pandemic growth in bike and scooter usage. That anticipated growth provides an opportunity to link residents to public transit and further leverage the cycling “surge” to support a more sustainable, equitable and healthy recovery.

Read more briefs from the COVID Community Data Lab