The COVID-19 pandemic, while crippling the economy as a whole, has led to business booms for a number of niche products, including bicycles. Looking to avoid public transportation such as buses and subways, urban residents are flocking to bike shops to pick up their own personal mode of transport in the form of a bike.
Bicycling is also an enjoyable outdoor activity — one of a dwindling number of pastimes that’s been largely unaffected by stay-at-home orders and quarantines. There’s only one problem: Bicycles have risen in demand so quickly that they’re now in short supply, and if you haven’t already secured one, you may find a shortage in your area.
Bike Shops’ Shelves Are Bare
Ryan Zagata, president of Brooklyn Bicycle Company, told The New York Times that sales have jumped by more than 600% in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. “I have never seen anything remotely approaching this,” Zagata said. “If you went into a store three weeks ago you could find a bike under $1,000. Right now shelves are bare.”1
Throughout the U.S., sales of bicycles and related equipment and repair services have also soared, nearly doubling in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from market research company the N.P.D. Group. “Sales of commuter and fitness bikes in the same month increased 66 percent, leisure bikes jumped 121 percent, children’s bikes went up 59 percent and electric bikes rose 85 percent,” The Times reported.2
In Brooklyn, New York, lines at some bicycle shops extend down the block, while customers may travel to five shops in a day in search of anything leftover. From 20-somethings looking for a bicycle to expand their ability to travel beyond their block to workers intending to use a bike as a new form of transportation to and from the office, the allure of bicycling is reaching segments of the population it hasn’t in decades.
In fact, the last time Larry Duffus, owner of Larry’s Freewheeling bike shop in Manhattan, sold these many bikes was during a 1980 transit strike.3 According to the Times, however, the high demand is ill timed:4
“Most American importers have kept limited inventory since 2018, when … new tariffs [were imposed] on goods produced in China, where some parts used on nearly all bikes sold in the United States are made.
As a result, in 2019 the number of bikes imported into the United States dropped by around 25 percent compared with 2018, according to Mr. Margevicius. In the first quarter of this year, imports were down by around 30 percent compared to the same period in 2019.”
When coupled with factory shutdowns due to the pandemic, bicycle manufacturers are months behind on deliveries, leaving shops with low or nonexistent inventory, especially for more affordable models.
Even preorders for the next expected bike shipments are booming, but some cyclists may find themselves waiting until July, August or later before they can hit the road on their new two-wheeler. As such, Bicycle Habitat, a shop with locations in Chelsea and Brooklyn, New York, warned on May 14, 2020:5
“There is a national bike shortage, unlike anything I have seen before. This is due to increased demand and extensive disruptions to the supply chain. My advice: when you see something that you like — BUY IT. I expect to have a very limited inventory of our most popular bicycles very soon.”
Is a Long-Term Shift in Bicycling Coming?
In the U.S., bicycling to work is uncommon, even in the most bike-friendly regions, such as Portland, where 6.3% of commuters ride bikes. In comparison, fewer than 1% of New York residents use a bike to get to work,6 while nearly half of commuters to work and school use bicycles in the European city of Copenhagen.
The U.S. is largely car-centric, and even when major cities spent millions to enhance bike lanes and other bike-friendly measures, such as bike sharing programs, the percentage of Americans who use a bike to get to work fell by 3.2% from 2016 to 2017.7 There are signs, however, that this could be changing.
A study released in January 2020 by consulting firm Deloitte predicted that tens of billions of additional bicycle trips would take place per year in 2022 compared to 2019, and noted, “This increase in bicycling will double the number of regular bicycle users in many major cities around the world where cycling to work is till uncommon.”8
The report also predicted that a 1% rise in the proportion of people who bike to work would occur from 2019 to 2022 — and that was before COVID-19 was thrown into the mix. Now that global lockdowns have forced cars off the streets, cities are seeing glimpses of what a less car-dependent future could look like, and some may be reluctant to return to the status quo.
Emissions of carbon dioxide have dropped, as have levels of air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter. Meanwhile, some cities have turned empty streets into bicycling zones, some of which will remain post-lockdown, including 21.7 miles of streets in Milan, which are being transformed into bike zones.9 Around the globe, people are embracing biking with renewed enthusiasm. According to the BBC:10
“As a form of isolated transport that doubles as exercise — that is much easier given the wealth of empty streets — cycling has become more appealing in a number of cities.
In March, use of bike-share systems increased by roughly 150% in Beijing and 67% in New York, where cycling on main thoroughfares increased by 52%. Meanwhile, cycling traffic increased by 151% on trails in Philadelphia and in April Dundee saw cycling traffic increase by 94%.”
Former transportation commissioner for New York City and principal with Bloomberg Associates, Janette Sadik-Khan, spoke with the BBC about the positive transport recovery programs being initiated not only in Milan but around the globe:11
“The pandemic challenges us, but it also offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change course and repair the damage from a century of car-focused streets. Cities that seize this moment to reallocate space on their streets to make it easier for people to walk, bike and take public transport will prosper after this pandemic and not simply recover from it.”
Lessons From the 1970s Bike Boom
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has seen the emergence of a bike boom. In the 1970s, lines at bike shops resembled those being seen today, and shortages were common. At the time, a virus wasn’t the driving force. Rather, the bike boom was tied to environmentalism and physical activity. In an adapted excerpt from Carlton Reid’s “Bike Boom” it’s noted:12
“In the 1970s, U.S. bicycle advocates assumed America would soon become more bicycle-friendly than the Netherlands. But while the Netherlands used the oil embargo to rein back the dominance of the motorcar in its cities and expand its cycleway network, there was no lasting bicycle-shaped legacy for the U.S. The boom went bust, and now few remember how bicycle-crazy America went for a few short years.”
In 1973, at the height of the boom, 15.3 million bikes were sold in the U.S., with most of the increase due to sales of adult bikes. Before then, bicycles had been largely regarded as something for children, but suddenly became a coveted form of transportation and a political statement, promoting an anti-automobile solution to pollution and a way to increase your physical health at the same time.
At one point, the U.S. Department of Interior had plans to construct nearly 100,000 miles of bicycle paths in the next 10 years, a lofty project that would have surpassed even the Dutch cycleway network and radically changed the way U.S. cities look today. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supported the notion that America should build a network of cycleways, but the plan was never carried out.
“The bikeway-friendly John Volpe left the Department of Transportation to become the U.S. ambassador to Italy. State highway planners reined back what had been grandiose bikeway plans. Bike shop lines thinned out to nothing. Bicycle manufacturers canceled overseas orders.
The bike boom — and the nation’s interest in bicycles — was over. ‘The boom has turned into a bust,’ the chairman of the Bicycle Manufacturing Association of America admitted to the Senate Finance Committee in 1976,” “Bike Boom” reads.13
Ultimately, it was a combination of factors that led the bike boom to fizzle out, from poor quality bikes that made riding uncomfortable to environmentalists focusing their efforts on other issues, such as anti-nuclear campaigns.
“Perhaps the biggest reason for the bust,” “Bike Boom” explained, “was the hoola-hoop problem: 1970s cycling had been a craze, and those attracted to it were not sufficiently sold on the idea to carry on riding long-term, either recreationally or — critically — for Dutch-style daily transport.”14 It’s a warning that should be heeded today, especially as cities reopen with an unprecedented chance for radical change that could bring the bicycle back for good.
“The 2020 bike boom could have a more lasting impact on cities around the world than the 1970s bike boom had on America,” Reid wrote, “But only if planners and politicians — and people — clamor for this change.”15
Embracing Bicycling Is Great for Health
Whether you’re considering bicycling for transportation or recreation, there’s good reason to take up this now-popular pastime, especially if you have a dedicated place to ride, such as biking trails or lanes. Older adults, for instance, may reduce their risk of falls by bike riding daily, as bicycling may preserve balance control and coordination.16
The physical activity bicycling provides can also help you maintain a healthy weight, and cities with more policies to promote bicycling, including those that are supportive of bicycling infrastructures that promote bicycling to work, have fewer overweight or obese residents.17 Even electrically assisted bicycles (e-bikes) contribute to physical activity, providing a workout that’s less intense than conventional cycling but more intense than walking.18
You’ll want to wear a helmet and use caution to avoid accidents and injuries, but generally speaking bicycling is an activity that can be enjoyed by people young and old alike, and can be a great way to get outdoors if you’ve been cooped up inside.
If you’ve got the itch to ride but can’t find any new bikes in stock in your area, check out used bikes via social media or other outlets, as you may be able to find a secondhand option that’s available immediately.