Coming soon: a cycling surge:

Yes, I do know where my handlebars have been!

It’s an infection inflection point: We predict that bicycle commuting will grow faster than expected because of COVID-19. Fear of infection has shifted tens of millions of commuters around the world from shared modes of transport (transit, taxis, and ride-sharing) to non-shared modes (private vehicles and private bicycles.) Growth in cycling infrastructure (more bike lanes, wider bike lanes) during the pandemic and growth in e-bikes will make cycling safer and easier too.

An online survey conducted in China in late February showed that respondents are about half as likely to use public transit as before, more than twice as likely to use a private car, and just as likely to use two-wheeled transportation (bikes and motorbikes). By March, a survey in Guangzhou showed, only 34 percent of previously regular bus and metro riders had returned to using public transit: 24 percent were now taking private cars and over 10 percent had started biking. All those private cars are leading to bad rush-hour traffic; as of April 7-8, traffic congestion in Chongqing, Chengdu, and Beijing, among other cities, was already worse than 2019 levels.

As with so many trends these days, what starts in China doesn't stay in China. A global survey from mid-March has similar results as the surveys in the previous paragraph, with respondents saying they are using ride-sharing less and private cars more (the survey didn’t ask about transit or bikes). Europe is seeing the same trend, as Pierre Serne, president of the Club des villes cyclables in France noted: “People are going to have psychological problems getting together in trams, buses, or subways."

What about in Canada? According to Ahmed El-Geneidy, a professor of urban planning at McGill University in Montreal who has studied transit ridership, “We know that people will be scared to use public transportation from a health perspective.” Data from our May 16 Deloitte State of the Consumer Tracker shows that 63 percent of us are planning to limit our use of transit over the next three months, and 59 percent plan to limit ride-hailing in the same time frame. That’s only the next three months, but longer- term shifts in transportation use look to be similar. According to a survey by Deloitte Canada and HEC Montreal, conducted in May of 2020, Canadians say they expect to use personal cars and bikes more once the stay-at-home measures have been lifted, while using less of bus, subway, taxi, suburban train, carpooling, and (surprisingly) motorcycle modes of transport.

Reluctance to take transit could be a necessary thing as well: according to the United Kingdom’s transport secretary, Grant Shapps, new rules on social distancing for transit means “the capacity of transport network will be down by 90 percent.”

Rise of the bike

As millions fewer commuters take (or are able to take) transit, not all but some will start riding bikes. Many will opt for private cars at first…until the roads get too full, and (once again) biking may start looking like the better way.

Dedicated bicycling infrastructure is important: COVID-19 can kill, but so can a car. During the pandemic, we’ve been seeing the significant expansion of bike paths, wider bike paths, lower speed limits for cars, and more car-free areas in general, across multiple cities in North America and Europe.

Avoidance of transit and improved bike infrastructure is already resulting in an increase in bike sales (many models sold out entirely) in New York City and, in the United Kingdom, there has been a surge in repairs of older bikes. In both Australia and France, online bike retailers report sales are up 300 percent.

Deloitte wrote about e-bike sales growth as part of our 2020 TMT Prediction Cycling’s technological transformation: Making bicycling faster, easier, and safer. We noted that e-bike sales at US specialty shops was up 73 percent in 2018, and we were optimistic that growth would continue in 2020.

One might think that relatively expensive e-bikes (they are cheaper than they used to be, but even the cheapest are still at least $500 more than the average mechanical bike) would see a sales slump during a time of mass unemployment, reduced incomes, and economic uncertainty…but one would be wrong. Remarkably, e-bike sales at one online US retailer are up 140 percent since March 15.

Some of these tailwinds are likely transitory, while others will probably be more permanent:

  1. Fear of infection will almost certainly drop over time, as vaccines or successful treatments are developed. However, it also seems likely there will be a residual fear of infection, which will slow the return to public transit, taxis, and ride-sharing for years to come. 
  2. Some of the road closures and bike paths are temporary and will likely be reversed as we transition to a post-pandemic world, but others are permanent: once a bike path is widened, it is widened for good. 
  3. Some older bikes that were mended for commuting during the lockdowns will likely go back into the shed and fall into disrepair. However, as a US$1,500 e-bike represents a substantial investment, it seems probable they will continue to be used even post-pandemic.

Putting it all together, our earlier prediction of “a one percentage point rise in the proportion of people who bike to work during the three years from 2019 to 2022” will almost certainly be accelerated by COVID-19 and its after-effects. It could even double, representing (literally) tens of billions of additional cycling trips per year globally, and tens of millions in Canada alone. 

Back to UK Secretary Shapps, who noted that if only 5 percent of people started cycling to work, it would mean 9 million fewer car journeys, 8 million fewer rail journeys, and 13 million fewer bus journeys.

What should we do as a society? In an online interview, McGill’s El-Geneidy said: "Canada and the US need to start thinking of the bicycle as a solution, build quick bicycle lanes, and governments should start giving subsidies for e-bikes the way they do in other countries."

In Canada so far, only British Columbia offers an e-bike subsidy, and that’s only for those who give up their car. According to our research, various subsidies for e-bikes in other countries are much more common, either at the national or municipal level: France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, India, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United States. The subsidies can be direct to consumers, via employers, via vendors, through tax breaks, for cargo bikes only, as loans, and more. In a twist, subsidies aren’t always from governments—at least three public utilities have offered subsidies to help them achieve their CO2 emission goals.

Corporations have a role to play as well in providing infrastructure. More bike parking, charging for e-bikes, secured parking areas that don’t require locks on each bike, and showers too, would not go amiss.

What about shared bikes?

Shared transport modes run the gamut: sharing a subway car with 100 others is one thing, sharing a taxi with a driver and traces from previous occupants is another, while a shared bike is barely shared at all, as long as the handlebars are wiped in between users. Data from China shows that citizens’ avoidance of sharing was restricted to cars: shared bikes saw a surge of up to 150 percent nationwide. Although slightly riskier that using a private bike, sharing a bike is still much less risky that sitting in a confined space with other people. It is unclear yet if North Americans and Europeans will view shared bikes the same way, but given the recent sales success of relatively higher-priced e-bikes, it seems probable they will be more attractive for sharing for those who can’t afford to buy one on their own.

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