Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders from Las Vegas to London to Beijing have resulted in fewer cars on roads and a plummet in public transit ridership. The nosedive in daily commuters has left large swaths of cities around the world nothing but a sea of deserted asphalt in the middle of the day. Among those who did venture out, many opted for a form of transit most of us learned to use as children — bicycles.
According to the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC), use of the bicycle share program in downtown Las Vegas skyrocketed 97% the past few months compared with the same time last year. In May, the e-bike share program saw an average of a 1,000 rides a day, an increase of 843% compared with May 2019.
Venturing out, one couldn’t help but notice the throngs of bicyclists on some of what used to be our busiest roads, such Sahara Avenue at Las Vegas Boulevard. The jumps in ridership in Las Vegas follow similar trends in other major cities.
Eco-Counter — a Montreal engineering company that measures pedestrian traffic — found a 21% increase in overall U.S. urban ridership thus far this year, compared with 2019. In New York City, the bike-share service Citi Bike saw an increase of 67% at the beginning of March, which continued through June, the latest data available. Counters on bridges measured significant increases in bicycle crossings at the start of the pandemic before stay-at-home orders were issued. Rails-to-Trails reported a 110% increase over 2019 in ridership on rail-trails such as sections of the Great American Rail Trail that connects Washington, D.C., to Seattle.
The upward trend is not just in metropolises with robust ridership, but also in car-dependent western cities like Los Angeles and Oakland, where ridership and bicycle sales in the wake of coronavirus skyrocketed. Data provided by PeopleForBikes showed bicycle sales up 65% this year over 2019. In many cities, there is a shortage of new bicycles because suppliers have not been able to keep up with demand.
Ridership has increased for several reasons. For one, during the pandemic people feel safer on their bicycle than on public transit. It is deemed relatively safe when riders maintain 6 feet of distance from each another, and research suggests that coronavirus transmission is more difficult in outdoor settings and when people are moving at variable speeds. Cycling has been deemed so safe and economically necessary that the U.K. government included bicycle repair vouchers in its economic recovery plan.
Second, with more people spending time at home, families are looking for something to do together that keeps the kids entertained and gets them out of the house. According to Eric Bjorling, director of brand at Trek Bicycles, this has led to not only a shortage of children’s bicycles, but all kinds of bicycles, from electric-powered to mountain bikes, for adults who are eager to get outside.
Cities are taking notice. Local governments in New York, Milan, Paris, Mexico City, Bogota and, yes, Las Vegas are accelerating plans for new bicycle lanes. They are meant to be temporary or “pop-up” to adjust for the significant change in urban commuter habits, but city planners and bicycle advocates are thinking longer term. Some dream of what they call the “15-minute city,” where food, parks and schools are within a 15-minute walking distance, and the current crisis has allowed city leaders to fast-track those plans.
Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, a cycling advocate, notes that already several new bicycle lane projects in the valley have been fast-tracked, including a multiuse trail from Hualapai Way to Durango Drive that will extend the future Red Rock Legacy Trail, as well as additional miles of bike lanes on Fort Apache Road and restriping of new lanes on Torrey Pines Drive.
“Prior to COVID, Clark County was making slow, steady progress to add more bicycle lanes,” Jones said. “COVID proved that if people feel safe, they will get out and ride a bike on our roadways. Now, more of these projects that make cycling more accessible are moving forward with greater emphasis.”
Jones and others are looking to take advantage of the enthusiasm in bicycling with an annual event starting this fall and a possible future event on the Strip once restrictions on social gatherings are lifted.
In downtown Las Vegas, RTC partnered with NV Energy to build six more e-bike sharing systems after demand skyrocketed during the state-mandated shutdown. RTC notes that its e-bike program has remained popular even after the shutdown and in the midst of extreme heat. It predicts that by the end of the year, the number of e-bike share rides will double what they were 2019.
Will it last? While advocates are bullish that the pandemic will change commuters’ habits for the long term, others are more skeptical over whether habits have actually changed in car-heavy communities. Part of the skepticism is that planners have rushed through new projects that normally take several years to put together. In New York, residents in Central Park West sued the city last year over the construction of the bicycle lanes. City planners worry that even if habits shift to using less public transit and more bicycling, other commuters will still choose cars, causing further congestion and smog on narrower roads.
One thing is clear though: Whether or not COVID-19 has changed the habits of urban commuters, cities are pedaling forward.
Andrew Woods is the CEO of WS Nevada a policy, elections and analysis firm based in Southern Nevada. He is finishing up his masters at the University of Chicago with a focus on infrastructure and transportation.