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Bicycling boomed during the pandemic — but what about bike share?

Carl Franzen - May 24, 2023
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The COVID-19 pandemic wrought many disruptions to our daily lives, most unwanted. But there was at least one positive development: a boom in bicycling. 

For those of us living in the U.S. in early 2020, when the first domestic cases of SARS-CoV-2 were reported, the appeal of cycling was clear. It was one of the only available ways to get outside of our homes, maintain our fitness, take in fresh air, and remain the recommended six feet away from others. 

Little wonder then that the number of bicycle riders in America jumped from 48.9 million in 2019 (the year before the pandemic started in the U.S.) to 52.7 million by the end of 2020, a 7.5% year-over-year increase — greater than any annual increase measured in the preceding decade, according to the analytics company Statista

However, data from Lyft, the largest bike-share operator in the U.S., shows that almost all of its bike-share systems experienced a decline in total riders over the same period — dropping from around 37 million total rides across these systems in 2019 to 31.6 million for 2020. This decline in ridership was especially pronounced from February through April 2020, as the coronavirus started to spread around the country.

In the years since, the opposite trend has occurred: Bike-share trips have picked back up while the overall number of bike riders in the country — on shared and privately owned bikes — has fallen slightly. Meanwhile, New York City has bucked all these trends — both bike share and overall ridership have continued to rise.

What’s going on here? Why would bike-share trips go down as overall activity rose, and vice versa? And what makes New York City different? It’s not easy to say for sure, but experts have a number of theories — and they carry strong implications for how cities can encourage people to shift to cycling and other greener forms of mobility.

This dot plot displays the number of rides taken in different municipal bike-share services owned and operated by Lyft from 2017–2022. The dots represent the annual total of rides in each location, with the lines representing the change from the year prior. D.C. and Denver statistics include scooters.
This dot plot displays the number of rides taken in different municipal bike-share services owned and operated by Lyft from 2017–2022. The dots represent the annual total of rides in each location, with the lines representing the change from the year prior. D.C. and Denver statistics include scooters.

Biking and bike share: An inverse relationship?  

The first thing to point out is the difference between the number of bike riders and the number of bike rides. “While more people got on a bike than ever before in 2020, it’s less clear that there was more biking than ever before in 2020,” says Ken McLeod, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists, the nation’s oldest active cycling advocacy nonprofit. 

McLeod pointed to data compiled by his organization from the U.S. Census Bureau, which shows that the ten cities with the highest number of bicycle commuters — which account for more than 20% of all bicycle commuters nationwide — all saw a decline in the number of people commuting by bike in 2020.  

Jordan Levine, head of transit, bike and scooter communications at Lyft, saw a similar pattern. “Before the pandemic started, many Lyft bike-share riders were using the service to commute to work,” he says. “Once the pandemic hit and people began working from home, the number of commuters dropped substantially, including those using bike share to commute.”  

So, although the total number of bike riders increased in the U.S. in 2020, the corresponding decline in the number of bike-share rides indicates that cyclists were riding on personal, privately owned bicycles. And, although we don’t have the data to know for sure, the decline in bike-share riders may have resulted in fewer overall cycling trips — despite the boom in new riders.

What’s more, riders of both privately owned and shared bikes adopted new riding patterns, taking more trips outside of commuter hours, according to McLeod. 

“We saw the leisure use case explode in 2020,” says Levine. “We had a significant number of trips start and end at the same station, and trips around parks increased.”

In 2021 and 2022, the usage patterns reversed, with bike share coming back stronger even as the total number of cyclists dropped. “As of 2022, we were already starting to see more of a return to ‘new normal’ bike-share numbers that were closer to 2019 trends,” says Levine.

One reason for the rebound in bike share could have been the bicycle shortage that began in 2020, making it extremely difficult and expensive to buy a private bicycle and more appealing for interested riders to try a shared solution. 

As for the decline in overall riders, MacLeod posits that those who rode privately owned bikes in 2020 put them back in their garages. He suspects that many of these people lived in suburbs or Midwestern cities, where driving still reigns as the predominant way to get around. Once services — such as gyms and restaurants — reopened to in-person visitors, these riders stopped cycling and returned to their cars.  

These trends suggest that unless the conditions are right and non-car options are truly viable, new riders won’t stick to cycling over the long term. 

NYC: The bike-share outlier

What about New York? Citi Bike ridership numbers did falter slightly in early 2020, but they quickly recovered and reached new heights, with more than 2.5 million rides in September.

This dot plot shows the number of rides taken on Lyft’s Citi Bike service during the period of 2017–2022.
This dot plot shows the number of rides taken on Lyft’s Citi Bike service during the period of 2017–2022.

Since then, Citi Bike rides have continued to climb dramatically year-over-year, with only seasonal downturns in the winter months. If the trend continues, Citi Bike likely will set a new record for rides in 2023. 

That trend holds beyond bike share. In 2019, the New York City Department of Transportation recorded 193.5 million rides; in 2021, there were 200.8 million (data from 2020 was not posted due to the pandemic). 

So why has cycling, and bike share in particular, continued booming in New York?

Compared to other U.S. cities, the Big Apple not only has a greater density of people per square mile, but it also has a higher reliance on public transit, especially the subway and bus systems (55.6% of workers in NYC commuted via public transit in 2019 vs. 5% nationally), and a robust bicycling infrastructure (1,500 miles of bike lanes, the largest of any bike network in the U.S., according to NYC DOT).

“What NYC has had more than other communities is a commitment to creating a network of protected bike lanes,” McLeod says, pointing to the 2021 retrofit of the Brooklyn Bridge to add a new bike lane, which doubled the bridge’s bike ridership, as a great example.   

During the early months of the pandemic, ridership of transit systems fell dramatically as New Yorkers avoided one another. While some indeed opted for driving, clearly, some of these transit riders took up cycling instead.  

McLeod says he wishes other cities would learn from the example set by NYC, and the pandemic’s cycling boom more generally, and give people legitimate alternatives to private vehicles.

He specifically points to the Open Streets program, an experimental initiative launched by the NYC DOT in 2020 to close 83 miles of streets to through-vehicle traffic and open them for pedestrian and, in some cases, cycling use. While the city has not released detailed statistics on how Open Streets impacted cycling rates, the increase in Open Street mileage coincides with the increase in total rides, and one 26-block length of streets in Queens saw a 1,220% increase in cycling. One study by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives found that on New York City’s Open Streets, rates of cyclist injuries decreased by 17% year-over-year. 

Other cities also embraced the trend in the early days of the pandemic but have since rolled back these measures. In contrast, New York recently announced more Open Streets for 2023, including some that have been permanently redesigned.

“I think there’s a temptation to ‘memory hole’ the pandemic and get rid of all the slow streets traffic interventions that were enacted then,” McLeod says. “But I hope that we can learn that those worked and that it is still possible to create better places to bike.” 

The example of New York suggests that if cities want to build off the interest in cycling the pandemic instigated, they’d be wise to invest in safe, expansive bicycling infrastructure today. 

The content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Lyft makes no representations as to the accuracy and completeness of this information. Unless otherwise stated, Lyft is not affiliated with any businesses or organizations mentioned in the article.