Jul 24, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Coronavirus brings down biking — but not as much as driving

Reproduced from Streetlight Data; Map: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from Streetlight Data; Map: Axios Visuals

Biking in America’s biggest cities has dropped due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the decline is less than for driving, according to new data exclusively shared with Axios.

Why it matters: Skyrocketing bike sales and anecdotal evidence suggests cycling could emerge a winner in the pandemic. But this data suggests a bike boom is — so far — unlikely to materialize or make a dent in oil demand.

Where it stands: Cities where commuting by bike is most common, like New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, are also the ones that saw the sharpest declines in bike travel in May compared to last year, according to research from Streetlight Data, a transportation analytics firm.

  • “The commuting slice that falls out of cities like New York and San Francisco where that mileage on bikes is just not there because bike commuting isn’t there," said Martin Morzynski, Streetlight’s vice president of marketing. "And recreational activity isn’t necessarily enough to offset the difference."
  • The data shows, though, that cycling dropped less than driving. In Portland, Ore., for example, bike miles traveled fell by 10%, but vehicular miles traveled dropped by 35%.

The intrigue: Cycling doubled in smaller cities, including some known more for recreational cycling, including Ogden and Provo, Utah. The baseline number of bike miles traveled is far less than it is for larger metropolitan areas though, Morzynski says.

How it works: Streetlight Data uses location-based data, essentially pings from cell-phone apps, that can differentiate between driving, cycling and walking based on the cadence of pings.

What we’re watching: Although we know bike sales are skyrocketing, we don’t know if people will actually end up riding them long-term. The data suggests those bikes will start collecting dust soon. “It might be like the kid who buys the toy and throws it out a week later,” said Morzynski. “Our hope is that this actually starts to create new habits.”

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