Are physical distancing measures giving bikes a new lease on life?

To slow the spread of coronavirus, we've had to physically distance ourselves from others, which has meant a lot of lifestyle changes, including the way we get around.

Getting into an enclosed bus or train with other passengers — or even a taxi or ride-hailing service with a driver — is no longer a recommended option. To make matters worse, many transit agencies are cutting back service. Yet many people still have to get to work and medical appointments. 

Meanwhile, we're being told to stay home as much as possible, but also to get fresh air and exercise (while gyms are closed). An influx of park visitors — many of whom weren't physically distant enough from each other — has caused governments to close parking lots at national, provincial and local parks.

The solution to this conundrum? In many cases, it's getting on a bike.

New Yorkers have already done this in droves, with bike shops reporting double the sales they normally get at this time of year. Meanwhile, bike repair shops in the U.K. also say business is booming.

In Canada, so many people are cycling in cities like Winnipeg and Calgary that the municipalities are closing some lanes and roads to vehicles to give cyclists (and pedestrians) more space. Meanwhile, bike shops remain open as many provincial governments have recognized them as an essential service.

Brian Pincott, executive director of Vélo Canada Bikes, a group that promotes cycling and advocates for infrastructure to make the activity safer, said that kind of government support is welcome. 

He noted that many urban, lower-income people don't have other good transportation options right now.

"So it is also a matter of equity to be able to have the appropriate infrastructure in place for people to actually go about their day-to-day [lives]," he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently improved cycling conditions by taking a lot of automobiles off the road. Pincott said the car-centric design of our cities often discourages people from taking a two-wheeler.

"Now that there are a lot fewer cars on the road, more and more people are seeing that cycling is a viable choice," he said. "It's a great family activity."

But will the boost in cycling last after the pandemic is over and physical distancing measures are lifted?

Pincott thinks it depends on whether governments continue to make it safer and easier for people to ride their bikes. He thinks this is a great opportunity for cities to create space for it.

In the meantime, he hopes as the weather gets warmer, people will take advantage of the "perfect time" to get on their bikes.

"It's impossible not to be happy when you're getting around on your bike," he said. "And God knows we need a little bit of happiness."

Emily Chung