The New Urban Biking Boom, and How to Keep It Going

“We have seen during the lockdown, streets can be changed, and they can be changed radically and for the better. But only if planners — and politicians — and people — clamor for this change.” —Carlton Reid, Bike Boom

Bike riding has gone through ebbs and flows in American culture. First seen as a scandalous innovation when they debuted in the late 1800s, by the 1950s bikes were a symbol of old-fashioned hometown America. In the 1970s, the international oil embargo combined with the nascent environmental movement to rebrand bike riding as a planet-saving measure for peaceniks, hippies, and other longhaired idealists. By the ‘90s, mainstream cycling had largely moved indoors, thanks to the advent of the stationary bike. At that point, urban biking became identified with the punk-infused counterculture — understandable, since a bike rider operating in the firmly entrenched car culture was more or less taking their life in their hands.

urban cycling
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This was the moment when Chrome Industries, a producer of messenger bags and other cycling gear, started. According to creative director Steve McCallion, “We got traction in the urban bike culture because Chrome supported the counter culture. bombing hills, riding backwards, breaking rules — freedom of expression.” Back then, he says, urban biking was about anti-structure, bucking against what he calls the “traditionally elitist bike scene.”

“Urban biking represented freedom and mastery of the city,” he recalls. “Hills, red lights, and traffic were there to challenge your skills. The fact that your bike had no brakes was less of a limitation and more of a freedom. The city, particularly San Francisco, was a playground.”

This counterculture approach evolved into the hipster persona widely associated with urban cycling today — as Ben Smith, founder of U.K. bike brand Hiplok, describes it, “a slightly anti-establishment, well-kitted out cyclist, typically male, and riding a fixed gear bike.” But as the 2000s brought an economic downturn, chased by a wider understanding of the looming climate crisis, the bicycle commute has been on a slow but steady incline.

That incline spiked sharply as a result of this year’s coronavirus pandemic. With public transportation inadvisable (if not shut down completely), gyms closed, and city streets all but empty, conditions couldn’t have been better for America to rekindle its love affair with the bike. And did it ever. Rod Judd, director of membership and development at the national bike-advocacy group People for Bikes, told Outside that his retailer and supplier affiliates report an ongoing bike shortage all over the country — “Anything under $600 is just flying out.” From big brand dealers like Trek to small local bike shops, from high-end bikes to affordable entry-level models, from adult to children, demand for bikes is increasing all over the nation.

Prior to the pandemic, a few progressive cities in the U.S. have done a lot to improve bike infrastructure and safety. But Steve says these moves often reinforce the elitist nature of bike culture, as they’re typically biased toward neighborhoods that have money. “Bike culture has a long way to go to be more inclusive,” he says, “and being more inclusive will make our cities better places to live.”

In the wake of the pandemic, however, infrastructure has dramatically, if temporarily, improved around the nation. “Pop-up” bike lanes have appeared in Minneapolis, Oakland, Denver, and Philadelphia, as well as international cities such as Mexico City and Bogota, with streets closed down and car lanes redesignated for bikes. Bike-share systems are quickly on the rise, with Chicago, New York, and London reporting a doubling or more of participants in their city-sponsored programs. The post-pandemic urban cyclist is discovering the same exhilarating freedom that fuels the badass bikers of the ‘90s. Rather than seeing their city as an inconvenience, says Steve McCallion, “these people see it as a source of creative energy. Their physical environment has endless possibilities for exploration.” Amid the claustrophobic conditions of quarantine, riding a bike has offered a new freedom of expression, with the city as your playground.

“These people see [their cities] as a source of creative energy. Their physical environment has endless possibilities for exploration.”

Now that a whole new sector of people have discovered the thrill of cycling, Mehdi is confident that they aren’t going to give it up. “I think a lot of the habits and behaviors that people are establishing during the pandemic are here to stay. I think cycling is going to have a little renaissance — it will probably level off, but I don’t see it going back to pre-pandemic levels.” Not only does cycling offer an alternative to the health risks of public transport (not to mention the hassle of schedule changes and rush hour crowds ), but it also makes a city much more livable, not to mention tourist-friendly in all the right ways. “If you can go into a city and rent a bike or do a bike-share, that’s a big plus. You don’t want to be spending money on rideshare or renting (and parking) a car. If you can get around by foot and bike, it’s great. In larger cities, it can cut down on congestion over all, as well as air quality. You get to know people, and your town, a lot better by bike. You have a greater appreciation for where you live.”

urban cycling
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Ben adds that more bicyclists statistically mean a less polluted environment and a physically and mentally healthier population, two improvements that will benefit a city for generations to come, not to mention make it more attractive to newcomers. “It’s also been proven that cycling can actually extend the time people spend in the city center which contributes to improved economy and subsequent ability for the city to invest in improved cultural services.”

That said, Steve acknowledges that urban cyclists will continue to face challenges in navigating the city. “People still see bikes in the city as objects in their way. Our most progressive cities only have 5-6 percent of people commuting by bike. Infrastructure continues to bias neighborhoods that have money furthering the elitist nature of biking. We have a ways to go.” That, he says, is why Chrome is committed to using its platform and resources to making cities more diverse and creative. “We inspire people to live in the city, stoking people who vote with action. Our Citizen Chrome Grants are an example of this — we’re taking 2 percent of all Citizen bags sold and funding someone who’s making an active effort to improve their city.”

That’s why it’s vital for cyclists, noobs and veterans alike, to be vocal in their support for cycling infrastructure. Ben says that the number-one factor preventing people from commuting by bike is safety, or lack thereof. “Painted bike lanes on the sides of existing roads are not enough, cities need to look at partitioning main thoroughfares to allow for a clearly defined cycle route. Cyclists need to make their voices heard to encourage cities to prioritize cycling over other transportation expenditure.”

Mehdi points out that this effort doesn’t have to mean the same level of activism that goes into something like, say, the fight for racial equity. “There’s not a lot you need to do as individuals,” he says. “There are groups like People for Bikes or local organizations that are constantly advocating for more bike lanes, increased road safety, etc. it’s just a matter of getting behind these organizations by going to a meeting, joining a group ride, or donating a little cash.”

Just as important is the “activism” embedded in individual decisions and attitudes. “I’m hoping that all the new riders out on the road can gain a better understanding of what it’s like to travel by bicycle,” says Mehdi, ”and next time they’re behind the wheel, and see someone on a bike ‘impeding’ their way, rather than lying on the horn and brushing by, they’re a little more patient.”

In his 2017 book Bike Boom, transportation writer Carlton Reid closely examines the bicycle “boom” of the 1970s, asking why it fizzled out after so much fanfare. While a lot of factors were at play, including the vested interests (political and financial) in maintaining a dominant car culture, Reid writes that “the fight to create people-first cities has long been a fight against inertia.”

In other words, bikes will continue to boom if people keep riding them.

That’s why, as the lockdown lifts, Mehdi urges new cyclists to link up with other riders to maintain their habit. Join a group ride once per week, or plan a weekly ride with a friend or your family. And while it’s hard to resist the siren call of getting back in the car or using public transportation, as work life returns to something more like normal, he recommends picking one or two days per week where you get up early to ride to work. Sustaining the thrill of riding a bike can only improve life over the long haul, for individuals, for cities, even for the entire world. In the words of Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, “When we close streets to cars, we open them up for amazing possibilities.”

Tips for New Cyclists

If you’ve picked up urban biking during the pandemic, you’re in luck — the gradual lifting of lockdown means a slow transition back to normal road conditions, including increased car and pedestrian traffic, road work, and other potential hazards. Our industry experts offered some tips for adjusting to bike riding in “real life.”

Gear Up Properly

Ben: Helmet, lights, and of course, a lock, are essential. Dress appropriately for the weather – not only will this add to your enjoyment but it will keep you safer on the roads, for example high-visibility gear is important in winter.

Mehdi: The “right” gear changes from region to region — what works for someone in Arizona wouldn’t work for someone in New York. But the universal things are:

  • A really good pump. (Mehdi recommends pumping every 3rd ride, bare minimum)
  • Lights (necessary in daylight for visibility by other cars, and at night you definitely don’t want to rely just on reflectors for visibility)
  • A lock (this is especially important if you’re locking it up in the same place every day)
  • A helmet. This is critical. You never know what can happen out there, and you’ve got to protect your head.
  • A good backpack, a rack, or other cargo options (if you’re commuting by bike, you’ll at least want something to carry a change of clothes)
  • Rain shell or backpack cover

Bike

Mehdi: The first thing is to make sure you find the right fit. Ultimately, if you’re not comfortable on the bike, you’re not going to feel confident and you’re not going to ride it very much. I definitely recommend people go to a local bike shop or even shop online with sites like ours that have experts who pay attention to the details to make sure the rider has the best possible bike for them. Also, take into account your area’s weather and road conditions. If I lived somewhere like Colorado that had more precipitation and less ideal road conditions (like terrain to climb, or poorly maintained roads), I’d need to find a bike that had good tire clearance, different gearing options. Finally, if you’re locking your bike on the street, it might get dinged up here or there, so I’d look for something in steel or aluminum — those are the most sturdy options, and also the most affordable.

Ben: Keep your bike well maintained. I always advocate taking it for an annual “check up” at the workshop of your local cycle store. No matter how good you think you are at maintenance, the mechanics see thousands of bikes every year and their expert advice is invaluable.

Rules of the Road

Ben: I think people get too bogged down in the idea of an unwritten rule around cycling and cycle etiquette. As with anything in life, it’s about being respectful to others. Follow the rules of the road and be respectful, but most of all remember to smile – life feels good on two wheels.

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