The argument for cycling our way into the post-pandemic world
While public transit becomes questionable in the eyes of public health, booming bicycle sales may be indicative of a conscious shift in the way we commute.
Alison Ross, Contributor | Opinion
It’s a fact that many city-dwelling Canadians rely on public transit—it’s more affordable and eco-friendly than owning a car, and it’s convenient in congested cities with limited parking. But in the wake of the novel coronavirus, Canadian public transit is changing. The perception that buses, trains and streetcars could make for the perfect COVID-19 vessel has led to new safety regulations and fewer passengers. Since the pandemic began in March, the TTC has seen a more than 80 per cent drop in its ridership.
Whether the drop in ridership will persist remains to be seen, although some fear it may lead to an over-reliance on vehicle ownership. Transportation in North America tends to revolve around cars, especially in suburbs and smaller towns—the result of decades of government support for the auto industry in the form of subsidized roads, gas prices and infrastructure that supports vehicular traffic. It also has to do with the country’s low population density, since Canada’s population is spaced out with around four people per square kilometre.
So if public transit is unsafe during a pandemic and we want to avoid relying on vehicles to get us around, what’s the alternative? The answer is a zero-emission, healthy and socially-distant means of transportation: cycling.
Ontario’s pandemic bike market
Bicycles are an affordable alternative to owning a vehicle, although their popularity often depends on a person’s commute time. Those who live far away from public transit or cities often opt for vehicles, even if they’re out of their price range. A 2015 Harvard University study found that having access to transportation is the most crucial step in escaping the cycle of poverty. In Canada, that sometimes means buying a car; because when public transit has poor infrastructure, cars feel mandatory. Unfortunately, they also lead to congestion, pollution, collisions and equity issues.
But zero-emission means of transport—namely, bikes—are seeing a popularity surge as a result of COVID-19. Global lockdowns triggered a demand shock that disrupted world economies. Demand went down for certain goods and up for others. In the early days, it was toilet paper. Later, it was hair dye. When restrictions loosened and health officials told the public they could go outdoors without congregating, people went to bike shops.
Nick Duic, who owns a bike shop in Brampton called Cyclepath, almost didn’t open for 2020. But when Doug Ford declared bike repairs an essential service, Duic stayed open to perform repairs. He also saw an increase in the demand for bikes, higher than it had been in previous years. What was once seen as a suburban childhood pastime now has become an active method of commuting—one that abides by social-distancing guidelines.
Much like hand sanitizer and PPE manufacturers, bike brands are struggling to meet 2020’s intense demand. Sales are booming at Northern Ontario bike shops and retailers in Saskatchewan are running out of bicycles. It might have to do with the fact that many Canadian bikes are produced overseas, in countries like China, Taiwan and Cambodia. With COVID-19 business closures, ordering parts and bikes—not to mention servicing them—is getting a little more tricky.
Cycling is popular because it combines the best parts of public transit and cars. It’s carbon-neutral, allows for social distancing and the exercise improves our physical health. But with narrow bike paths that brush against traffic and few accommodations for cyclists, our car-centric Ontario cities often make cycling difficult—until recently.
The path to progress
When I jog or cycle through my Mississauga neighbourhood, I pass a familiar road—Glen Erin Drive. Glen Erin Drive once had two car lanes going in either direction, but the city government has now blocked off cars from half of the road. Black and orange pylons indicate where cars can drive. Pedestrians and cyclists occupy the remaining space. In a time where we must stay six feet apart, we notice how much space we surrender to cars. Mississauga’s makeshift bike lanes give space back to active transit: walkers, runners and cyclists.
Other Ontario cities have followed suit: Toronto introduced ActiveTO, a data-driven approach to providing essential trips to front line workers and vulnerable road users. The program's website features a map of pedestrian zones, quiet streets and weekend road closures as part of the program. In December 2017, Ontario pledged $93 million to expand bike lanes through the province. Eventually, pedestrian zones and bike lanes won’t be pylons on roads—they’ll be permanent pathways.
The COVID-19 bike boom is more than a temporary trend, and here's why. Journalist Carlton Reid, who has spent thirty years writing about transportation, wrote in Forbes that cycling’s pandemic popularity echoes a similar bicycle boom in the early 1970s.
Back then, the boom was triggered by a combination of baby boomer prosperity, early environmental concerns and a growing awareness around the importance of exercise. Bike shops ran out of stock and customers put their names on waiting lists for new bikes for commuting and shopping. Commentators forecasted the death of the car. At the time, the United States Department of the Interior planned for 100,000 miles of bike paths. In Ontario, Toronto established 87 kilometres of bike routes, lanes and paths. Bike advocates believed North America would transform into the Netherlands—a country known for its bicycle infrastructure.
So then why didn’t that happen?
One of the reasons the bike boom ended was because of car-centric urban planning. In 1974, Toronto planners proposed banning cyclists from roads, relegating them to sidewalks and bike trails. Cyclists protested, leading to the establishment of the Toronto City Cycling Committee in 1975, but cycling remained an afterthought for planners.
Cycling fatigue is the second reason. By 1975, bike sales in the US dropped 50 per cent within months, down to pre-1970 levels. Bike shop lines disappeared. Manufacturers canceled orders. Highway planners buried plans to build cycleways. Why? Because people got bored. They didn’t see cycling as a means of long-term transportation.
But today, the world faces an environmental time crunch that didn’t affect the cyclists of 1975. We have a limited amount of time to restructure our lifestyles in order to reduce our environmental impact. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world needs to lower its carbon emissions by 49 per cent from 2017 levels by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. This goal is essential in preventing the global average temperature from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. The ramifications of failing include destroyed ecosystems and hundreds of millions of displaced people. If we convert Ontario cities and towns to follow a bike-centric model like the Netherlands, we can meet our 2030 targets.
A bike-centric model doesn’t just help the climate—it helps people. Low-income Ontarians could transition to affordable transport means and not worry about car payments, insurance premiums or maintenance costs. Imagine an Ontario where we could all access essential services and our jobs by cycling. The government’s proposed funding towards bike infrastructure in 2020 could lead to a future where walking, bikes and public transit are the principle means of getting around in Ontario.
When Ontario canceled the Canadian National Exhibition (also known as the Ex), Premiere Ford reminisced about the days when he would hop on a bus, travel to the Dufferin Gates and get off with a group of friends to attend the Ex. We’ll get to do it again one day; and maybe a bike rack will replace the parking lot.