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Commuters Flock to Bike Shares in Cities Despite Concerns Over Health Risk

June 19, 2020 by Jacob Pederson

With public transportation offline in some areas and alternatives like Uber being a little too close for comfort due to the coronavirus outbreak, a growing number of city residents are looking at municipal bike share programs to get around.

However, even here, questions abound: How do I know the bike is clean and being sanitized often enough to ensure riding it won’t make me sick?

All over the country, commuters are using bike share programs to get around on unusually quiet city streets, according to Brooks Rainwater, director for National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. 

Bikes shares are bicycle and scooter renting programs designed to supplement other forms of public transportation like buses, trains, and subways, said Rainwater.

According to Rainwater, automobile ridership has decreased by 50% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the use of bike share programs has risen from 67% in New York City to 150% in Philadelphia, according to the World Research Institute, and by more than 100% in Chicago, said Streets Blog Chicago.

Russell Murphy, spokesman for Lime Scooter Rental, explains this is due to the ease of maintaining social distancing on bikes and scooters versus the cramped conditions of buses and other enclosed public transportation vehicles.

“Many [people] are turning to scooters and bikes as a way to travel while maintaining social distance, something that’s harder to do on the Metro or in rideshare vehicles,” he said.

The availability of the bikes and scooters allows essential employees to get around and for people to tend to their basic needs and emergencies, according to the World Research Institute. Even in cities where bike share companies have put their programs on hold, such as Seattle, citizens are still using their own bicycles at an observably higher rate, said Rainwater.

Some bike share programs temporarily shut down because of decreased demand due to stay-at-home orders, not necessarily because of disease risk, explained Rainwater. In fact, a recent report in the Journal of Infectious Disease suggests that natural sunlight is as effective as disinfectants in deactivating the virus on the stainless steel and plastic surfaces of bikes and scooters.

Some bike share programs are initiating safety measures recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which include disinfecting bikes and scooters each time they arrive at stations and depots and keeping bike share facilities clean.

Transportation authorities are in charge of seeing these actions through, but capacity to do so may be limited due to staffing constraints, said Dr. Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs and services for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. This leaves the sanitation responsibilities in the hands of bike share companies themselves to oversee and implement.

As the economy of the country begins to reopen, the utilization of bikes and scooters to get around is expected to go up, said Rainwater. This is due to reduced capacity on mass transit vehicles to maintain social distancing and budget cuts for many public transportation programs caused by the lull in tax revenue from the economic fallouts of the pandemic, he said.

“There is a great opportunity here, as more people are using bikes and scooters, to transform the way people usually get around,” he said. 

To accommodate the increased bike traffic, some cities have installed pop-up bike lanes, where cities temporarily dedicate street lanes to bikes. Similar repurposing can be seen around the world, with Mexico City, London, Berlin, Bogotá, and other global cities implementing bike accessibility measures since the pandemic started, according to the World Research Institute.

Cities and nations alike are planning investments in biking infrastructure and more bike share programs to produce jobs while reducing congestion, which is expected to significantly increase over time as people opt out of public transit, according to a report by Vanderbilt University.

The same increase in traffic might lead to the reopening of previously closed streets, which would present a challenge to the continued growth of bikes and scooters as a mode of transportation in the long run, said Rainwater.

“It’s a time for cities to experiment, using their streets as testing grounds for change,” said the World Research Institute.

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