As North Americans stay home in order to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infection, normally bustling blacktop is suddenly quiet. In many busy urban centers, March 2020 is the first time in decades that the sound of birds is louder than the sound of traffic.
Cars still move people to essential errands and workplaces. Trucks still deliver essential goods. Yet on the road there is only a fraction of typical weekday vehicle flow. Remote work, shuttered workplaces, and digital visiting have kept people inside.
Bus ridership has fallen too, even among those who must go out, by choice and by necessity. Transit authorities in many cities have created social distancing policies for their vehicles, and limit per-bus ridership.
To document the changes to traffic, Streetsblog journalist and cyclist Clarence Eckerson got on his bike to film changes to New York City’s traffic patterns. Comparing with previous footage of the same routes shows the stark difference between COVID-restricted traffic and business-as-usual congestion.
Yet during his ride, Eckerson saw other cyclists out and using the lanes. There was less traffic, but the relative change in volume seemed smaller than with vehicles.
Transfer to bike-share makes a lot of sense. Bicycles offer people a chance to get outside and exercise while observing physical distancing, and outdoor exercise is still a recommendation for most people who are not under a shelter-in-place or quarantine protocol. Streets with few cars allow even hesitant riders to feel safe. Essential workers, who need to commute, may wish to take advantage of emptier streets by cycling. Some of those essential workers are food delivery drivers who commonly ride their bicycles for work.
We wondered what the data might show about the changes in bike traffic: how does it compare to changes in vehicle traffic? The company Eco-Counter has bike traffic totems installed all throughout the world. Public access to their daily numbers allows us to see in real-time how Covid is affecting cyclist behavior. Of course, these totems only give a snapshot of certain routes—they’re often set up on commuter heavy paths that may see less traffic as people work from home. Any uptick in those taking advantage of quiet streets to bike in their neighborhoods or in local parks will not be caught by commuter totems.
The ragged start of spring weather through March will also affect ridership rates in different communities: although winter cycling populations exist all over North America, there are many people who do not have appropriate tires or gear, or who simply feel more comfortable when temperatures move above freezing.
How quickly a jurisdiction has adapted to the physical distancing now recommended also will affect the numbers.
Cyclist behavior is observable and comparable on three long-established eco-counters: one in Montreal and two in Seattle. These North American bike-friendly cities have long established commuter patterns that allow comparison to see how COVID is changing cycle traffic.
Montreal: Steady Use on Laurier Ave.
The Laurier Ave. bike path in Montreal is on a quiet one-way street that travels beside the Montreal borough of Plateau Mont Royal, an area known for a vibrant creative class. Montreal’s busy downtown—with museums, ports, university campuses, and city hall—lies approximately 2 miles south-east of this popular commuter route. On the busiest of traffic days, Laurier Avenue is not a vehicle arterial, but rather a traffic calmed active-transportation haven.
March sees Montreal begin to transition between the icy grip of winter and the slow thaw of spring. Therefore, March numbers for bike trips are unpredictable year over year. The number of trips by bike historically fluctuates with temperatures, with winter ridership traditionally being around one tenth the number of riders on the streets as in the summertime. The actions of both the City of Montreal and groups like Velo Quebec have led to an overall increase in winter cycling: January 2020’s ridership was one sixth of July 2019’s traffic. This is quite a feat, given that July 2019 saw the highest number of trips to date in a single month on Laurier Ave.
In the clinging winter season of 2014, with an average temperature of 21 degrees (F), only 4,746 trips were taken by brave cyclists in March. Slow increase in ride share has increased participation rates ever since.
Following this pattern, March 2020 has seen the greatest number of cycle trips of any March, even those with similar weather patterns. Social distancing started mid-March with university and workplace closures, although ridership only fell in the last week of the month.
Wednesdays are one of the peak cycling days each week. Last year, on a cool but sunny Wednesday in the last week of March, Laurier Totem counted 1,114 riders. This year was warmer and cloudier, and 831 people set their wheels to the same path – about three-quarters the traffic. This bike traffic on a Wednesday is comparable to many of the previous years with the same weather patterns in bustling, regular times.
In contrast, vehicle traffic has dropped substantially. Absolute numbers of vehicle trips are harder to find in the near term. However, TomTom, the GPS company, provides real-time traffic congestion reports and historical data to compare how city traffic is changing.
This is of course an apples-to-oranges comparison, since bike lanes do not suffer from congestion. Bike lanes experienced 0% congestion last year, and 0% this year. This does not make for easy comparison between ride-modes, since absolute traffic numbers are not the same as congestion values.
However, TomTom is showing a substantial drop in congestion the week of March 20–27, 2020 which suggests drops in absolute traffic volume. At peak times, this drop in congestion is as high as 53%, compared to last year.
Seattle WA: Fremont and Spokane Pedestrian Bridges
The Pacific Northwest is slightly more bicycle friendly all year round, with seasonal dips in traffic not as extreme as in Montreal. Even still, winters are rainy and cold, dipping below freezing overnight and experiencing some snow each year, and many cyclists use other transportation methods in the darkest months.
December sees, on average, about one quarter of the bike traffic seen in warm spring or summer months. Bike traffic increases more quickly in the spring than in colder cities, with March usually experiencing about two-thirds of peak traffic. Like Montreal, concerted cycling campaigns and increased installation of bike infrastructure have led to overall increases in cycle traffic in the past few years.
Two long-standing bike counters sit at the entrances of the Fremont St. and Spokane St. bridges.
Fremont St. is the busier bike path of the two, with an average of 67,451 trips each March over the years 2013–2020. It crosses Union Lake about three miles north of Seattle’s downtown. The majority of these trips are weekday rush-hour commuter trips from the Fremont neighborhood into the tourist and business districts of Seattle center. Traffic also runs the other way as downtown dwellers commute to Fremont. The neighborhood has been gentrifying, gaining employers such as Adobe, microbreweries, and eateries.
Fremont St. bridge is a drawbridge, twinned by the taller and wider Aurora St. Bridge to the east.
The Spokane St. bridge bike path is also mostly a commuter route with weekday peaks in traffic. It connects West Seattle with Seattle’s “Industrial District,” home of many corporate head offices—including Starbucks and Jones Soda—as well as lots of manufacturers or distributers. The Spokane St. bridge, running into and out of this industrial district, is less likely to see high volumes of leisure traffic, and in general sees fewer cyclist trips. Between 2014 and 2020, there were an average of 19,758 trips each March across the bike path.
Seattle’s two commuter hubs have seen more of a drop off than the Laurier path in Montreal; Laurier connects more local residents to parks and grocery stores than do the bridge-spanning Seattle routes. Still, a year-over-year single day comparison shows that traffic has not stopped. Without COVID-19 restrictions, last year saw 1,090 trips on the final Wednesday in March. This year’s volume was reduced by one third, with 706 riders. TomTom data for Seattle shows a dramatic drop in rush-hour vehicle traffic on the same two days, with 55% peak reduction in traffic congestion.
Biking infrastructure and the benefits of feeling safe
Studies show that safety helps get new riders onto their bikes. Great cycling infrastructure helps create this safety: the less-busy streets during this pandemic make more of our infrastructure feel safe.
As we work from home and socially distance, vehicle traffic is dropping, and people are avoiding crowded public spaces. Although those able to work remotely may not be cycling as much—or replacing cycle commuting with leisure cycling—the changes in vehicle traffic patterns may entice a new group of people onto their bicycles.
Cyclists have taken to social media to talk about safer, less smoggy rides being one of the small silver linings in the need to socially isolate. Councilors in Ottawa, Ontario are encouraging their cities to increase pedestrian and cyclist spaces during the pandemic to allow for greater physical distancing for those going out for either work or recreation.
Patterns of working-from-home and cycle-share will not stay as they are now, after the world drives back this novel coronavirus pandemic. However, extreme global changes in behavior often have long-lasting cultural effects. Even a few percentage points of the overall population making a behavioral change will represent a large number. How might the response of cities to the current crisis affect the cities of the future? How will infrastructure adapt?