Pandemic bike boom gives cities permission to green their streets

'They assumed people were opposed, now they're finding people quite like clean air'

Four bicyclists on a path beside a quiet road.
Bicyclists ride along the Mississippi River at Upper Landing Park on April 4. The U.S. and much of the globe have seen a bike boom recently, fueled by a pandemic
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

In the 1970s, car traffic and environmental concerns led to a bike boom in the United States. Bicycle sales skyrocketed and elected officials planned for 100,000 miles of bikeways, according to Carlton Reid, author of the book, “Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling.”

But it didn’t stick.

“[The bikeways] didn't get built, so people who were attracted to cycling and who may have stuck around after it fell out of fashion, a lot of them fell away,” said Reid, who also writes about transportation for Forbes and The Guardian.

Now the United States and much of the globe is in the midst of another bike boom — this time fueled by a pandemic — and there are signs some cities are making moves to support it long term.

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Several European cities that have closed streets to cars to support cycling and socially distant walking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 are looking to make the changes permanent to support a healthier community and environment; transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“They’re basically putting plans in place that they couldn't have done beforehand,” Reid said. “They assumed that people were opposed to these kind of measures and they're now finding that, no, people actually quite like the clean air. I think that it’s just opened many people's eyes, both literally and figuratively, to how we can do things differently.

A survey of residents in six European countries found 75 percent of respondents supported maintaining recent changes to streets, include a solid majority of people who regularly commute by car.

It’s unclear if there’s similar sentiment in Minnesota, but cities have temporarily cleared some parkways of cars, and bike sales are through the roof.

Reid spoke with MPR News chief meteorologist and Climate Cast host Paul Huttner. Hear their conversation by hitting play on the audio player above.