Receive our newsletter - data-led analysis, original reporting and insights
Transport / Cycling

The decisions cities made about coronavirus had a big impact on bike-share ridership

Offering free or reduced memberships broke down barriers to cycling.

Covid is changing the ways we get around cities. Governments are advising against the use of mass transit except for essential travel, and those who need to go out are increasingly opting to use more-personal forms of transportation, such as bicycles, scooters and their own two feet.

boy on Citi Bike bicycle wearing a mask
A person in a protective mask rides a Citi Bike during the coronavirus pandemic on 24 April, 2020, in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

With cities across the world in search of sustainable and safe transport solutions, City Monitor examined recent bike-share data to see if there are any lessons to be learned from the ways in which people have been using bikes during the pandemic.

We analysed bike-share data from six US cities in which Lyft partners with city governments to manage their systems. Our analysis showed that the places people are going most often in those locales has changed, often in response to local policy. It also showed that when cities enacted new policies, such as offering free passes to essential workers, as well as adding or expanding docking stations near essential businesses, ridership fared better.

Overall, people have been travelling less. Stay-at-home orders and limited business operations have meant that whenever possible, people are staying put. However, according to Apple mobility data, by the end of May, mass transit ridership was down much more than bike-share usage.

In Boston, mass transit ridership was down 71% at the end of May, while bike-share trips were down only 33%. In the San Francisco Bay Area, public-transportation usage was down 75%, while bike-share was down only 10%. New York City’s mass transit ridership was down 77%, while bike-share was down only 4%.

We looked at the total number of bike-share trips taken during the crisis as well as how the locations riders visited changed. In most of the cities we analysed, bike-share data suggested that the vast majority of trips were made to access essential businesses. Parks and other outdoor recreation spaces also topped the list of where people were travelling.

San Francisco Bay Area

Bay Wheels, the San Francisco Bay Area’s bike-share system, includes the California cities of Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, Berkeley and Emeryville. Our geographic analysis focused on the top 20 bike-share destinations in 2019 and 2020 between 17 March and the end of May. All top 20 destinations for both years were in the city of San Francisco.

On 17 March, the six Bay Area counties – San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda – announced shelter-in-place orders. On 27 March, Bay Wheels announced a one-month free-rides program for healthcare workers. On 28 April, it extended that program for another month.

Several hospitals and medical centres are located near top Bay Wheels destinations that were popular during the 2020 time period but were not as popular during the same time period in 2019.

Explore the interactive map here >>

The top two most popular destinations during 2020 were also popular last year. Market and 10th, which is near the headquarters of both Twitter and Uber, was the most popular destination during 2020. There were 2,416 trips that ended there. During the 2019 time period, Market and 10th was fourth-most-popular, with 10,277 trips ending there.

The Embarcadero Market station was the second-most-popular destination in both 2020 and 2019.

But after those two popular destinations, it was the stations nearest to hospitals and social-service providers that saw greater popularity during 2020.

The Fell and Stanyan streets station, near St. Mary’s Medical Center, was the third-most-popular destination in 2020, with 2,203 trips that ended there. During the same time period in 2019, this station was the 51st-most-popular, with 2,741 trips. The Hyde and Post streets station, near St. Francis Memorial Hospital, was the eighth-most-popular destination in 2020 and 145th-most-popular in 2019. The Frederick Street and the Arguello Boulevard station, near UCSF Parnassus Medical Center, was 18th-most-popular in 2020. A new docking station was added there in December 2019, so there are no 2019 trips recorded there before then.

Our analysis suggests that in cases where residents still needed to get to essential healthcare jobs, relatively large numbers were doing so via bike-share.

In addition to hospitals and medical centres, it appears that bike-share was being used to access social-service providers. The 11th-most-popular Bay Wheels destination in 2020 is located at Eighth and Howard, which is centrally located to Episcopal Community Services, a social-service provider for homeless and severely low-income individuals and families, as well as the Sanctuary, which provides 24-hour access to emergency shelter for homeless adults. More than 6% of trips in May 2020 were taken by low-income residents taking part in the Bike Share for All program.

New York City

Citi Bike serves Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and Jersey City in New Jersey. The top 20 stations visited between 22 March and the end of May in both 2019 and 2020 were all located in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

On 22 March, New York state issued a stay-at-home order, limiting outdoor activities to the essentials and imposing social-distancing guidelines when outside the home. On 25 March, Citi Bike announced its Critical Workforce Membership Program that gave 30-day free memberships to first responders, healthcare workers and transit workers.

On 30 April, Citi Bike extended and enhanced the program. Critical workforce memberships were issued for a full year, and benefits were extended to include workers at food-related non-profits as well as essential city employees. The system was able to issue over 20,000 memberships through the program. Essential workers took more than 146,000 rides throughout April and May.

Explore the interactive map here >>

The First Avenue and East 68th Street station – near Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and the Hospital for Special Surgery – was the third-most-popular destination for bike-share trips during the 2020 time period but was only 55th-most-popular during the same period in 2019. Despite there being fewer trips overall on Citi Bike during the 2020 period, this station saw more trips. There were 13,422 trips that ended here in 2020, versus 13,350 in 2019.

The East 33rd Street and First Avenue station, located directly in front of NYU Langone Medical Center and just blocks from NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue, was the tenth-most-popular destination in 2020, compared with 78th in 2019.

Citi Bike was the only system we examined to extend its essential-worker program to transit workers. The station at 12th Avenue and West 125th Street, which is a block away from the Manhattanville Bus Depot, ranked 13th-most-popular in 2020. A new docking station was added there in February 2020, so there are no 2019 trips recorded there.

The top station in 2020 is located near the Hudson River Greenway and the Lincoln Bridge. It was ninth-most-popular in 2019. The second-most-popular station in the 2020 period was between Hudson River Park and Battery Park City. In 2019, it was fifth-most-popular.

Boston Metro

Bluebikes, the Boston metro area’s bike-share system, includes the cities of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Everett and Somerville. Our analysis looked at the top 20 stations visited between 15 March and the end of May in both 2019 and 2020.

On 15 March, Boston’s mayor declared a public-health emergency due to Covid and limited the activities of businesses such as restaurants and bars. On 24 March, the governor of Massachusetts ordered all non-essential businesses to close. The next day, Bluebikes announced free memberships for hospital staff. On 17 April, free memberships were extended to more essential workers, including grocery store and pharmacy employees.

Explore the interactive map here >>

There were 11 new additions to the top 20 most popular Bluebikes destinations when comparing 2020 with the same time period in 2019.

The Longwood Avenue and Binney Street station – near Boston Children’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Joslin Diabetes Center, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School – was the eighth-most-popular destination, with 2,066 trips ending here. During the same period in 2019, it was the 30th-most-popular, with 3,452 trips. The Packard’s Corner Station – near HRI Hospital and two grocery stores – was sixth-most-popular in 2020, a considerable jump from its rank of 53rd in 2019.

DC Metro

Capital Bikeshare serves the District of Columbia; Arlington, Virginia; Alexandria, Virginia; Montgomery County, Maryland; Prince George’s County, Maryland; Fairfax County, Virginia; and Falls Church, Virginia. The top 20 bike-share destinations visited between 23 March and the end of May in in both 2019 and 2020 were all located in either the District of Columbia or Arlington.

On 23 March, all non-essential businesses in Maryland and Virginia were ordered to close. A week later, Maryland, Virginia and DC issued shelter-in-place orders for residents. On 3 April, Capital Bikeshare announced free 30-day memberships for essential employees, including healthcare, food service and food retailer workers. On 2 May, the membership program was extended for another month.

Explore the interactive map here >>

Destinations near pharmacies and grocery stores found their way onto the list of top Capital Bikeshare destinations during the 2020 time period.

The Fourth and M Street SW station is located outside one of the few grocery stores that serves the Southwest Waterfront neighbourhood. It was the fifth-most-popular destination during this time period, with 2,453 trips ending there. During the same period in 2019, this station ranked 25th, with 4,961 trips ending there.

The First and K Street SE station is near a grocery store and was 17th-most-popular during 2020, compared with a rank of 58th during the same months in 2019. The Eighth and O Street NW station – also near a grocery store – was 18th-most-popular in 2020, compared with 33rd in 2019.

Several other stations near grocery stores and pharmacies were also among the top 20 most popular stations in 2020, though they were also among the top 20 most popular in 2019.

Portland

Portland, Oregon’s bike-share system, Biketown PDX, experienced the biggest drop in usage in 2020 of all the cities we analysed. On average, between March 23 through the end of May 2020, Biketown saw 74% fewer trips when compared with the same time period in 2019. In the majority of locales we studied, bike-share trips began edging back closer to 2019 numbers by the end of May. But by the end of that month in Portland, Biketown was still seeing 70% fewer trips than the end of May last year.

While essential workers were getting free bike-share access elsewhere, Portland instead reduced pay-as-you-go fees for all riders. Normally, Biketown trips cost $0.08 per minute (there is also a one-time fee of $5 to set up a membership account). Between 7 April and 31 May, pay-as-you-go rides were $0.01 per minute with a one-time fee of $0.10 to sign up.

The top four stations in the 2020 time period were all located along the Willamette River, suggesting that bike-share trips during this period were mainly used for recreation.

Destinations near hospitals did not show up among the top 20 stations as they did in other cities. Instead, we saw animal hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies.

Explore the interactive map here >>

Two stations near NW 11th and NW Northrup Street were new additions to the top 20 list during 2020. Both are located near parks.

The station at NW 20th and Burnside is near a grocery store and a pharmacy. In 2020, the station was 12th-most-popular. Last year during the same time period, it was 39th.

A couple of the newly popular destinations were near organisations that offer services to low-income residents.

Biketown offers both docked and dockless bikes. While there is no station on the block of West Burnside and Northwest Broadway, the area, which is near the CCC Recovery Clinic and the Old Town Clinic, was tenth-most-popular in 2020, compared with 68th in 2019. Both facilities offer addiction treatment services to low-income residents. The Old Town Clinic also offers primary-care and mental-health services.

Trips to SW 11th and Columbia, near the New Avenues for Youth, a homeless-youth outreach program, and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which offers free meals and services to low-income and homeless residents, increased as well. The location was the 17th-most-popular destination, compared with a rank of 62nd in 2019.

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus’s bike-share system, CoGo, is the least-used among the cities we examined. In 2019, the system averaged about 3,074 trips per month. By contrast, BiketownPDX, which operates in a city with nearly 240,000 fewer residents, averaged 26,972 monthly rides in 2019.

On 20 March, Ohio’s governor issued a stay-at-home order in response to Covid. On 15 May, CoGo began offering free rides to healthcare workers. CoGo did not renew the month-long program.

Our analysis looked at the top 20 stations visited between 22 March and 19 May in both 2019 and 2020.

Explore the interactive map here >>

The Columbus bike-share system experienced the least variability between the 2020 and 2019 time periods. Of the 20 most popular destinations during 2020, 12 stations were also among the most popular in the same time period in 2019. The High Street and Second Avenue station near Select Specialty Hospital was 16th-most-popular in 2020, up just slightly from 19th in 2019.

One station did receive significantly more trips: the Livingston Park station, which is located close to Nationwide Children’s Hospital. In 2020, it ranked 11th-most-popular, with 123 rides ending there. In 2019, it was 46th-most-popular, with only 40 rides.

The top five most popular destinations were all located at parks along the Scioto River, suggesting that bike-share in Columbus was used more for recreation than essential travel.

The power of policy decisions

Our analysis shows that the decisions of local governments can have a huge effect on how people return to the streets. Offering free or reduced bike-share memberships breaks down barriers to cycling as mode of transportation.

As efforts like these continue, analysing how citizens use programmes such as bike-share, or take advantage of newly enhanced bicycle infrastructure, will provide valuable insight into continued efforts to expand these types of services.

Cities around the world have already started making permanent changes to their streets to make more room for bikes, e-scooters and pedestrians.

In April 2020, Milan, Italy, announced that it would be converting 22 miles of roads into shared walking and cycling routes in response to Covid. By the end of that month, some of that infrastructure would begin to appear around the city. By 17 May, use of bike-share and e-scooters had begun to pick up there, the only forms of transportation to do so.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a plan to add car-free lanes of traffic along major roads to help improve bus efficiency and give cyclists more space to travel safely.

Proper incentives and key infrastructure adjustments can go far in ensuring that city residents can travel safely and healthily as the world works to recover amid the Covid crisis.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at City Monitor.