Biking boomed during the pandemic—to the point where bike shops sold out. Why? Outdoors, you weren’t likely to pick up the coronavirus and it was good to get out, move your legs, and cover some ground.

In the Southwest, cycling increased almost by half on weekends and by 42 percent during the workweek, according to data from bike counters, cell phone GPS records and city departments of transportion (Buehler and Pucher, 2021). A similar spike in weekend biking came to the United Kingdom.

But the U.S. is still behind much of Europe. “In a lot of German cities, they don’t just get around by bike; deliver mail by bike, police on bikes — they do everything by bike, across all demographic groups,” said study co-author John Pucher, a professor emeritus at Rutgers who once lived in Germany. “There’s so much we can learn from other countries about how to encourage people to ride” (Wilson et al., 2021).

Still, we’re making progress. Around the U.S., cities created new bike lanes, cut speed limits, and closed streets to cars. “It made cycling more comfortable and convenient, and I think that’s part of why people showed up” Pucher explained.

Now that in much of America the pandemic is ebbing, here’s why, and how, we should keep pedaling.

Biking is good for you

Stationary cycling is one of the top activities in gyms. A 2019 review of the available research on indoor cycling concluded that it can improve aerobic capacity, blood pressure, lipid profile, and body composition (Chavarrias et al., 2019). Not surprisingly, research also documents health benefits of biking outdoors. In one study, researchers recruited 130 physically inactive, healthy adults under the age of 45 who were either overweight or mildly obese. For the next six months, they were divided into a control group, a group that commuted by bike to work, and a group that exercised any way they chose five days a week at either moderate or vigorous intensity.

The results: insulin sensitivity improved in the bicycling commuters and vigorous exercisers. All the exercise groups improved their cardiorespiratory fitness and lost belly fat (Blond et al., 2019).

Cycle like a European

To build exercise into our lives, we could all take a lesson from across the Atlantic.

Classic vintage retro bicycle in Copenhagen, Denmark
Bikes in Denmark are designed for transportation, not the Tour de France. Note the chain guard to keep office clothing grease-free.

In Denmark and the Netherlands, people of all ages commute by bike year-round, to work, school, daycare, grocery stores and events. Bikes tend to be heavy, with wide fenders, large baskets and heavy racks, and they don’t look sleek or new.

Amsterdam and Copenhagen’s bikers also aren’t wearing special bright spandex outfits. They’re dressed for their destination. Think of London’s bankers in their suits.

If we embraced our bikes fully, at least some of us could give up our cars! Ninety percent of Denmark’s population owns a bike while only 56 percent owns a car (Reliance Foundry, 2021).

What about theft? Europeans often don’t lock their bikes, which aren’t in good shape anyway. A basic strategy is to leave your bike next to a better-looking one, to distract a thief.  

Is it safe? Cars are more accustomed to dealing with bikes in bike-heavy cities, so the more of us choose to bike, the safer it’s likely to become.

What if I’m going on a longish trip? It’s easy to bring your bike onto a bus or a train in many parts of Europe.

When bikes rule Manhattan’s East River Drive

Most years in New York I get a taste of bike-centric living when I join the Five Boro Bike Tour.

For years, American Youth Hostels (AYH) had been encouraging people to cycle; back in the 1970s, young travelers often journeyed from hostel to hostel on foot or bike. In 1977, AYH joined with the city in an event designed to encourage student riders.

Classic vintage retro bicycle in Copenhagen, Denmark
Bikers roll over the iconic Brooklyn Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

On that first ride, with some 250 bikers, the city responded with joy. As one biker wrote, people “were hanging out of windows, coming out of stores to line the streets. Some were cheering, some were staring. The kids were dancing up and down and running alongside us. Those who had bikes rode with us for a while. To see people smiling and cheering really made us feel fantastic.”

The next year, 3,000 bikers came. In 1980, 12,000 signed up. It’s now a tradition that on the first Sunday in May, 32,000 riders –there are always more people trying to sign up than slots - travel a familiar 40-mile route that includes a bit of each of the five boroughs in the city. The riders come from every state in the nation and as many as 65 countries around the world. (This year, because of the pandemic, the Tour will be in August.)

I’ve never owned a car. I like cars when I need them, of course. But it is thrilling to me on my bike when we, the cyclists, fill Sixth Avenue, a major artery in the city closed to cars during the Five Boro Bike Tour. We have our own lane on the East River Highway and fill the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island.

On a bike you see the city up close but can cover much more territory than I can manage walking.

And everywhere we go, people are cheering.