Ontario bike shops, urban planners say coronavirus pandemic could shift the culture of cycling

Cyclists negotiate a road crossing on a bike path in Toronto on Saturday, May 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO – A Toronto bike shop says it hopes a recent boom in sales during the COVID-19 pandemic is a sign of growing public support for cycling.

Bateman’s Bicycle Shop says it initially experienced a two-week slump as health measures meant to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus took effect, but there’s been a complete reversal since then.

The company’s president, Robert Bateman, says they’ve seen a roughly 30 per cent increase in new customers and their work shop is booked solid.

Bateman says he hopes having more cyclists on the roads will spur growth in bike infrastructure.

Some city planners in Ontario say the renewed interest in cycling during the pandemic could spark long-term change in public attitudes towards bicycles as a means of transportation, as more people try it for the first time.

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In Toronto, city council has approved 25 kilometres of temporary bike lanes to accommodate the increased demand during the health crisis, meaning a total of 40 kilometres of lanes are set to be built in 2020.

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The city’s bike-sharing network, Bike Share Toronto, has also seen a spike in ridership, and this month saw a record 36,000 trips in a single weekend.

“People are rediscovering the bicycle and they’re finding it a really rewarding, safe and efficient way to get around,” said Coun. Brad Bradford, who cycles year-round and sits on the board of the agency that oversees Bike Share Toronto.

Click to play video: 'Cycling and rollerblading business booming during pandemic'
Cycling and rollerblading business booming during pandemic

“When you experience all of those things, I think it’s going to be positive for a lot of people.”

To sustain that growth over time, Bradford said cities have to build more cycling infrastructure that makes riders feel safe.

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Kornel Mucsi, a program manager for transportation policy and networks in Ottawa, said there won’t be long-term change unless cities seize the opportunity to promote active transportation.

“COVID-19 is a relatively short-term thing, but the way you change the philosophy of how you build streets, that’s what could remain for years,” said Mucsi.

“I really see this as an opportunity to put a bigger emphasis on active transportation in the design of streets.”

Building separated bike lanes that are also maintained through the winter is the best way to ensure that the rise in cycling isn’t just a temporary side-effect of the pandemic, Mucsi said.

He said bike lanes that are on roads and marked with paint aren’t enough because new riders won’t feel safe and parents might not want their children to ride on them.

Cycling in the winter on a maintained path is just as pleasant as cross-country skiing if you’re dressed well, Mucsi said. And even if some people choose to ride only in the summer, he said it’s an amenity worth having.

“Yes, we have long winters, five to six months here in Ottawa, but you still have a barbecue and many people have pools,” said Mucsi.

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“They use it for a couple of months in the year and still it’s a very huge value for your life. That’s how we should be looking at cycling.”

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