D.C.'s Bike Boom Shows No Signs Of Slowing Down Amid The Pandemic Outdoor space has become a premium for many in the District, and cycling has boomed as it's one of the safer, socially-distanced ways to exercise during the pandemic.
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NPR logo D.C.'s Bike Boom Shows No Signs Of Slowing Down Amid The Pandemic

D.C.'s Bike Boom Shows No Signs Of Slowing Down Amid The Pandemic

A family rides their bikes on the closed-to-traffic Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park. The D.C. region has seen a boom in bike purchases during the pandemic, much like the rest of the country. Jordan Pascale/WAMU hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/WAMU

Guneev Sharma ordered his first bike just weeks into the pandemic. He lives in a small downtown D.C. condo with his girlfriend.

"I was just trying to get out in a safe manner," Sharma says. "I figured a bike is the best way."

There was only one problem:

"I just didn't think about it, that everyone else was gonna be buying bikes at this time," he says. "And then I Googled it and I was like, 'Lo and behold, there's a bike shortage in America.'"

Guneev Sharma stands in front of a tunnel on the Capital Crescent Trail with his new bike.Courtesy of Guneev Sharma

Sharma's bike was back-ordered, so it took a while to arrive. But since he got it, Sharma's been exploring all over — he's maxed out at 25 miles a ride. In September, he plans to ride 150 miles to raise money for a children's cancer fundraising challenge.

Outdoor space has become a premium for many in the District. Cycling has boomed as it's one of the safer, socially-distanced ways to exercise during the pandemic. And bike shops are reporting increased demand for new and used bikes as people itch for the outdoors.

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Some local trail sensors have shown 25 to 50% increases in traffic over the same time last year.

It could take a few months to get a new bike of your choosing. Waits for repairs stretch three weeks or more at some shops. Demand has far outweighed supply that's been restricted thanks to the pandemic and a shortage of parts from China.

The used market is tight, too.

Keith Jackson runs operations at Gearin' Up Bicycles, a used bike shop in Eckington. He says things have been "terribly busy." His shop teaches young people how to work on and repair bikes in an apprenticeship-like program, but now fewer trainees are available during the pandemic.

"I've been in the bicycle business since 1995 and everybody would tell you they've never seen anything like this," Jackson says. "Between the desirability of bicycles, all of a sudden, people stuck at home and people no longer feeling comfortable in mass transit, it's been very, very interesting."

The first weekend D.C. shut down in March, Gearin' Up was set to participate in a multi-bike sale outside Big Bear Cafe. The event was canceled, but Jackson told people they could come by individually if they were interested in a bike.

All 15 used bikes were gone in an hour and a half.

Wayne Souza, the co-owner of Conte's Bike Shops, has also seen unprecedented demand for new bikes. He sees a lot of first-time cyclists and families who are looking for group activities outside the house.

Souza's biggest suggestion for those who may be looking to get into cycling?

"You don't necessarily buy a bicycle that's the most expensive they have, or the best gadgetry they have," Souza says. "Just get a bicycle that you feel comfortable on and start riding."

But getting comfortable riding a bike in the city doesn't come naturally for all. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association reports record demand for its "Learn to Ride" and "City Riding" classes, says adult education coordinator Sydney Sotelo. WABA plans to restart in-person classes later this fall with social distancing.

But for now, it's webinars only. Sotelo says WABA created a series of resources and online spaces for beginners called "Let's Get Rolling."

"[So many] are finding this new hobby or getting back into it during this very stressful, intense situation we're in," Sotelo says. "The demand for bike education has been overwhelming."

Robyn Short has been teaching cycling skills for more than three years, but now she's sharing her knowledge online. Short shared her favorite safe trails in Prince George's County during a recent webinar. But she also had a call to action.

"We need you out there," Short said to the group of about 25 people. "A lot of us who live in the county are frustrated about the bicycle infrastructure, but a lot of that is based on demand.

"So more bikes means more infrastructure, more trails, more all of that."

Cities across the world are adapting to how people are moving around during the pandemic. Paris is adding 400 miles of bike lanes. Austin, Texas, is voting on bond issues to spend $120 million dollars on new trails and bike lanes. D.C. and the surrounding areas haven't committed like those cities.

The District is staying with its plans to add 20 miles of bike lanes by 2022. WABA says that's too slow, and the association would like to see 20 miles by the end of this year. D.C. also designated 22 miles of slow streets for walking, biking and play, open to local vehicle traffic only. Montgomery County has blocked off some roads near over-burdened trails to create more space.

It's not clear if these changes will last beyond the pandemic.

Wayne Souza of Conte's hopes so. He predicts interest in cycling long after the end of the public health emergency. He compares this moment to America's other big bike surge, a time that also had momentous change.

"What drove the bike boom with the '70s was the baby boomer generation deciding that they did not necessarily like the status quo, and they were going to be changers of things," he says.

That boom grew out of counter-culture, anti-war protests and the movement to protect the environment.

Guneev Sharma plans to continue cycling when the pandemic is over to do his part in slowing climate change. He also loves the exercise.

"I think I'm going to keep to it," he says. "Whenever we go back to the office, I think I'm going to start cycling to work.

"Once I figure out how to make sure I'm not sweaty when I get to the office."

He's just not sure when that will be.

Meanwhile, bike shops are still trying to keep up with demand. Jackson of Gearin' Up says business usually falls off around Halloween. This year?

"Who knows with this," he says. "Who knows."

Just like the pandemic, the bike boom is unpredictable.

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