LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The pandemic is changing how we do a lot of things, including how we get around. Biking and walking are enjoying a huge upsurge. But even with that, road traffic is getting worse as a lot of people continue to shun public transit and drive instead. NPR's David Schaper has this report from Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The thought of packing herself onto a crowded bus or train makes Magali Olsen cringe.
MAGALI OLSEN: I'm afraid to really take the train.
SCHAPER: Yet she's been riding Chicago's Blue Line trains two days a week to her job at an insurance company downtown.
OLSEN: Although I had, like, you know, Clorox wipes to clean everything before I sat or touch anything, I was still a little scared. You know, some people weren't wearing masks.
SCHAPER: The Chicago Transit Authority mandates masks and is thoroughly cleaning trains and buses. But Olsen has had enough, and she takes me into her garage to show off her new wheels.
OLSEN: So this is the new member of the family (laughter).
SCHAPER: It's an electric scooter.
OLSEN: It doesn't go more than 30 miles per hour, so I can just take it down and call it a day.
SCHAPER: Scooters are just one of the modes that are becoming increasingly popular. Another of the two-wheeled variety is the good old bicycle.
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SCHAPER: The phones are almost constantly ringing here at Kozy's Cyclery, but anyone looking to buy a bike is likely out of luck because this huge shop with three levels of retail space is almost empty.
SHERDON WEIR: Everything in a 2020 model in a bike has basically left the building.
SCHAPER: Manager Sherdon Weir says they've been sold out of everything but the most expensive road and electric bikes and the smallest kids' bikes for months.
WEIR: 2021 models are trickling in, and we have a box filled with customers that have bikes on hold since March.
SCHAPER: But there are lots of bikes on the service side of the shop, where people are lining up outside every morning to get their old bikes repaired.
WEIR: Since they can't get a bike, they've dug up bikes from their basement that need either tires and tubes, that need tune-ups.
SCHAPER: It's the same story at bicycle shops all across the country.
AUDREY WENNINK: Biking is really on fire right now.
SCHAPER: Audrey Wennink is director of transportation for the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. As scores of two-wheelers whiz by us on the busy lakefront bike path...
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SCHAPER: ...She points to the hundreds of cars jamming up on the eight-lane highway next to it, Lake Shore Drive.
WENNINK: We are seeing traffic levels, in terms of cars, having gone up to almost pre-COVID levels.
SCHAPER: Here and in other cities with robust transit systems, people who have never owned cars before are suddenly buying them. In New York City, some are calling it carmageddon (ph) as residents there registered 40,000 new cars in July, the highest monthly total in years, while subway ridership is still down more than 75%.
Across the country, used car sales in particular are up while people still largely avoid car-sharing and ride-hailing options such as Uber and Lyft. People just don't want to be in a shared space with strangers. But at the same time, many cities are at least temporarily closing off some streets to cars, turning them instead into bike lanes and social distancing spaces for pedestrians, outdoor dining and even play lots.
WENNINK: This is a real turning point.
SCHAPER: Audrey Wennink says despite the uptick in car usage, many cities are expanding bike-share and scooter programs, as well as other active and sustainable transportation options.
WENNINK: Because the long-term problems that we have of climate change, of congestion, of constrained spaces in urban areas - those are still conditions that are going to continue to exist.
SCHAPER: She and other transportation and urban planning experts say there is an opportunity in the COVID crisis to rethink how we get around and use urban spaces in a post-pandemic world.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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