Photo courtesy of Rafael Daher.

If there’s one thing Cris Matos doesn’t miss about her life before the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the way she moved throughout the five boroughs of New York City. The subway, Uber, and taxis used to be her religion. “Now, I can’t live without my bicycle,” said Matos. “I’m afraid to use the subway and I’m still concerned about getting inside a car with a driver I don’t know.” Whenever she needs to leave East Harlem, the first thing she does is plot bike lanes.

On the Upper West Side, Rafael Daher realized the bicycle would be his best friend as soon as the first Covid-19 cases emerged in the U.S. “I imagined subway trains would not be a safe place to be, so I bought an old bicycle exclusively to go to work,” said Daher. For a few weeks before the lockdown, his routine was to wake up, fold a clean shirt inside his bag, ride to Tribeca using the Hudson River Greenway, take a shower at the local gym and start the day at work. Now, as he works from home, he isn’t using his bicycle as much. “But I’ll definitely keep cycling to work after the city is reopened, maybe three times a week. That’s for sure,” he said.

It’s not just an impression: New York City has more and more cyclists every day—a trend that has been growing even stronger since residents saw their transportation options restricted due to the lockdown. Statistics provided by the city’s Department of Transportation show that after April’s bike ridership plummeted while the shelter-in-place order was at its peak, May and June numbers were significantly higher compared to the same time period in 2019.

In May, the number of bicycles that crossed the Pulaski Bridge during weekends was 108 percent higher. In June, it was 64 percent higher. The Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro and Williamsburg bridges saw 30 percent more cyclists this June compared to last year. Citi Bike’s stats show the same. More than 20,000 essential workers have signed up for their free membership through the Critical Workforce program, which offers a month of rides. Active membership is at an all-time high, CitiBike tells us.

“Bicycle is probably the most social-distancing compliant mode of transportation that there is,”  notes Joe Cutrufo, Communications Director at Transportation Alternatives.”And given that the majority of New Yorkers don’t own a car, it’s a practical way of getting around.” He also pointed out that bikes double as a mode of transportation and physical activity, which many residents have not been able to do. “Not when parks are crowded and gyms are closed,” said Cutrufo.

To encourage more bicycles on the streets since the pandemic started, the Department of Transportation has launched and expanded its Open Streets program, which now comprises 100 miles of roadways closed for cars. The DOT also posted some guidelines for riders during the pandemic, such as keeping “at least one bicycle length between you and others,” wiping the handlebars and not joining group rides with people who live outside of one’s household.

Still, Cutrufo thinks more should be done to make cycling a long-term plan for the city. “This infrastructure of temporary bike lanes we’re seeing now needs to become permanent. We realize this was put together in a very short notice, so we have a lot of work to do to make sure that this reimagining of our streets happens in an equitable way across all five boroughs, not just the neighborhoods that usually get the protective bike lanes,” he said. He cited London, Paris, Milan and Bogota as examples of cities that are using this post-pandemic moment to take steps toward a future where bikes are more prominent.

In order to steer in this same direction, New York still has to fill gaps in its 1,200-mile bike-lane network, according to a report published by the Regional Plan Association. The study also points out that more than half of all protected bike lanes—the ones that are separated from traffic by parked cars, planters or curbs—are located in Manhattan, creating a network that is “not only unnerving, it is extremely dangerous and is why gaps need to be addressed.”

The report also states that “two-thirds of those who do not bike cite safety concerns as their main reason for not riding more often or at all.” Cris Matos knows this very well. Even though she said she will continue using her bike as her main mode of transportation, she’s not sure she has the courage to cross the city on two wheels. “That I’ll keep doing with a cab or Uber. I don’t feel safe cycling in some avenues because of the intense, mixed traffic. Every time I see an accident I think that could be me,” she said.

New rules that allow restaurants to place tables in the street have also disrupted bike travel. Last week, social media posts showed restaurants blocking bike lanes with outdoor tables and dining platforms, sending at least one cyclist to the emergency room. Though the instances were a violation of city guidelines, which call for tables to replace parking spaces, even those biking by compliant restaurants must now contend with servers and diners walking through bike lanes in order to access tables. 

To discourage new riders like Matos from giving up their bikes after the pandemic, Transportation Alternatives published 100 biking tips from experienced cyclists—from which chains and locks to buy to how and where exactly to ride. But the organization says City Hall should also do its part.

“Some streets in New York are really daunting to just think about riding a bike on, such as Northern Boulevard in Queens and Canal Street in Lower Manhattan,” said Joe Cutrufo. Gaps in bike lanes are his biggest concern; they mean that the cyclist has to go out of the safe bike lane to compete with cars in mixed traffic. “So we know where the problems are and we need to address those with the emergency needed.”

“We are the only major city where the majority of residents don’t own a car, so we need City Hall to take space away from cars,” said Cutrufo. “This way, we can maintain only the good parts of this lockdown: cleaner air, less honking, less congestion and safer streets.”