While we have focused primarily on transit ridership on this blog, the pandemic has significantly affected all transportation modes. One interesting case is the effect of the pandemic on biking. A so-called “bicycle boom” has been observed during the pandemic so far, as bicycle demand seemed to increase greatly throughout Massachusetts. In order to track the extent of the pandemic’s effects on biking in Massachusetts, we decided to take a closer look at bike activity data from Streetlight, a location-based services data platform that uses anonymous cell phone location data to understand trip making.
Statewide Bicycle Activity, 2021 and 2020 vs. 2019
To understand the pandemic’s effect on trip-making, we used the Streetlight data to investigate how bike activity changed in 2020 and 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic period of 2019. Across the state, bicycle trips fell at the start of the pandemic in 2020, but not as much as other modes of transportation. In April 2020, bicycle activity in Massachusetts was 48.8% lower than April 2019. It recovered faster than other modes, reaching close to 2019 levels by the summer.
Bicycle trips remained near pre-pandemic levels through the end of 2020 before dipping again in February 2021. Relative bike activity reached its minimum in April for both 2020 and 2021, though 2021’s minimum value was 16% greater than 2020’s. From May to August 2021, statewide bike activity was almost identical to the previous year.
April Bicycle Activity, 2021 vs. 2020 vs. 2019
Overall, statewide bicycle activity decreased at the start of the pandemic with the total number of trips dropping. The map below shows how much bicycle activity changed from April 2019 to April 2020 at the town level. It appears that the decreased bike activity was most concentrated in the Boston-area urban core, while the surrounding areas actually saw increases in bicycle activity. This may be due to the loss of urban bicycle commuters and a rise in recreational cycling.
In April 2021, bicycle activity in the urban core increased as compared to 2020, but it was still below the 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, bike activity outside the urban core remained higher in April 2021 than in 2019, but overall trip-making generally declined from 2020. Therefore, it seems that across the state, bicycle activity is generally trending back toward pre-pandemic levels. After large changes in bicycle activity in 2020, the number of trips appeared to move back toward pre-pandemic levels in 2021.
Bluebikes ridership was strong at the start of 2020, as the average number of daily rentals was markedly higher than the previous year. This may be partly explained by the addition of 59 new stations and increasing the capacities for existing stations. However, the number of rentals still fell well below pre-pandemic levels when Boston’s state of emergency was declared. Over the following months, Bluebikes rentals would steadily recover, roughly returning to 2019 levels by November. Rental averages continued to follow 2019 levels through the early part of 2021 but failed to rise to early 2020’s pre-pandemic levels. Through the rest of 2021, we observed slightly higher average rentals compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 along with the addition of 46 more stations.
For all years, there are more stations that fall into smaller ridership tiers than higher ridership tiers. Even so, we observed a markedly higher number of stations in the smaller station categories for 2020 as compared to both 2019 and 2021. In 2021, small stations did not see as large of an increase in usage as the other larger station categories. Because these station categories are based on ridership, the increased bicycle usage in 2021 resulted in more stations being categorized in larger tiers.
The pandemic has materially impacted bicycle travel in Massachusetts. As the “new normal” continues to develop amidst changing circumstances, it seems that bicycle travel is generally returning to pre-pandemic levels. This post has described how these trends are expressed in aggregate statewide bicycle use.
We hypothesize that the trends we observed are caused by two primary factors: (1) the closure of offices and workplaces triggered a decrease in commuter bike use and (2) an increase in recreational biking as a reaction to stay at home orders. The bicycling behavior we saw during the pandemic – namely, the growth in bicycle mode share – showed us that it is possible to achieve a transportation mix that gets us closer to our statewide greenhouse gas emissions goals. Ideally, the overall increase in bicycle usage during the pandemic should be preserved through adequate investments in infrastructure and related behavioral incentives (for example, from employers).
We will continue to follow these trends through the coming months to monitor pandemic recovery for the bicycle mode of transportation.