The decisions cities made about coronavirus had a big impact on bike-share ridership

A person in a protective mask rides a Citi Bike during the coronavirus pandemic on April 24, 2020 in New York City. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

Covid is changing the ways we get around cities. Governments are advising against the use of mass transit except for essential travel, and those who need to go out are increasingly opting to use more personal forms of transportation, such as bicycles, scooters and their own two feet.

With cities across the world in search of sustainable and safe transport solutions, CityMetric examined recent bike-share data to see if there are any lessons to be learned from the ways in which people have been using bikes during the pandemic.

We analysed bike-share data from six US cities in which Lyft partners with city governments to manage their systems. Our analysis showed that the places that people are going most often in those cities has changed, often in response to city policy. It also showed that when cities enacted new policies such as offering free passes to essential workers, as well as adding or expanding docking stations near essential businesses, ridership fared better.

Overall, people have been traveling less. Stay-at-home orders and limited business operations have meant that whenever possible, people are staying put. However, according to Apple mobility data, by the end of May mass transit ridership was down much more than bike-share usage.

In Boston, mass transit ridership was down 71% at the end of May, while bike-share trips were down only 33%. In the San Francisco Bay Area, public transportation usage was down 75%, while bike-share was down only 10%. New York City’s mass transit ridership was down 77%, while bike-share was down only 4%.

We looked at the total number of bike-share trips taken during the crisis, as well as how the locations that riders visited changed. In most of the cities we analysed, bike-share data suggested that the vast majority of trips were made in order to access essential businesses. Parks and other outdoor recreation spaces also topped the list of where people were travelling.

San Francisco Bay Area

Bay Wheels, the San Francisco Bay Area’s bike-share system, includes the California cities of Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, Berkeley and Emeryville. Our geographic analysis focused on the top 20 bike-share destinations in both 2019 and 2020, between 17 March and the end of May. All top 20 destinations for both years were in the city of San Francisco.

 

On 17 March, the six Bay Area counties — San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda — announced “shelter in place” orders. On 27 March, Bay Wheels announced a one-month free rides for health care workers program. On 28 April they extended that program for another month.

Several hospitals and medical centers are located near top Bay Wheels destinations that were popular during the 2020 time period but were not as popular during the same time period in 2019.


Explore the interactive map here >>

The top two most popular destinations during 2020 were also popular last year. Market and 10th, which is near the headquarters for both Twitter and Uber, was the most popular destination during 2020. There were 2,416 trips that ended there. During the 2019 time period, Market and 10th was fourth most popular, with 10,277 trips ending there.

The Embarcadero Market station was the second most popular destination in both 2020 and 2019.

But after those two popular destinations, it was the stations nearest to hospitals and social service providers that saw greater popularity during 2020.

The Fell and Stanyan streets station, near St. Mary’s Medical Center, was the third most popular destination in 2020, with 2,203 trips that ended there. During the same time period in 2019 this station was the 51st most popular, with 2,741 trips. The Hyde and Post streets station, near St. Francis Memorial Hospital, was the eighth most popular destination in 2020, and 145th most popular in 2019. The Frederick St. And the Arguello Blvd. station, near UCSF Parnassus Medical Center, was 18th most popular in 2020. A new docking station was added there in December 2019 so there are no 2019 trips recorded there before then.

Our analysis suggests that in cases where residents still needed to get to essential healthcare jobs, relatively large numbers were doing so via bike-share.

In addition to hospitals and medical centers, it appears that bike-share was being used to access social service providers. The 11th most popular Bay Wheels destination in 2020 is located at 8th and Howard, which is centrally located to Episcopal Community Services, a social service provider for homeless and severely low-income individuals and families, as well as The Sanctuary, which provides 24-hr access to emergency shelter for homeless adults. More than 6% of trips in May 2020 were taken by low-income residents taking part in the Bike Share For All program.

New York City

Citi Bike services Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and Jersey City. The top 20 stations visited between 22 March and the end of May in both 2019 and 2020 were all located in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

 

On 22 March, New York state issued a stay-at-home order, limiting outdoor activities to the essentials and imposing social distancing guidelines when outside the home. On 25 March, Citi Bike announced its Critical Workforce Membership Program that gave 30-day free memberships to first responders, health care workers, and transit workers.

On 30 April, Citi Bike extended and enhanced the program. Critical workforce memberships were issued for a full year and benefits were extended to include workers at food-related non-profits, as well as essential city employees. The system was able to issue over 20,000 memberships through the program. Essential workers took more than 146,000 rides throughout April and May.


Explore the interactive map here >>

The 1st Ave. and E. 68th St. station – near Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and the Hospital for Special Surgery – was the third most popular destination for bike-share trips during the 2020 time period, but was only 55th most popular during the same period in 2019. Despite there being fewer trips overall on Citi Bike during the 2020 period, this station saw more trips. There were 13,422 trips that ended here in 2020 versus 13,350 in 2019.

The E. 33rd St. and 1st Ave. station, located directly in front of NYU Langone Medical Center and just blocks from NYC Health + Hospitals / Bellevue, was the 10th most popular destination in 2020, compared to 78th in 2019.

Citi Bike was the only system we examined to extend its essential worker program to transit workers. The station at 12th Ave. and W. 125th St., which is a block away from the Manhattanville Bus Depot, ranked 13th most popular in 2020. A new docking station was added there in February 2020 so there are no 2019 trips recorded there.


The top station in 2020 is located near the Hudson River Greenway and the Lincoln Bridge. It was ninth most popular in 2019. The second most popular station in the 2020 period was between Hudson River Park and Battery Park City. In 2019 it was fifth most popular.

Boston Metro

Bluebikes, the Boston metro area’s bike-share system, includes the cities of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Everett and Somerville. Our analysis looked at the top 20 stations visited between 15 March and the end of May in both 2019 and 2020.

 

On 15 March, Boston’s mayor declared a public health emergency due to Covid and limited the activities of businesses such as restaurants and bars. On 24 March, the governor of Massachusetts ordered all non-essential businesses to close. The next day, Bluebikes announced free memberships for hospital staff. On 17 April, free memberships were extended to more essential workers, including grocery store and pharmacy workers.


Explore the interactive map here >>

There were 11 new additions to the top 20 most popular Bluebikes destinations when comparing 2020 to the same time period in 2019.

The Longwood Ave. and Binney St. station – near Boston Children’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Joslin Diabetes Center, Brigham & Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School – was the eighth most popular destination with 2,066 trips ending here. During the same period in 2019, it was the 30th most popular with 3,452 trips. The Packard’s Corner Station – near HRI Hospital and two grocery stores – was sixth most popular in 2020, a considerable jump from its rank of 53rd in 2019.

DC Metro

Capital Bikeshare serves the District of Columbia; Arlington, Virginia; Alexandria, Virginia; Montgomery County, Maryland; Prince George's County, Maryland; Fairfax County, Virginia; and Falls Church, Virginia. The top 20 bike-share destinations visited between 23 March and the end of May in in both 2019 and 2020 were all located in either the District of Columbia or Arlington.

 

On 23 March, all non-essential businesses in Maryland and Virginia were ordered to close. A week later, Maryland, Virginia and DC issued shelter-in-place orders for residents. On 3 April, Capital Bikeshare announced free 30-day memberships for essential employees including health care, food service and food retailer workers. On 2 May, the membership program was extended for another month.


Explore the interactive map here >>

Destinations near pharmacies and grocery stores found their way onto the list of top Capital Bikeshare destinations during the 2020 time period.

The 4th and M St. SW station is located outside one of the few grocery stores that serves the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood. It was the fifth most popular destination during this time period, with 2,453 trips ending there. During the same period in 2019, this station ranked 25th, with 4,961 trips ending there.

The 1st and K St. SE station is near a grocery store and was 17th most popular during 2020, compared to a rank of 58th during the same months in 2019. The 8th and O St. NW station – also near a grocery store – was 18th most popular in 2020 compared to 33rd in 2019.

Several other stations near grocery stores and pharmacies were also among the top 20 most popular stations in 2020, though they were also among the top 20 most popular in 2019.

Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon’s bike-share system, Biketown PDX, experienced the biggest drop in usage in 2020 of all the cities we analysed. On average between March 23 through the end of May 2020, Biketown saw 74% fewer trips when compared to the same time period in 2019. In the majority of cities we studied, bike-share trips began edging back closer to 2019 numbers by the end of May. But by the end of May in Portland, Biketown was still seeing 70% fewer trips than the end of May last year.

 

While essential workers were getting free bike-share access elsewhere, Portland instead reduced pay-as-you-go fees for all riders. Normally, Biketown trips cost $0.08 per minute (there is also a one-time fee of $5 to set up a membership account). Between 7 April and 31 May, pay-as-you-go rides were $0.01 per minute with a one-time fee of $0.10 to sign up.

The top four stations in the 2020 time period were all located along the Willamette River, suggesting that bike-share trips during this period was mainly used for recreation.

Destinations near hospitals did not show up among the top 20 stations, as they did in other cities. Instead, we saw animal hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies.


Explore the interactive map here >>

Two stations near NW 11th and NW Northrup St. were new additions to the top 20 list during 2020. Both are located near parks.

The station at NW 20th and Burnside is near a grocery store and a pharmacy. In 2020, the station was 12th most popular. Last year during the same time period, it was 39th.

A couple of the newly popular destinations were near organisations that offer services to low-income residents.

Biketown offers both docked and dockless bikes. While there is no station on the block of West Burnside and Northwest Broadway, the area, which is near the CCC Recovery Clinic and the Old Town Clinic, was 10th most popular in 2020, compared to 68th in 2019. Both facilities offer addiction treatment services to low-income residents. The Old Town Clinic also offers primary care and mental health services.

Trips to SW 11th and Columbia, near the New Avenues for Youth, a homeless youth outreach program, and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which offers free meals and services to low-income and homeless residents, increased as well. The location was the 17th most popular destination, compared to a rank of 62nd in 2019.

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus’s bike-share system, CoGo, is the least used system among the cities we examined. In 2019, the system averaged about 3,074 trips per month. By contrast, BiketownPDX, which operates in a city with nearly 240,000 fewer residents, averaged 26,972 monthly rides in 2019.

 

On 20 March, Ohio’s governor issued a stay-at-home order in response to Covid. On 15 May, CoGo began offering free rides to health care workers. CoGo did not renew the month-long program.

Our analysis looked at the top 20 stations visited between 22 March and 19 May in both 2019 and 2020.


Explore the interactive map here >>

The Columbus bike-share system experienced the least variability between the 2020 and 2019 time periods. Of the 20 most popular destinations during 2020, 12 stations were also among the most popular in the same time period in 2019. The High St. and 2nd Ave. station near Select Specialty Hospital was 16th most popular in 2020, up just slightly from 19th in 2019.

One station did receive significantly more trips: the Livingston Park station, which is located close to Nationwide Children’s Hospital. In 2020, it ranked 11th most popular with 123 rides ending there. In 2019, it was 46th most popular with only 40 rides.

The top five most popular destinations were all located at parks along the Scioto River, suggesting that bike-share in Columbus was used more for recreation than essential travel.

The power of policy decisions

Our analysis shows that the decisions of local governments can have a huge effect on how people return to the streets. Offering free or reduced bike-share memberships breaks down barriers to cycling as mode of transportation.

As efforts like these continue, analysing how citizens use programmes such as bike-share, or take advantage of newly enhanced bike infrastructure, will provide valuable insight into continued efforts to expand these types of services.

Cities around the world have already started making permanent changes to their streets in order to make more room for bikes, e-scooters and pedestrians.

In April 2020, Milan, Italy, announced that it would be converting 22 miles of roads into shared walking and cycling routes in response to Covid. By the end of April, some of that infrastructure would begin to appear around the city. By 17 May, use of bike-share and e-scooters had begun to pick up in the city, the only forms of transportation to do so.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a plan to add car-free lanes of traffic along major roads to help improve bus efficiency and give cyclists more space to travel safely.

Proper incentives and key infrastructure adjustments can go far in ensuring that city residents can travel safely and healthily as the world works to recover amid the Covid crisis.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.

 
 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.