May 27, 2020

National Bike Month Sees Biking Boom, Despite Pandemic

BIKING BOOM:Though National Bike Month events were canceled in Princeton, the COVID-19 crisis has helped to create an upsurge in biking, with bicycle stores busier than ever and people of all ages getting outside on their bikes to enjoy the sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. (Photo by Jerry Foster)

By Donald Gilpin

May is National Bike Month, and one of this year’s themes has been the cancellation of almost all scheduled events.

Ciclovia, with Quaker Road closed to traffic on a Sunday afternoon; Chasing George, family-friendly rides with a costumed, bike-riding George Washington leading the pack; Walk- and Bike-to-School days at all of the elementary schools and John Witherspoon Middle School; Bike-to-Work Day; Bike-to-Work Week; Bike Rodeo in the Community Park parking lot; the Princeton Freewheelers’ regular weekly schedule of group rides — all canceled.

But with spring weather moving in and the stay-at-home order shutting down public gatherings and diminishing traffic, people have been bringing their old bicycles out of the garage, heading to bike stores for repairs and new purchases, and getting out on the streets, roads, and bike paths.

“With car traffic down, this is a great time to enjoy our town at a human pace: on foot or on bike,” states a Princeton Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) post on Facebook.  “Indeed, we need walking and biking now more than ever, for our physical and mental well-being.”

Kopp’s Cycle Store Manager Jesus Tapia has seen a flood of business in recent weeks. “The bike business has been interesting,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot busier, and the biggest thing has been more people getting their old bikes out of the garage and getting them repaired and back and running again.”

Bikes have been selling fast and stores have had difficulty keeping bikes in stock, “but the biggest thing for me,” Tapia added, “is to see people bring their old bikes in for me to refurbish and get them back on the road. I love bringing the bike back to life and giving someone who used to ride that joy again.”

With all its traditional bike month events canceled, the PBAC has undertaken a major initiative to “rebalance the streets,” to meet the demand for public space, looking to the streets for physical and mental recreation. They have teamed up with Municipal Engineer Deanna Stockton, Princeton Council President David Cohen, the Department of Public Works, and the Princeton Police Department  to identify safer bike and walk infrastructure

that can be efficiently realized. Space formerly reserved for cars can be re-purposed, they have discovered, to allow people to be outside while maintaining physical distancing.

The town is ready to implement 28 bike boulevards, with future plans for bike lanes, “slow streets,” extended sidewalks to accommodate curbside pickup hubs and parklets, bike corrals, and safer distancing for pedestrians.

“The creating of bike boulevards means putting in signage to make drivers aware that it’s a favored route for cyclists and that autos should defer to cyclists in the roadway,” said Cohen, who noted that bike boulevards do not require significant additional infrastructure. “You don’t need to tear up the road to make a bike boulevard,” he said. “You just have to put up the signs.”

Cohen noted that the PBAC teamed up with the Princeton Merchants Association, Sustainable Princeton, and others in exploring possibilities for expanding the sidewalks into the roadway.

Cohen also discussed the pilot plan for “slow streets,” with temporary road closures on certain quiet streets. Deliveries and people who live there would be allowed to drive in with reduced speed limits, but no through traffic. “We’re only looking at local streets,” he said. “We don’t want to create inconveniences for people who are driving.” Cohen added that the pilot plan would assess people’s reactions and see if residents are interested in creating more “slow streets.”

Cohen commented on the effects of the lockdown on people’s habits and expressed hope that there would be some permanent changes for the better. “I hope people who have been getting out on their bicycles will realize that they not only feel better but enjoy getting around that way,” he said.  “I hope this will accelerate a trend that has already been happening.”

Cohen and the PBAC have also focused on the Safe Routes to Schools program, which has been successful in encouraging biking and walking to school. “The kids love the independence of it,” Cohen said. “They love the environmentalism of it. This generation gets it.”

PBAC Chair Lisa Serieyssol emphasized that her committee has also been active in education, working with the  Safe Routes to Schools program to make presentations in the schools for elementary and middle school classes, for the Princeton High School cycling club, and for parents at PTO meetings.  They have also worked with gym and health teachers to prepare a short safety instruction video for use in remote learning sessions.

A republished, updated Princeton bike and pedestrian map will be coming out in the next month, Serieyssol added, and the committee is in the process of establishing a series of bike routes and loops, suggested itineraries from a few miles to about 16 miles in distance. 

Serieyssol commented on the unusual number of bikers and walkers who are out around town. “The number of kids who are learning to ride for the first time is really heartwarming,” she said.

Commenting on the possible long-term effects of the pandemic, she said, “I hope as a result of this experience we’ll see increased use of bikes and walking in town, with residents feeling safer and healthier.”  Face masks or bandanas are recommended and appropriate physical distancing is required.

Cohen added, “There’s a lot to be said for some of the changes in our living patterns, how we’re getting around, how we’re consuming. There’s a lot less focus on shopping, with people finding ways to entertain themselves that are a lot less materialistic.”