Science Policy
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Sustaining the 2020 Biking Boom

11.16.20 | 5 min read | Text by David Zipper


The next administration should capitalize on recent interest in cycling spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic by committing to triple the share of commutes made by bicycle from 0.5% in 20191 to 1.5% by 2024. This goal is achievable through policies that make cycling safer and more affordable.

Other than walking, cycling is the least pollutive mode of transportation. Led by the Department of Transportation (USDOT), the next administration can encourage a nationwide shift from driving to cycling by adjusting various policies related to cost, road design, and automobile safety. USDOT can further encourage biking by holding states accountable for reductions in automobile vehicle miles traveled (VMT), greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG) from transportation, and traffic fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians.

Challenge and Opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many Americans to begin riding bicycles and electric bicycles (e-bikes) in order to exercise, enjoy the outdoors, and maintain physical distancing while traveling. Cities including Los Angeles and Houston have seen significant upticks in cycling in 2020, while bikeshare systems in Las Vegas, Chicago and New York set new ridership records. A sustained move toward cycling could reduce GHG emissions from transportation, the sector that is the largest source of GHG emissions in the United States. Pedal bikes produce less than 1/15 as much GHG/mile as taxis or ridehailing services (e.g., Uber and Lyft), and around 1/10 as much a private electric automobile. Lifecycle emissions from bikes and bikeshare are nearly as low as pedal bikes, and e-bikes in particular could replace short automobile trips in urban areas.

These data indicate that tripling the share of commutes made by bike from 0.5% today to 1.5% could, by displacing driving, reduce GHG emissions by the equivalent of 3.8 billion car trips annually. A mode shift toward biking would also improve health and reduce urban congestion (because a bike requires less street space than an automobile).2

However, there is no guarantee that the current uptick in cycling will endure. Prior “bike booms” in the United States—in the 1890s, the mid-1930s, and the early 1970s—all ultimately faded. 

Part of the challenge is that the federal government has historically done little to encourage biking. In fact, federal policies frequently impede cycling by making the activity more dangerous, especially as automobiles have grown heavier and taller (e.g., guidance that speed limits be set according to the “85th percent rule,” which pushes them higher). From 2009 to 2018, cyclist fatalities grew 38% to 1,100 annually, more than eight times the number of Americans killed from rail collisions, to which USDOT allocated $245 million in FY 2020. 

By implementing policies that make cycling safer and cheaper the federal government can pave the way for sustained growth.

Plan of Action

The next administration should take immediate steps to reduce the risk of injury or death to cyclists while reducing the financial cost of cycling. The next administration should also incentivize transportation projects that reduce VMT and GHG emissions, which will boost proposals that encourage biking. Recommended actions are presented below.


Under the next administration, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should implement the following specific measures to reduce biking deaths and injuries:


The next administration should take the following actions to make biking more affordable to all Americans: 

Other actions 

The next administration should take the following additional actions to further encourage a conducive environment for biking at the state level: 


Locking in the sharp growth in cycling spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic could enable the American transportation network to become safer, cleaner, and more efficient, especially in urban areas. The next administration should capitalize on this opportunity through a suite of complementary actions that make biking less dangerous and more affordable. These actions will encourage those who recently began cycling to continue, while compelling millions of additional Americans to begin using a bicycle in place of an automobile.

Frequently Asked Questions
Biking is booming in 2020 without federal support. Why does USDOT need to get involved?

Though biking has enjoyed a surge of popularity in 2020, the fact remains that only a small fraction of trips is taken on a bicycle. Even in Washington DC, the city with the most bike commuters, the share of commute trips taken by bike was only 4.5 in 2018. There is significant room for growth, which the Federal Government can help encourage. 16 Furthermore, many of 2020’s new cyclists could revert to other transportation modes when the pandemic recedes. Federal efforts to make biking safer and more affordable will decrease the likelihood of reversion.

How does United States policy regarding biking compare to other countries?
The United States is a laggard. For example, automobile crash ratings in Europe take into account the vehicle’s relative danger to those outside the vehicle, but analogous ratings in the United States do not. In 2020 countries including France, Spain, and Italy began offering subsidies for those purchasing bicycles or e-bikes, but the United States has taken no such step. Biking is also much more dangerous in the United States than it is in European countries.
Since almost all Americans drive, shouldn’t we prioritize electric vehicles over biking?

Research suggests that even the most optimistic forecasts for converting automobile fleets to electric vehicles would fail to keep global average temperature increases below two degrees this century. A shift from automobiles toward walking, biking, and transit would still be necessary. Furthermore, many e-bikes are sold for below $2,000, a fraction of the cost of an electric automobile. That makes e-bikes an affordable mobility option for a larger share of the population (and means that the taxpayer cost of subsidizing e-bikes would be far less than the current $7,500 federal electric vehicle tax credit).

What about equity? Aren’t most cyclists white and affluent?

No. A study from the Sierra Club found that Latinos are more likely than whites to commute by cycling. Census Bureau data suggests that almost half of those who cycle to and from work make less than $25,000 per year.

The League of American Bicyclists (2018). Bicycling and Walking in the United States: 2018 Benchmarking Report. Chapter 4: Show Your Data.
Celis-Morales, C.A.; et al. (2017). Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study. BMJ, 357.
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