COVID sparked a bike boom across America, but a new study of one Virginia city shows that communities who prioritized building protected bike paths saved the most lives – and would have done so with or without the virus.
In a report released today, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety dug into the nuances of America’s (still-ongoing) pandemic-era bike boom by scrutinizing the spatial and temporal distribution of pre- and post-lockdown bicycle trip counts and crash counts in the city of Arlington, Va.
But Arlington isn’t the typical car-dominated American city. Widely regarded as the most bicycle-friendly county in the region, the D.C. suburb is home to more than 50 miles of paved, off-road trails, in addition to 37 miles of on-road protected lanes — which means that its cyclists had more options to keep themselves safe when drivers began to speed up on lockdown-emptied roads.
“You can think about Arlington as a window into what’s possible,” said Sam Monfort, co-author of the study and an Arlington-area native himself. “Your city might not have a network of trails like this right now, but it could, and you shouldn’t ignore results like these.”
The study found that Arlington’s pre-COVID investments into active transportation paid off big during the pandemic. As national cycling fatalities climbed 5 percent between 2019 and 2020 — a phenomenon that experts attribute, in part, to a 16-percent jump in cycling journeys on U.S. roads over that period — Arlington had zero deaths, and the rate of injury-causing collisions between cyclists and drivers plummeted 28 percent compared to the average from the previous six years. (Total cycling journeys in the already-bikier-than-average city, meanwhile, increased about 4 percent.)
Put another way: declining traffic volumes and speeding drivers made U.S. roads deadlier for cyclists during COVID lockdowns, but trail-rich Arlington actually got safer.
Monfort emphasizes that Arlington’s trail-heavy approach to street safety isn’t for every community, even if the fundamental concept of protecting riders with the infrastructure they’ll use most is portable to just about everywhere. The tony suburb has a median household income of more than $120,000 a year and is 71 percent White — and folks from both groups were more likely to shift to remote work during the early days of the pandemic, and to shift from biking to work to biking purely for exercise or recreation.