Every day when Betty Cheong walked from the subway to her office in Lower Manhattan, she passed a haunting reminder of the dangers of cycling in New York: a bicycle painted white and adorned with flowers, propped against a pole, marking the spot where a cyclist had been killed.
The sight alone was enough to keep her off a bike.
Then the pandemic hit, emptying the subway of wary riders and draining the streets of traffic. Cycling suddenly seemed like a safer way to get around: In April, Ms. Cheong started using the city’s bike-sharing program. Then, she started participating in bike protests. In July, she bought a bike of her own.
“The more I biked, the more confident I got about biking in the city,” Ms. Cheong said.
Since the coronavirus engulfed the United States, a bicycling craze has swept the country, sending bike sales soaring and triggering a nationwide bicycle shortage.
In many cities, but perhaps most notably in New York, much of that growth has been driven by a surge in the number of women who took to bicycling after lockdown orders eliminated the main barrier research has shown keeps women from cycling: streets that often feel perilous for cyclists.
In New York, there were an estimated 80 percent more cycling trips in July compared with the same month last year, with biking by women rising by 147 percent and increasing by 68 percent among men, according to data from Strava Metro, a mobility tracking application used by 68 million people globally.
But now traffic is rising again and it remains unclear whether the momentum will continue. Cycling advocates say the city should build on what has happened during the outbreak and do more to create a transportation network that prioritizes cycling as a greener way to travel.
Other major American cities, including Washington, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, have also experienced a biking renaissance largely fueled by women: The number of women cyclists in each of those four cities increased by over 80 percent in August compared to the same month last year, while the increases in the number of male cyclists were much smaller.
The spike in women cyclists marks a notable turnabout in New York, where the system of bike lanes is often disjointed and obstructed by cars, and lacks bike parking, which has discouraged cyclists.
For most of the past decade, male cyclists have outnumbered female cyclists by three to one. But the outbreak has quickly upended the scene on the streets.
On Citi Bike, New York’s bike-share program, women now make up the greatest share of users since the program was introduced in 2013.
Since March, the percentage of women actively using Citi Bike and purchasing memberships for the first time both climbed to around 40 percent of total members, record highs in each category.
In June, a record 53 percent of people who rode a Citi Bike for the first time were women. And over 60 percent of those who signed up for the bike share’s offer of free memberships to essential workers were women.
“I think it’s promising, it’s hopefully a good thing to come out of this crisis,” said Sarah M. Kaufman, the associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University.
But now, as traffic returns to around 70 percent of normal levels, whether women remain on bikes will be a test for city officials who are under pressure to reduce space for cars to make more room for cyclists and pedestrians. Other cities face similar challenges in a country where biking has never come close to the levels seen in some European and Asian nations.
“There is no way we will get to high rates of cycling if we don’t solve the gender gap,” said Jennifer Dill, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. “The big question now is how this will change behavior in the long term.”
“This is a great opportunity if cities take advantage of it,” she added.
For decades, the United States has had one of the worst gender disparities in cycling in the world, with only about 30 percent of bike trips in the country made by women, according to the forthcoming book “Cycling for Sustainable Cities” by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, who are transportation researchers.
Transit experts say the gap reflects in part the way traditional gender norms still imbue American life: women are expected to arrive to work more carefully dressed, which can be challenging after long sweaty rides. Their commutes also tend to involve more stops to run errands and chauffeur children than those of men, which is less easily done on a bike.
But surveys show that the largest hurdle for women to cycling are perceived dangers. For every mile cycled, a cyclist is six times more likely to die in the United States than in Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark, which have invested more heavily in bike infrastructure, according to Mr. Pucher.
But in New York, where roads remain largely car-centric despite recent efforts to bolster the city’s bike lane network, the gender gap has persisted.
Even as commuting by bike has expanded, the share of women cyclists has grown more slowly: In 2006, 25 percent of New Yorkers commuting to work by bicycle were women, according to city data. By 2017 — even after the city had rolled out hundreds of miles of bike lanes — the share of women commuting to work had barely risen to 29 percent.
When traffic all but vanished during the lockdown, though, so too did many women’s sense of unease about biking on city streets.
Jessica Hibbard, 41, said she never considered biking in the city since she moved here from Washington three years ago for a new job. But when she started noticing crowds of cyclists flowing across the empty street outside her Manhattan apartment, she changed her mind.
“I was not a cyclist in any way. I always thought it looked like it would be terrifying to do,” said Ms. Hibbard, who purchased a pricey Brompton folding bike in August. “I really think if the traffic hadn’t disappeared for a few months, I wouldn’t have considered it.”
In Brooklyn, Daniela Lapidous began biking on a Citi Bike in April to run errands because she was concerned about her health on the subway. When she learned that Citi Bike offered a few hundred electric bikes, she started seeking them out to go on longer rides.
When the pandemic hit, she also bought a car — a decision she said she might not have made had she started biking earlier.
“If I had already been comfortable biking before this whole thing happened, I wouldn’t have gotten the car,” Ms. Lapidous said.
Transit experts say that if someone takes their first bike ride, or buys a bike of their own, they are much more likely to continue cycling.
The city has taken some steps to entice new cyclists to stay on their bikes when they return to work: cars have been forbidden from 80 miles of so-called Open Streets, work is underway to build nearly 19 miles of temporary bike lanes and ground has been broken for 15 miles of protected lanes that use barriers to separate cyclists from vehicles.
“I have firsthand seen the growth of fellow women cycling since the start of the pandemic,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner who herself commutes by Citi Bike. “Women are especially concerned with safety and New York City is working hard to create a virtuous cycle: safety comes by increasing cyclists’ numbers.”
Despite the city’s efforts, advocates say New York still lags behind other global cities that have done much more during the outbreak to encourage biking — Paris, for example, has rolled out more than 400 miles of pop-up bike lanes.
“The problem in New York City is more about scale than innovation. We have the models that work; look at our protected bike lanes,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. “Now we need the political will and the leadership that takes those solutions and rapidly scales them across the city.”