Photo by Leslie Jones via Boston Public Library
“People need to reimagine what’s possible in terms of exercising outside, riding to work when it’s colder.”
Landry’s Bicycles is usually busy during the summer. But “nothing like this,” shouts the employee walking past me as I wait for his colleague to sand down my brake tracks. I’d ordered my new ride ahead of time and waited for pickup in a socially distanced line that snaked deep into the parking lot of the chain’s Boston location.
Normally, you can walk into Landry’s and buy a bike on the same day. According to Mark Vautour, a store manager who has worked for the company for two decades, they usually have upward of 500 bikes ready to roll.
Now, there’s a wait for nearly every model. If you order for pickup, you can get a bike in about a week. In May, the shop even started stocking used bikes for the first time, unable to get new ones in quickly enough to meet demand.
Landry’s has been experiencing the effects of a fairly well-documented national bicycle shortage that began this past spring, starting shortly after the pandemic made public transit unsafe and many leisure activities impossible. Desperate for a financially accessible mode of COVID-safe transportation, Boston-area residents turned to cycling, sparking what could be a permanent shift in how the city moves.
Even under lockdown orders, bike shops offering servicing and repairs were able to continue operating as essential businesses. And for good reason: the burgeoning demand comes primarily from people seeking a means of transportation. “Our typical customer is the commuter type—someone who’s just getting from school to work or to the grocery store,” said Elijah Evans, executive director of Bikes Not Bombs, a nonprofit bike shop in Jamaica Plain.
But meeting this demand has been a challenge for bike shops. Supply-chain disruptions have created a shortage of bikes and replacement parts. Vautour explains that Landry’s used to bundle orders of bikes and parts to cut costs; to meet increased demand, though, they’ve had to start placing separate shipping orders to lower the time from order to receipt. Still, they didn’t raise their retail prices. “For us it felt like the wrong thing to do,” Vautour said. “We want to do right by the communities we’re in and not take that for granted.”
Not all bike shops have been able to absorb increasing costs. Catharine Pear, a marketing consultant for Urban AdvenTours, a bike shop and event company in Boston, said the new pandemic safety measures forced the store to increase its pricing “a small amount to account for extra cleaning and sanitation.”
Bikes Not Bombs has stood strong in the face of the shortage, though not without challenges. They did not push prices up. “We are actually in the opposite business,” Evans explained. “We are trying to make bikes more accessible for people, and we’re trying to drive costs down as much as possible, which is a big part of our mission.”
Bikes Not Bombs, a nonprofit started in 1984 in opposition to US government intervention in Central America, focuses on community empowerment and environmental protection. The organization, Evans explains, “take[s] bicycles out of the waste stream” in Mass and uses them to help people “empower themselves either through training and skill development or starting a business.” Today, the nonprofit’s international partners serve communities in Guatemala, El Salvador, Kenya, Rwanda, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Maarten, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.
The nonprofit also works with the local community: Youth trainees work for pay and receive mentorship, and the shop runs a program called Earn-A-Bike, through which participants receive a bike to refurbish and keep. Evans himself began as an apprentice at Bikes Not Bombs at the age of 14. The shop receives donations of secondhand bikes, which are used in its community programs, shipped overseas, or refurbished for sale. Customers of the Jamaica Plain shop, currently operating through curbside pickup, can get a ready-to-ride refurbished bike for $250-$350 depending on the quality of its parts. The shop also offers customers a lower cost option of buying a used bike as-is and refurbishing it themselves in the shop.
Though donations have decreased due to the impossibility of running bike-drive events during the pandemic, Bikes Not Bombs has rallied. Gary Chin, the nonprofit’s community engagement and events officer, explains that when bringing trainees into the shop became unsafe, they rebranded their summer Earn-A-Bike program as On-A-Bike, teaching road safety outdoors on ready-to-ride bikes, which participants could keep after the course. The nonprofit also rolled out a Bike Match program, through which essential workers request and receive free donated bikes. Chin said they’ve been able to match 43 bikes since the program began in April, but 130 requests remain unfilled. Most requests have come from medical professionals, with others from food service workers.
One recipient, Madeline Leonard, is a clinical research coordinator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Longwood. “I didn’t have access to a car. And I didn’t want to take the bus for safety reasons, but also it was just running a lot less frequently, starting in March,” she said. Leonard works on lymphoma trials, and continues to commute to Longwood from her home in Allston despite the pandemic, “because people who are in cancer treatment can’t exactly stop their treatment.” After her request in April she received a road bike in a matter of days.
By May, however, the shortage had caught up with the program: Zoe Mestre, a neuropsychology fellow at Mass General, requested a bike in May and didn’t receive one until September. Luckily, it was worth the wait: “It’s really fast,” she said. “You’ll probably see me zipping between Cambridge and MGH in the morning.”
On a roll
Dr. Minaliza Shahlapour had worse luck: Her Bike Match ride was stolen from her apartment building’s basement. Pear, the Urban AdvenTours marketing consultant, as well as Evans and Chin, all cite anecdotal evidence that bike thefts are going up. “I think it’s because right now it’s definitely a seller’s market. If you have a used bike, you can get rid of it in hours. Maybe not even hours—minutes,” Chin said.
According to Boston Police Department records, thefts have indeed increased, though not drastically. Bicycle larcenies during the summer months reached a five-year peak in 2020, up 26% from 2019. But the 10-year peak occurred in 2014, and not everyone in the bike business has noted this increase; Vautour, for example, said he hasn’t noticed a significant change.
The uptick—especially in the context of the pandemic—reveals deeper issues concerning affordable transportation. “It makes sense that as the need goes up, the frequency of theft increases,” said Evans, who believes that people who steal bikes tend to do so because they are in dire need of a way to get around. “We definitely want to be a part of the solution. A lot of our goals are around access.”
Chin said Bikes Not Bombs is working on a possible collaboration with the city of Boston and the ride-sharing service Lyft “to see how we can leverage the Bike Match program to the homeless population in Boston.”
And bike shops aren’t alone in their attempts to increase access. During the pandemic, city officials expanded Greater Boston’s public bike-sharing network, Bluebikes, which broke the record for most rides in a single day on Saturday, Sept 12 with 14,391 trips, according to Stephanie Seskin, active transportation director. The bike-sharing system was launched in 2011 under the name Hubway, with 600 bikes across 60 stations in Boston. It has since been rebranded as Bluebikes (after new sponsor Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts) and expanded to serve Brookline, Cambridge, Everett, and Somerville. New stations have recently sprung up in Arlington and Watertown, and additional hubs and service are in the works for Chelsea, Newton, and Revere. With the expansion complete, the system will comprise nearly 400 stations and 4,000 bikes.
While the network is geographically robust and has grown quickly to meet pandemic demand, access is far from guaranteed. The price of a membership ranges from $8.25 to $20 per month (or $2.50 per half-hour trip), which is out of reach for many city cyclists. Program officials have responded by offering a discounted rate ($50 for a year or $5 a month) for low-income riders and giving free or discounted memberships to essential workers (i.e., grocery, retail, restaurant, and pharmacy workers).
Whoever’s riding them, maintenance and shortages affect the reliability of bikes as a means of transit for essential workers. For Mestre and Leonard, getting their own wheels was a major improvement. “The Bluebikes are always going so slow,” Mestre said. “It’s really nice to just zip through and go straight to work.” Leonard agreed: “I’m excited to have my own bike now, so I don’t have to worry about the gears being frozen on the Bluebikes, which happens pretty frequently. Or just not having a bike.” Bluebikes are hard to come by near the hospital where commuter demand is high, she explained.
The pandemic has also pushed city officials to speed up the construction of new infrastructure. The Healthy Streets initiative, part of the city’s COVID-19 response, has put in place temporary bike lanes (mapped out by Seskin), some of which will become permanent.
Could the transportation and public works officials have pulled this off so fast if not for the crisis?
“Honestly: normally, no,” Seskin said. “We definitely reshuffled priorities to focus on these bike and bus projects, so that we could get them out the door and helping people as soon as possible.” Seskin said that while fatalities have occurred—and more separated lanes are being put in place to keep people safe in the future—there has been no trend of accidents rising, despite increased ridership.
Chin is also a proponent of making more bike lanes permanent and expanding on the “great start” made by the Healthy Streets initiative. He testified at a public hearing about American Legion Highway, advocating for making the road safer in a bike-friendly way. “It’s one of the most dangerous corridors in Boston,” he said. “Cars are speeding all the time.”
City officials have taken note. Seskin said that meetings on the issue are continuing, and “if residents are on board and generally supportive of the idea, we can have protected bike lanes on that two-mile corridor before winter hits.” Some of the pop-up lanes will also be outfitted for permanent use, while others will have to be taken down by November to allow for plowing, Seskin said.
“For $500, you have a drug that really works. There’s nothing in society that you can get this much value out of for $500,” said Vautour, the Landry’s manager. Besides the health benefits and leisure perks, Vautour touts the negligible environmental impact and relatively low cost of maintaining the necessary infrastructure for cycling.
All of which could be good for everyone. According to Seskin, the Boston Transportation Department is making changes to intersections in order to improve accessibility, and the wider and separate bike lanes are better for accommodating riders of different abilities. However, as bus service remains reduced and the BTD focuses on bikes and select high-use bus routes, people with mobility and other differences who cannot pedal remain at a disadvantage.
On the bright side, the pandemic has reinforced the idea that cycling is an environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and relatively financially accessible means of transportation with the potential to become a central element of the city’s transportation system—one that could cut down motor vehicle use among those who are able to ride, even when the weather turns cold.
“People need to reimagine what’s possible in terms of exercising outside, riding to work when it’s colder,” Vautour said. “You can dress for this.”
This year, he plans to ride his bike longer than ever. Mestre and Leonard agree. Mestre said she will carpool only if it’s blizzarding and has bought waterproof gear in which to brave the elements.
Leonard intends to repeat her previous year’s routine.
“I biked last winter and it was okay. I basically just layered up and brought my work clothes to change into when I got to work, so it’s not so bad.”