Bike Sharing During COVID-19

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Bicycle-sharing services (bike shares) allow individuals to use bicycles on membership or fee-per-trip bases and can be a convenient, inexpensive alternative to owning a bicycle. These services may be publically or privately operated and generally collaborate with municipalities. Services may also be operated by non-profit groups or by institutions such as universities. In Canada, the two most common types of bike shares are those with bicycles that must be picked up and parked at automated docking stations and “dockless” systems that allow for pick up and parking anywhere in a designated zone.

The COVID-19 pandemic created new concerns about the safety of bike sharing. In response, services throughout the world have implemented strategies to suit evolving local conditions. Though some shut down due to transmission risks, many continue to operate but with heightened precautions for physical distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene, and cleaning and disinfection.

Ridership has changed throughout the pandemic. Steep drops occurred under more restrictive shelter-in-place orders but as cities opened up, ridership often increased. Patterns of use and membership have also changed. For example, a service in Philadelphia compared usage in March and April of 2019 and 2020 and found that shared rides had switched from being commuter-dominated to service-dominated (e.g., grocery, pharmacy, and food delivery). In Vancouver, the pandemic coincided with an increase in riders holding monthly membership while the number of riders holding longer (3-12 month) memberships fell. During March and April of 2020, overall ridership was down by 42% compared to the same period in 2019 but riders with monthly memberships totalled 14,406 compared to 6,665.

COVID-19 considerations for bike sharing

Precautions for outdoor activities apply to all forms of cycling, but there are concerns specific to bike shares. These include potential crowding at pick-up and drop-off points and contamination of high-touch surfaces. Nevertheless, bike shares’ capacity to contribute to the mobility of local populations has emerged as an advantage during the pandemic. Shared bicycles have supported front-line health care workers and provide recreational opportunities for occasional users who do not own a bicycle.  A recent survey of Canadians found that 93% of respondents were wary about riding buses due to transmission risks. Thus, during the pandemic, it is possible that shared bicycles are also used by some travelers as an alternative to public transit.

To the best of our knowledge, there are no public health COVID-19 guidelines designed for bike shares. However, measures adopted by operators reflect public health recommendations for minimizing transmission risks out-of-doors and in workplaces.

Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by bike shares

Maintaining mobility

Many bike shares have expanded their membership options or have improved accessibility. Examples include offering free memberships to essential workers in Montreal. In New York City, docking stations were moved to hospitals to improve access for medical staff.

Minimizing transmission risks

Preventing transmission requires precautions by operators, their workers, and clients. Most strategies undertaken by individual bike shares appear to correspond to local directives for physical distancing, hygiene, and sanitation.

Measures adopted by operators to ensure worker safety:

Some bike share operators have published their workplace safety measures including:

  • Encouraging staff who can work from home to do so;
  • Limiting numbers of workers at the same site to avoid close physical contact between them;
  • Providing workers with personal protective equipment such as gloves and non-medical masks;
  • Increased cleaning of tools, equipment and vehicles; and
  • Training workers in cleaning and disinfection practices.

Measures adopted by operators to ensure client safety:

Most bike shares have augmented existing guidelines for maintenance, repair, and redistribution of vehicles, as well as monitoring and reporting of accidents and other incidents. This includes:

  • Increased cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces especially at high traffic stations and those that may be more prone to contamination (e.g., near hospitals);
  • Use of technology such as anti-viral coatings on handlebars;
  • Separation of parked bikes from pedestrians by closing docking stations where overcrowding has been observed and by introducing parking zones and corrals for dockless systems;
  • Publicizing congestion data on docking stations to help clients choose safer sites;
  • Introducing touchless alternatives such as scanner and QR code enabled locks; and
  • Informing clients of safeguards adopted and recommending personal practices such as those listed below by posting instructions on websites, mobile applications, and docking stations.

Measures recommended for users of bike share bicycles:

Bike shares post a range of recommended practices for their clients, including:

  • Maintaining physical distancing when accessing docking stations (e.g., waiting for another client to finish before approaching the station) and while cycling;
  • Cleaning and disinfecting seats, handlebars and grips with alcohol-based approved products before and after use;
  • Bringing one’s own helmet or cleaning and disinfecting helmets that are supplied by the bike share;
  • Hand washing before and after touching surfaces; and
  • Compliance with local guidelines for masking.

Guidelines for helmets and masks differ from place to place. Prior to the pandemic, some services provided helmets while others did not and during the pandemic, some stopped providing helmets. Bike shares seem to stop short of requiring masks but advise clients to follow local public health recommendations.

Summary

Notwithstanding the lack of formal public health guidelines specific to bike shares, operators appear to be adept at applying local public health recommendations. The extent to which clients follow posted precautions is currently unknown, though at least one bike share, in Houston, responded to unsafe behaviors by closing docking stations prone to crowding. Numerous services also emphasize clients’ responsibilities for taking hygiene measures because there is no guarantee that every bike will be cleaned and disinfected between uses. Bike sharing can also augment transportation capacity and considerations for maintaining and modifying service delivery may need to weigh local transmission risks against mobility needs.