Pandemic Pivot: Rethinking Bike Education, Events and Advocacy During COVID-19

The triumphant return of the TD Five Boro Bike Tour marks a major milestone in a year of unprecedented challenges and changes in the way New Yorkers think about mobility. As subway ridership fell, biking boomed with bike crossings across the East River bridges up as high as 30% during the peak months of the pandemic, according to New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT). Instead of the subway, suddenly people across the five boroughs flocked to bikes for weekly grocery runs or a daily dose of sanity.


This influx of new cyclists brought with it a wide array of skill and comfort levels with biking on NYC streets, as well as a demand for resources to help people navigate their new transportation mode. “We’ve always been proud of our dynamic bike program offerings for New Yorkers of all ages and abilities,” said Ken Podziba, President and CEO of Bike New York. “Like many organizations, we had to rethink our traditionally in-person programs during the lockdown and literally meet New Yorkers where they were.”


Throughout the pandemic, Bike New York has worked hard to meet this incredible and unprecedented demand for bike education. In April 2020, the entire staff began working on solutions to transition classes into a safe, practical and socially distant format. Some programs, like our bike commuting and “How to Buy a Bike” classes were simple to transition online, but it was clear that the pandemic required us to take a fresh approach to the way we deploy bike education, events and advocacy.


“It wasn’t just a question of offering classes online; we really had to get creative in how we delivered our services with the same level of quality and impact,” said Podziba. “Everyone on staff, across all aspects of what we do, really rose to the occasion and achieved incredible results that we couldn’t have even imagined back in March of 2020.”


Bringing Bike Education Online

Despite the temporary closure of our Bicycle Education Centers in schools and parks across New York City, we were able to reach more than 23,000 New Yorkers in 2020 with our virtual bike education programs. Early in the pandemic, we launched a virtual Bicycle Education Resource Hub to keep students from pre-K through high school engaged with the history, community, fitness and fun of cycling. In addition to carefully curated books, videos, movies, documentaries and activities, we provided curricula to help guide parents and educators as they engaged kids with cycling.


As part of this hub, we developed a series of how-to videos on topics ranging from helmet fitting and hand signals to taking the lane and shifting gears. In the absence of in-person classes, we used Zoom to transition our full “classroom curriculum” online, including our signature Learn-to-Ride class.


Empowering Advocacy & Getting New Yorkers Engaged

With more spokes on the street, we wanted to empower New Yorkers to use this unprecedented time to rethink the way we use our roadways. In April 2020, we launched “Street Action NOW!”, a new program designed to educate participants on how to think critically about their streets and develop design solutions to address intersection walkability and safety issues. Through a series of weekly webinars, we worked with more than 30 New Yorkers from all five boroughs to conduct walk audits of specific intersections in their neighborhoods and develop recommended improvements for submission to local community boards and NYCDOT. We also educated participants on the complex workings of New York City government and supported participants in presenting their ideas. Additionally, we launched our Spoke Series as a free forum for conversation and collaboration.


We hosted a variety of speakers on many topics, including the Business & Advocacy of Biking, Trails Into the Future, and NYC Open Streets. We held forums for the leading mayoral hopefuls as well as both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Borough presidential candidates. Since launch, more than 3,500 New Yorkers have joined the conversation.


Forging a Path

Building on the partnership we created with Citi Bike and One Community last year, we of officially launched our Bike Path program to help formerly incarcerated Brooklynites take steps forward through vocational training, job opportunities and a supportive community.


Participants in Bike Path learn to repair Citibikes


While the pandemic presented no shortage of difficulties to the Bike Path program, the momentum of this crucial initiative couldn’t be stopped. The Brooklyn Navy Yard generously donated use of their facilities, allowing us to provide socially distant conditions for participants and expand the size of our cohort. After completing a rigorous 60-hour training course, 39 Bike Path graduates were hired into full-time bike mechanic positions with Citi Bike.


Supporting the Bike Boom with Recycle-A-Bicycle

Our Recycle-A-Bicycle shop in Clinton Hill was busier than ever, as New Yorkers cleared the cobwebs off their old bikes or sought a new set of wheels for essential socially distanced transportation and recreation. In addition to growing our staff, we saw a massive increase in refurbished bicycle sales over the past year. Many of our customers were not only new to the bike shop, but first time riders as well. Where before the pandemic, we tended to see more sales from individual components – mainly to handy New Yorkers performing their own bike maintenance – in the last year we saw more sales of fully assembled bikes, which shows we are reaching a different, more diverse audience.


Additionally, Bike New York partnered in May 2020 with Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital to provide 25 essential workers on the pandemic’s front lines with bicycles, increasing their commuting freedom, flexibility and comfort.


Bringing People Together

Uniting people with their communities is central to our mission, so when the city shut down we put pen to paper and started planning. In October 2020, we launched Spoketober, our first-ever virtual event. Over the course of 30 days, more than 1,000 cyclists of all skill levels across 34 states and seven countries rode more than 72,500 miles. In May, we followed suit with Million Mile May, a bold event which brought together another 1,400+ cyclists from all over the world to share in the celebration of Bike Month. Together these riders pedaled more than 134,200 miles!


There’s a lot to celebrate as we kick off the Tour in 2021! This year’s ride is not only the return of North America’s major cycling event, but the cornerstone on a year of innovation and engagement for Bike New York. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that our programs and resources are as accessible as possible to all New Yorkers and will continue to work with the City, our community partners and individual New Yorkers to expand equitable transportation, increase connectivity and spread the joys of cycling.


By Dan Suraci