The coronavirus outbreak is just the latest crisis to popularize bikes. Sales have nearly doubled nationwide. Now there are shortages in bikes, bike parts and bike accessories
Sasha von Oldershausen
NEW YORK — It was an hour before closing on a Monday afternoon in May, and a crowd had formed outside a bike store, in Jamaica, Queens. The shop was letting in only a few customers at a time. A 9-year-old boy with glasses waited expectantly at the door. Three teenagers sat on their bikes to keep their friend, Chanel Burton, company while she bought one.
“I’m tired of taking the bus,” Burton, 20, said. “It’s super crowded, and not everybody wears their mask like they’re supposed to.”
Salvatore Bellitte, the owner, unlocked the door to let some customers out, then ushered in a few more, like a bouncer at a club.
“OK guys,” he announced to the people still waiting, “we’re entirely sold out of adult bikes.” But he wasn’t finished: “If you’re here for a repair, they’re going to take about three weeks.”
Burton stood there, deliberating. “I’m going to have to fix up my old bike,” she said. “I have no choice — there’s no other bike shop around.”
Inside Bellitte Bicycles, the shop was mostly empty, except for drop-offs for repair and about a dozen children’s bikes. “It looks like we’re going out of business,” said Peter Frouws, a co-owner.
Far from it: Over the past few months, business at Bellitte, like that at bike shops across the city, has been booming. But unlike most of its competitors, Bellitte has been around for more than 100 years. One of the oldest bike stores in the city, if not the country, it was here during the Spanish flu and the Great Depression. It was here for the 1970s oil embargo and the transit strike of 1980. It was also here in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and for Superstorm Sandy, too.
The coronavirus outbreak is just the latest crisis to popularize bikes. Sales have nearly doubled nationwide. Now there are shortages in bikes, bike parts and bike accessories. Repairs are backed up, too. At the East Village location of NYC Velo, there is typically a line of up to 20 people stretching down the block.
“The business has gone nuts — harder than I ever remember it,” said Charles McCorkell, the owner of Bicycle Habitat, which has three locations in the city. His stores saw a 50% increase in bike sales in the weeks after they reopened in April. But then, McCorkell said, sales plummeted in June, not because of lack of demand, but because there was too much of it, creating a shortage of bikes and parts.
New Yorkers, rattled by the notion of subway cars and buses as potential virus superspreaders, are suddenly into bicycles. Could the current demand for them finally be what transforms the city into a bike-friendly metropolis?
Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. “Copenhagen’s bike network wasn’t built in a day,” said Jon Orcutt, the advocacy director of the nonprofit Bike New York, who was also instrumental in rolling out CitiBike, New York’s bike-share system, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Systems take a while to build.”
New York has steadily been making improvements to biking infrastructure, both in response to the pandemic (it is working to open up 100 miles of its streets to cyclists, with 67 miles cleared so far), as well as staying committed to its long-term plans.
But the city’s progress has been bumpy. After years of advancement, including the introduction in 2014 of Vision Zero, a citywide initiative to protect pedestrians and cyclists, 2019 was the deadliest year for cyclists since 2000. In response, Green Wave, a plan including the addition of 30 miles of protected bike lanes annually, was introduced last summer, establishing just over 21 miles its inaugural year. The COVID crisis might prevent the city from meeting its goal in 2020, said Brian Zumhagen, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
Bellitte’s location in Queens, a car-centric borough, underscores the story of a city struggling to embrace the bicycle as a practical mode of transportation. The largest of New York’s boroughs, Queens (along with Staten Island and the Bronx) trails Brooklyn and Manhattan when it comes to protected bike lanes.
Now that it is recovering from being the epicenter of the pandemic in April, Queens needs those bike lanes more than ever, said Juan Restrepo, the Queens organizer of Transportation Alternatives, the nonprofit advocacy group that seeks to reduce automobile use in New York City.
“It’s a very inequitable distribution,” Restrepo said. “We don’t see much infrastructure there for people to safely commute on a bike.” Especially, he added, in southeast Queens, where Bellitte is.
But Queens has also seen some progress in its bicycle infrastructure.
Since the pandemic, the city has created a pop-up bike lane in Astoria and designated a number of streets across the borough as open streets, which means that cars are prohibited, including a 1.3-mile-long corridor on 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights.
More permanent plans are also in the works for Queens, which in 2019 had the most completed bike lane-miles of any borough, according to Zumhagen. A protected bike-lane upgrade is in the works for Cross Bay Boulevard, a connected bike network in central Queens is being explored, and new infrastructure is nearing completion in Flushing and around the Kosciuszko Bridge, he said.
There is also a proposal for a pedestrian and cyclist bridge connecting Queens to midtown Manhattan, though the pandemic has stalled one of the city’s most ambitious plans, which would expand the reach of the protected bike lane on Queens Boulevard, also known as the “Boulevard of Death.”
Surely, bike-friendly streets in Queens would help Bellitte Bicycles, as it enters another century of selling and fixing two-wheelers. Then again, the scrappy bike store has seen it all.
Despite violence and crime starting to tear through south Jamaica in the 1970s, the decade was a boon for bike sales as the oil embargo coincided with a growing environmental awareness. “I remember being with my dad or mom and having to wait on these ridiculously long lines just to buy gas,” Bellitte said. “A lot of people went to riding bikes.”
And in 1980, during the 12-day transit strike, temporary bicycle lanes were established throughout the city to accommodate the surge of cycling commuters. Shortly thereafter, Mayor Ed Koch installed a protected bike lane on Avenue of the Americas. It lasted only a month before it was removed, a painted path left in its wake. Still, the incident had staying power for cyclists.
“There were people who said, ‘That was when I started riding in New York,’ and they kept at it,” said Orcutt, of Bike New York. (By 2018, another protected bike path had appeared on Avenue of the Americas; it’s still there.)
Shortly after 9/11, there was a 33% rise in cyclists in Manhattan’s central business district, with city bike stores reporting an increase in sales, according to The Wall Street Journal. In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the normal volume of cyclists on the four East River bridges more than doubled.
For Bellitte Bicycles, adapting to dips and surges is nothing new. At the shop, bikes for repair hang with tags from the ceiling. “The basement is packed with repairs and since we don’t have any new bikes to put on display, we’re utilizing this space,” Bellitte said. “We’ll have to just evolve a little bit more and go more service-oriented.”
Though Bellitte welcomed the planned expansion of Queens’ biking infrastructure (“Safety’s best,” said Bellitte, wearing a cloth mask patterned with cartoon bicycles), he’s not holding his breath. “Queens is always last for everything,” he said. “And Staten Island.”
Right now, he’s just trying to keep pace with what his customers want. “People don’t care,” he said. “They just want to buy a bike, no matter what.”
Moments before the shop closed, the boy in the glasses, who’d patiently waited his turn outside, was finally able to snag one of the remaining children’s bicycles — his first. Outside the store, he sat atop his new black-and-green bike with neon pegs on the front wheel, smiling.
He gripped the handlebars, and kept his balance by touching his toes on the pavement. For now, he would have to ride on the sidewalk; there were no bike lanes in sight.
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