by David Witkowski

family biking on road in traffic

Remember only a year ago, when shared mobility systems were simultaneously venture capital darlings and the scourge of local governments? Touted as a way to connect people to transit and as an alternative to cars for short trips, shared mobility bicycles and electric scooters showed up almost overnight on the streets of cities across the country and around the world. Reviled by some, but clearly loved by many, those shared mobility systems enticed people to get out of their cars and rediscover the childhood joy of getting around without a car.

Today, in a world radically remade by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, statewide shelter-in-place orders are turning downtowns into ghost towns, and with personal hygiene top-of-mind for nearly everyone the prospect of touching the handlebars of a possibly infected scooter or bicycle has led to a steep drop in demand for shared mobility, and many shared mobility companies are now suspending their operations. The pandemic has also affected transit: VTA has suspended light rail and reduced bus service on some routes, and SamTrans has shifted to weekend service on weekdays. This pattern is being repeated in transit systems across the country and around the world. People who rely on transit and shared mobility for commuting to work in critical industries have limited choices and may be financially unable to purchase a car. And with the arrival of spring weather, people may find that owning a bicycle, electric bicycle, or electric scooter is both convenient and economical, but the pandemic-driven economic slowdown creates a risk that the best source for their purchase and service - our local bicycle shops - may go out of business.

I’ve been riding an electric bicycle for over two years, and find that in most cases it allows me to replace my car. Being able to ride long distances without arriving sweaty and tired means I can use the bike for work trips. And while an electric bicycle requires far less maintenance than a car, it’s not maintenance-free. For most people, a local bicycle shop is where that maintenance occurs. Recognizing their value in regional transportation, Bay Area governments and the Federal government have designated bicycle shops as essential businesses during the shelter-in-place orders. As the weather warms and people contend with new realities of limited transit service and not being able to afford a car, or just wanting to reduce the expense of car use, we should remember that local bicycle shops are a valuable local resource that deserve our business and support.

Buying an electric bicycle online might seem financially prudent, but local shops don’t make much profit on bike sales - it is parts sales and service work that drive their profitability. A local bike shop also helps you buy the best bike for your size, fitness level, and intended use. The other issue with online buying is that if the bike arrives with defects or breaks down you will probably need to ship it back to the seller since most local bike stores will not repair them or will charge over $100 an hour for service, even if it is a warranty issue.

The pandemic has already reshaped our world and will continue to do so in the months and years to come - let’s use this as an opportunity to make the transition from cars to bicycles. Our local bicycle shops are open and ready to help.

About the Author

David Witkowski is the Executive Director of Joint Venture's Civic Technology Initiatives. You can learn more about David on his bio page.

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About the Blog

There's something about a crisis that brings people closer together. The Joint Venture Blog was created on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic as we shelter in place. Stepping outside our usual structure, the blog is intended to provide an informal window into the people and the inner workings of the organization. Please feel free to jump in with your own comments.