Dio Tararrel: Biking in the age of coronavirus is the least we can do

(Jeff Chiu | AP file photo) In this April 11 photo, a man and child ride bicycles on 42nd Street, which was closed to traffic, in Oakland, Calif. All around the country and the world, bicycles are selling out and officials are trying to take advantage of the growing momentum by expanding bike lines during the coronavirus pandemic or widening existing ones to make space for commuters on two wheels. Oakland was the first city in the state to launch a "slow streets" program in April when it closed 74 miles (120 kilometres) of city streets, or about 10% of the city's street network, to cars to create a safer outdoor space for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Someday, when my daughter asks what life was like during the coronavirus, I have three things in mind for what I’m going to tell her.

The first is a video I saw from Italy, of a hand turning the pages of the newspaper obituaries. In February, the section was a page and a half. By March, it was 10 pages.

The second is how (somehow) wearing a mask became political. It was bizarre, but there was one benefit: it made it clear – as clear as the mask on your face – who among us was willing to put others first, and who wasn’t.

Third, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, was an unexpected glimmer of hope.

It was a few weeks after lockdown (and the earthquake) in Salt Lake City, on a day when the indoors got to be too much. I decided to go for a bike ride at dusk. Through jumbled thoughts and fears and aftershocks, I suddenly noticed how clear the air was.

It stopped me in my tracks. Looking west, I could see mountains I'd never seen before, well beyond the Oquirrhs and the Stansburys. Looking up, the evening stars were clearer and brighter than I could ever remember. Looking around, there were fewer cars on the road, and more families out on walks.

It turned out, this was more than anecdotal. The University of Utah reported that traffic on the Wasatch Front dropped by as much as 50% in the first few weeks of the lockdown. The lung-burning PM 2.5 fell by 59%. Data from Apple Maps showed that Utah users made 40% fewer requests in April for directions and destinations, because we just weren’t out and about.

And while car trips were falling off a ledge, bicycles were having a moment.

News reports from Ogden to St. George and all across the country reported bikes selling at double their normal rates, weeks-long wait times for repairs, and busy bike lanes. If you search for the phrase “bikes are the new toilet paper,” you get 2,000 results on Google.

So, let the good times roll, right?

The benefits are clear: Getting on a bike can help with the “Corona 15” weight, and even moderate exercise is proven to boost your immune system.

It’s better for the environment: The biggest contributor to the inversion (nearly half) is pollution from vehicle traffic.

It’s even better where COVID is concerned: Outdoors, you’re 20 times less likely to catch the coronavirus compared to indoors, and biking itself is one of the activities with the lowest risk of contagion.

Sadly, old habits are hard to break.

The state’s move to “yellow” and the reopening of businesses put an end to the empty streets. May saw a return to normal traffic levels, and the Apple Maps data shows Utah back up above the baseline for driving activity.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Utah is still the state that invented “rolling coal” on cyclists, after all.

Even in the best of times, only one in 40 Salt Lake City commuters biked to work (2.5% ­– and just 0.7% statewide). More than nine in 10 commuters drive, and the vast majority are alone in the car.

Biking isn’t for everyone. But we still have a climate crisis, one that’s only going to be solved with real day-to-day changes. We still have an inversion problem, one caused primarily by human behavior. And the coronavirus is still running rampant, a person-to-person contagion that gets worse with every person who refuses to change their habits.

For me, the same as wearing a mask, I’m going to keep climbing on my bike. It’s my own small way to make the best of a bad situation.

I owe it to my daughter to try.

Dio Tararrel

Dio Tararrel is a political writer who lives in Salt Lake City. He rides a Specialized Sequoia and a Schwinn Searcher (with trailer), and his daughter rides a red strider bike.