Forget Toilet Paper. Everyone Is Buying Bicycles Now

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

You might have celebrated the bluer skies and the “reclaiming” of public spaces by animals, thanks to lockdowns around the world. But the pandemic has, in fact, worsened the environmental crisis, with a deluge of single-use plastics now “floating like jellyfish” in the oceans. In such an environmentally testing time, what comes as a small relief is the global surge in the sale of one of the most basic forms of mobility: bicycles.

In the US, bicycle sales over the past two months saw their biggest spike in 50 years, reported news agency AP. In Europe, cities like Rome have installed bike lanes to accommodate this boost in interest while keeping the public transport shut, whereas, in London, municipal authorities are even planning to ban cars from some central routes. In the Philippines, bike shop owners in Manila say demand has been even stronger than at Christmas. “People quite frankly have panicked, and they’re buying bikes like toilet paper,” said Jay Townley, an analyst who analysed cycling industry trends for AP.

This unexpected rise in most countries comes from people who have now started looking at alternatives to buses and subways, in a means to avoid public transport and human contact. Add to that the fact that people have been stuck inside for almost a quarter of the year, with barely any means to exercise and work out. “Exercising was a major chunk of my lifestyle in the pre-pandemic times,” says Sahil Sinha, a resident of South Delhi in India. “I could feel its loss intensely, and working out at home doesn’t feel the same. So the first thing I did when the lockdown was eased was get my cycle repaired. While it doesn’t substitute a day at the gym, it’s a good enough alternative for now. My partner is also planning to buy a cycle so we can both go out together.”

In India however, there has been another reason for this rise in the sale of two-wheelers: migrant workers wanting to go back home. A few weeks ago, the story of a 15-year-old girl who was forced to cycle with her father seated on the rear end, for over 1,200 kilometers to get back home, erupted across India. It has been reported that similarly, thousands of migrants set back home on newly bought or rented cycles after waiting for over a month for the states to arrange transport.

In Punjab, the sales surged by nearly 20 percent in May when the first outflow of migrants started. In Chennai, hundreds of workers decided to find their way back home on cycles after being disappointed by the lack of governmental interest in facilitating their transport.

However, the surge in demand has also led to an inability to catch up with the supply. With a shortage of labour and several factories closed, it has caused the supply of cycles to dwindle around the world. The pandemic affected factories in China—the world’s largest manufacturer of cycles—early in the year, delaying shipments worldwide. “In China, there is still a serious shortage of labor and component parts,” Kevin Tsu, a general manager at Taioku Manufacturing Co., a bicycle manufacturer in China told The New York Times.

Even India, another big cycle manufacturing hub, is seeing its cycle shops find difficulty in arranging the supply. Factories are struggling to produce with reduced staff, thanks to government norms and disappointed migrant labourers. “Majority of the workers are migrant labourers,” said Vishal Mahindru, director of sales and marketing of Vishal Cycles to The Tribune. “So that is an issue right now. But once they spend some time back home, they will be back. So, we have to take this in our stride and work with available resources.”

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