There are at least three ways to answer this: Legally, ethically, and practically.
Let’s start with the legal answer. In Los Angeles County, people are not in violation of the law if they ride their bicycles for “engaging in outdoor activities, as an individual, or family,” or for “shopping at Essential Businesses, including grocery stores and restaurants offering delivery, drive thru or carry out service, so long as all persons practice social distancing to the extent practicable.”
This means that recreational riding with friends or with groups is in violation of the order unless the group members are “family.” It also means that riding is permissible for shopping at what the order defines as “essential businesses.” The order also permits travel to “essential activities,” and does not define permissible/impermissible means of transportation, so presumably riding your bike to essential activities is lawful.
Of course simply because a thing is legal doesn’t answer the question of whether or not it is ethical, and the order in LA County explicitly permits riding to engage in outdoor activities solo or with family. But is it ethical?
This depends on what you believe about the pandemic, most fundamentally, whether you believe there is one. There are many people who simply don’t believe that that the Covid-19 outbreak is a pandemic. If you are one of these people, there is zero ethical obligation to curtail your solo cycling.
Slightly more difficult, but not terribly more so, are the people who believe that although there is a pandemic, it doesn’t threaten them personally, either because they believe they’ve already been exposed or because they believe (without having been tested) that they already had it. This group describes me pretty well. I got sick in early February, was laid low for a couple of weeks, and because I had several of the Covid-19 symptoms I believed that I was in the clear vis-a-vis infecting others. An article about this fallacious belief described pretty accurately why I’ve almost certainly not had the virus and has spurred me to make an appointment to get tested.
If you have tested positive for Covid-19 and are no longer contagious, there is little reason ethically to avoid riding solo or with family members because there is no chance that you will infect or be infected by anyone. The corollary to this isn’t comforting to people who are still fixated on riding their bicycles, as if the bicycle were as important as, say, toilet paper.
And here’s how that corollary works: Do you believe that there is a Covid-19 pandemic? Have you never tested positive for it? Then your decision to ride your bike solo or with family members might have negative ethical implications. Why is that? First of all, the phrase “social distancing” is nothing more than a politically acceptable euphemism for one kind of quarantine. Quarantines are effective in proportion to their extent. In other words, a voluntary quarantine where you can still go party on Spring Break will be less effective than a quarantine where you are not allowed to leave home for any reason except groceries.
In other words, the more you are quarantined the less chance you will expose others and the less chance you will be exposed to others. Ethically you are obligated to hew as closely to complete quarantine as possible, but only if your ethics accept that it’s wrong to infect others and that it’s wrong to expose yourself to infection.
If you believe that there is a pandemic and that making other people sick is fine, or if you believe that there is a pandemic and it’s okay to get sick yourself–encumbering the health care system along the way–then there is no moral hurdle at all to riding your bike solo or in a family group. And judging from the behavior of the wide variety of people out riding their bicycles for recreational purposes right now, this seems by far to be the dominant ethical framework among many, many cyclists.
How dominant? Bicycling Magazine as well as local SoCal riders are actively promoting that it is okay to ride SOLO when done with the appropriate social distancing. How much sense does that make from an ethical standpoint if you believe that it’s paramount to slow the rate of infection and if you accept that the greater the degree of quarantine the slower the rate?
Riding a bicycle outdoors and solo while practicing social distancing is possible in thinly populated areas. But if you live in Los Angeles or San Diego or NYC, even if you have relatively uncrowded roadways accessible to you, you have to cross through densely populated urban areas to reach them. European countries such as Italy, Spain, and France recognized immediately that recreational cycling was the opposite of quarantine, even if done solo, so they banned it. Riding for transport is in flux …
Moreover, riding solo is for the most part a fiction. What happens when you have a flat? When you fall off your bike and get hurt or get hit by a car? When you have a mechanical and can’t get home? Each of those occasions, and countless others, raise the risk that you’ll come into contact with another person. This is why promoting the idea of being alone in public is really another way of saying you’re not committed to a strict quarantine because your ethics are okay with a greater rate of infection rather than a lesser. Is it legal? Of course it is, at least under the current order. Is it ethical? I don’t see how if you believe that the greater good is more important than your desire to pedal for fun.
Finally is the question whether you should be riding from a practical standpoint? I walked to the office and back yesterday; it took a solid 4.5 hours. Had I done it on my bike it would have been far faster. On the other hand, traffic in LA has thinned out but become insanely faster. Hot rodders and angry musclecar owners are driving at terrifying speeds. Sharing the road with them even for a few minutes is unsettling, and you heard that coming from someone who is fairly immune to the fears of riding in traffic.
But it’s not clear that being out in public for 4.5 hours is any better because it increases the risk that I’ll come into contact with another person. Perhaps the best practical choice is to ride, selecting the least trafficked routes I can come up with, and continue to work 95% of the time from home.
What are the practical consequences for solo recreational riding? Does it make practical sense? As I’ve written about before, getting injured during the pandemic can result in life-long disabilities because there is no guarantee that you will get the medical care you need. However, that risk is relatively low. Other risks are much higher, specifically things like stress, depression, and violence due to being quarantined. It’s no secret that many dedicated recreational cyclists use biking as a way to deal with substance abuse, anger, and difficult home situations. Losing that coping mechanism and being crammed into a house or an apartment with no date for release can easily bring people to a breaking point. It’s reasonable to ask whether, practically speaking, you’re at greater risk for falling/getting hurt/suffering permanent injury or at risk of coming emotionally unstitched due to quarantine.
The vast majority of people embracing the solo ride, however, seem to me to be simply people who love to ride their bikes and who have no desire to find a substitute. When cycling potentially contributes to the spread of the worst global crisis of our lifetime, why wouldn’t you at least take a stab at yoga, or Zwift, or calisthenics, or meditation, or simply gaining 10-15 pounds over the next couple of months?
Cyclist answer: “I don’t like those things.”
That’s okay. Neither does the disease.
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