The following is a modified excerpt from Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy
By Elly Blue
Magnolia Street in Fort Worth is the sort of story that urban planners dream of.
In 2008, this mixed used street was re-striped. The street had featured two lanes in each direction, both of which had been mainly used by cars, plus a few fast and fearless cyclists.
In its new incarnation it still had four lanes, one in each direction for cars, and one for bicycles. “It was the first ‘road diet’ of its kind in Fort Worth, and has been a genuine success,” Kevin Buchanan, a local musician and author of the Fort Worthology blog, told me.
The best measure of this success was in the bottom line: after the road was rearranged, restaurant revenues along the street went up a combined total of 179 percent.
“Not to imply causality,” Buchanan added, “but clearly removing car lanes and replacing them with bike lanes had no ill effects on businesses, and of course it can be argued that the safer, slower street and better cycling/walking environment helped business.”
The effort to revitalize the street included adding lots of new parking. A 320 space car parking garage went up in the heart of the district; shortly afterward, bicycle parking staples were bolted into the concrete in front of every business, providing spaces for 160 bikes.
The total cost for the parking garage was over 5 million dollars. The total for buying and installing all the bicycle parking came to just over $12,000—less than the cost of a single space in the garage.
On the spring weekend I visited Magnolia Street in 2012, the garage was nearly empty, but bike racks outside neighborhood restaurants and bars were overflowing. A coffee shop on the street, needing yet more capacity, had built their own bike corral, a row of bike staples drilled into the public right of way. The new spaces more than doubled the shop’s previous parking capacity.
By all measures, these improvements were an excellent investment. So much so that other Fort Worth streets were slated to get the same treatment—replacing car capacity with bicycle capacity both on and off the road.
As the Magnolia Street case shows, specific improvements to streets that make them more bicycle friendly do wonders for neighborhood businesses. Business owners are taking note.
Part of this benefit stems from the simple fact that bikes and bike lanes have a calming effect on car traffic. When traffic on city streets is slowed down a little—even if there are the same number of cars, streets become nicer places to be. More people come there and everyone, walking, biking, or driving, has a little more freedom to look up and see what storefronts have to offer instead of focusing on staying alive. Neighborhood pride increases, as do private investment, retail sales, property values, and density of businesses. There are fewer traffic crashes. These are all quantifiable ways of saying that areas and the people in them thrive. Residents prosper, and people from other places want to visit.
Yet when bike lanes, bike parking, and road diets are proposed, there is often vehement opposition—sometimes from the people who stand to benefit most – business owners.
Business owners and business-minded civic leaders are too-often the last to believe that there is any value in accommodating cyclists.
Perhaps it goes back to stereotypes of cyclists as freeloaders and scofflaws. Whatever the reason, business owners do not always find it intuitive that paying customers might arrive by bicycle. Even in areas with unusually high bicycle traffic, local businesses can be the strongest resistors against any new infrastructure.
On Polk Street in San Francisco, for instance, a plan to put in a bike lane was hard fought by local merchants, since it would reduce the number of on-street parking spaces. Their plea to “Save Polk Street” was successful, and the city opted instead to paint sharrows on the street and make some improvements to intersections instead, despite the fact that only 15 percent of visitors to the street arrive by car.
New York City
In 2007, when New York City added protected bike lanes to two previously car-centric one-way arterials in Manhattan, 8th and 9th Avenues, it was a controversial move. Supporters agreed that cycling on those streets needed to be made safer if bicycles were to become a serious form of transportation in Manhattan, and this was the best way to do it. Opponents predicted that the new infrastructure would hurt businesses and freight, cause crashes, hold up traffic, and waste New Yorkers’ time and money. In the months after the lanes went in, several business owners complained to the press that they were losing money.
Sales tax reporting tells a different story. Sales income at locally-based businesses along 9th Avenue went up as much as 50 percent between 2006 and 2010. This was during a recession— in the same period, borough-wide retail sales only increased 3 percent. Was this entire business boom a result of the new bike infrastructure? It’s impossible to say—but it is safe to suggest that the bike lane did not hurt business.
This also means that New York City business owners with storefronts that did not have good bicycle access potentially lost out on 33 percent of the revenues they could have earned during those four years. What small business owner wants to take that chance?
Some locales are trying to stay a step ahead. Long Beach, California made national news a few years back by optimistically declaring itself to be the most bicycle friendly city in America. They have been working hard to back up future rights to that claim; the city has been putting in bike infrastructure, including a protected bike lane on a major retail street near its eponymous beach. As it builds out its infrastructure, the city has also been reaching out to business owners through its groundbreaking Bike Friendly Business District program.
The key is that they make contact before the infrastructure improvements break ground. And they don’t just ask for feedback—they get business owners involved from the beginning. The program partners with neighborhood groups to research how customers travel to a particular business district and share that information with business owners, reducing common misconceptions about who shops and how they arrive. They put on neighborhood events that encourage people to arrive by bicycle and on foot. They reimburse bike shops to offer free bicycle tune-up days—one shop declined the repayment because the day had brought in so many new, regular customers. Some businesses offer a 10 percent discount one day a week to customers who bicycle.
There are many more examples of bike lanes, and bicycling in general, leading to retail district improvements. Reporters never seem to have any trouble finding the disgruntled store owners who believe their business has been ruined, no matter what the aggregate experience. Not every grievance is reasonable, but many of them are, and it’s important to hear from dissatisfied members of the community and work to address their concerns.
The city’s historic Broad Avenue had fallen on tough times until its recent revitalization as an arts district. Part of the street’s rejuvenation included a new protected bike lane. Local business owners and bike advocates had worked together to paint the lane themselves, moving the block’s angle-in parking spots back four feet from the curb and using a stencil to mark the lane.
There’s a storied history in the U.S. of DIY bicycle infrastructure, as well as pedestrian crosswalks. Each community gets a different response. A faded hand-painted bike lane in Sacramento was greeted with indifference. At the other end of the spectrum, there have been multiple cases where amateur traffic engineers caught with paint on their hands have been arrested and prosecuted.
Once in a while, though, these efforts are rewarded, and that was the case in Memphis. The “temporary redesign” of Broad Avenue was billed at first as an art project, in conjunction with a street fair that attracted 15,000 people to the street’s typically sparse monthly art walk on the summer day it was unveiled. It might have just faded away over time, but the city had recently won grant funding for expanding its bike infrastructure, and it seized the opportunity to announce that it would repaint this new lane as a permanent feature.
This announcement started to transform the block in more ways, quickly attracting $6 million in development. The new infrastructure would not just be on that block—the lane was expanded to connect with Overton Park and with the Shelby Farms Greenline, the city’s signature off-street path, a five mile long segment of a planned bicycle superhighway.
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Most narratives about the economic benefits of bicycling focus on the success stories of places like Magnolia Street in Fort Worth or Broad Avenue in Memphis. City planners, bike-friendly politicians, and bicycle advocates love to make the points that creating good bicycle access is a cost-effective way to improve certain types of retail earnings, attract creative young professionals, and raise property values in an urban business district.
Plenty of business owners realize the very real benefits of integrating bicycling into their business, from encouraging employees to ride to welcoming bicycling clients to advocating for safe bike routes to their door.
The Fine Print
It’s tempting for cities to focus on the low hanging fruit, improving a few streetscapes while neglecting the urgent transportation needs of people living in outlying areas. Bicycles can be a tool for building wealth and well-being, but when used as part of a flawed development plan, they can also be used to divide and segregate cities.
The positive results of bicycle infrastructure in a retail area are real and substantial, but they are not experienced universally. Business owners, too, are subject to forces beyond their control—the layout of streets and location of suppliers, the infrastructure available for the delivery of goods, and the 120 transportation choices and opportunities of their employees as well as their customers.
A florist or bar may flourish when a bike lane goes in, but an auto body shop or furniture store will have a lot more adjusting to do. We are not all—by temperament or circumstance—equally suited to accept and adapt to such changes. Any business that can be flexible has better chances to thrive—there is, for instance, a mattress shop in Portland that does booming sales by offering free bicycle delivery. But Portland has had many decades to grow its current diffuse, asphalt-covered ecosystem. Not everyone is going to be able to shift gears overnight.
Readers, have you noticed economic benefits from bicycle infrastructure in your communities?