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Jan Lee headshot

People for Bikes Sponsored Series

The Business Of Biking

Vancouver, San Francisco: Bike Lanes Boost Revenue for Retailers

Words by Jan Lee

For many cyclists, San Francisco ranks among the top as an ideal cycling city. That may seem odd given its topography of steep hills and often rainy weather, but many cyclists will tell you that it often isn’t the landscape or the climate that shapes a cycling mecca. A pro-cycling city government, a comprehensive bike plan with bike lanes, paths and routes that make it safer for bikes and cars, and enthusiastic local vendors like those found on Valencia Street in the Mission District are key to cementing a good cycling community.

For local retailers, community is often the key to success as well. While myths about the power of the four passenger auto still abound, many retailers in the Bay Area have discovered that customers who come by bike can be as good a source of revenue, if not better, than those who come by car.

Some 950 miles north of the Golden Gate another metropolitan area is undergoing a “green” transformation. Vancouver, BC and the nearby cities of New Westminster, Burnaby and Richmond have been biking centers for years.  An increasing emphasis on developing a green lifestyle and finding ways to reduce the carbon footprint in Canada’s second-largest metropolitan area has helped shine a light on the many pluses of cycling. For commercial retailers in Vancouver’s high-density downtown core, those benefits include a steady customer base and happily, less demand for parking.

The Art Knapp Urban Garden Store at 1401 Hornby Street, has a front-row seat to Vancouver’s burgeoning cycling community. The store sits at the south end of the Hornby bike lane, which funnels traffic along one of the downtown area’s busiest north/south corridors. Vancouver established a partitioned bike lane some years ago on Hornby and (east-west) Dunsmuir Street as a means of providing a safe, accessible way to guide Vancouver’s growing cycling traffic in and out of the downtown core.

Katie McLellan, who manages the store says that as a result of the increased bike traffic, the store redesigned its product offerings. In addition to the plants and gardening supplies it sells, the store now features women’s clothes, food items and other products that appeal to cycling commuters.

The store also has redesigned its packaging options and now offers an array of choices ranging from boxes that will fit snuggly on a bike to a towable wagon that cyclists can borrow, and large-item delivery services.

The store’s experiences fits into a growing trend that the nonprofit cycling organization Bike Hub says is reshaping downtown residential areas. A study  conducted by the City of Vancouver discovered that more than half of realtors in Vancouver’s lucrative real estate market consider a bikeway like Hornby and Dunsmuir as a selling feature (See page 11 of this PDF).

As San Francisco districts have found out: bike lanes aren’t just helpful for residents, they are a boon for businesses when they cater to cyclists.

But bike lanes don’t just benefit those who are within eyesight of their commuters. Mike Prince, who serves as the general manager for De Dutch Restaurant overlooking Vancouver’s scenic seawall at the northeast end of downtown, says his store benefits from bike traffic as well, particularly during Vancouver’s stunning sunny weather.

"For us, it’s a visibility thing being where we are," Prince said, who likened their spot to a “Trans Canada” for cyclists. The location and visibility pull in the traffic. Oh, and no cars to compete with, since the location is only accessible by bike or foot.

The store has had such good results with local cyclists that the management is considering offering discounts for tourists at local bike rental shops.

Both McLellan and Prince say that having a bike rack near the store is a major draw for business. Seeing the rack in front of the store gave the incentive for some to come in and browse.

“A lot of cyclists didn’t really realize we were here. But the city installed a bike rack once the bike lanes were put in.” She says they will sometimes get four to five customers a day who come in because of the store’s location and the bike rack, on the edge of the bike lane.

Real estate developer Bart Slotman, who is UPG Property Group’s vice president in New Westminster, agrees. His company installed its own bike rack in six locations around New West. But rather than going for the conventional utilitarian version, Slotman says, they opted for the “whimsical expression of a bike rack”: a sculpture in the form of a bicycle that can double as a rack. It’s interesting, says Slotman, and at the 6th Street location, it goes well with the community atmosphere that’s fostered by a new parklet.

Slotman said that surveys reflect that only 32 percent of the approximately 8,000 unique visitors per day come by car. The rest who patronize the busy mall either arrive by bike, foot or bus.

“So our (accessibility) is very favorable in favor of non-automobile type modes of transportation," a trend that Slotman, who is a cyclist himself, is happy to see.

Cyclist Andrew Feltham, who is a New West member of Bike Hub, cycles approximately 12 miles to work each day in Richmond. He says that New West is an example of a city that is trying, but is still learning how to incorporate its cycling community into its infrastructure. Feltham’s commuting route takes him over the busy Queensborough Bridge, which links two sides of the Fraser River. His 15-year stint as a bicycle commuter has taught him well about what works and doesn’t work for bike commuters when it comes to retail businesses.

Feltham admits he is more likely to patronize a business if he can see it while he is whizzing along on his bike. He isn’t likely to go off his path to explore options. And, he points out, not every cyclist is a “browser.”

One good example, ironically, is his home city’s penchant for wedding shops, which line his route.

“I don’t go shopping for wedding goods while I am on my bicycle,” he points out candidly.

Feltham’s route is also governed in part by topography: like San Francisco, New West has formidable hills and intense commuter traffic. But, he says, New West hasn’t yet figured out how to route cyclists so that they can easily negotiate the hills – and patronize the shops that are off of their commuter route.

Several of the businesses interviewed said they honored Bike Hub discount cards as a way of publicizing products and services. It offers services not only for cyclists but for bike-friendly businesses. Stores can request a "bikeability assessment" to determine their accessibility to cyclists, as well as get tips and feedback on how to improve their services.

With Vancouver steadily moving ahead on new bike lanes and new sustainable approaches, cyclists are truly becoming a formidable source of revenue for businesses in BC’s biggest metropolitan area. Some areas are already car-free, placing even more focus on the benefits of a cycling community.

Image of bicycle rack in New Westminster, BC courtesy UPG Property Group

Image of cyclist on Dunsmuir Street separated bike lane courtesy of Paul Krueger

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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