Biking is good for business

Two local cities — Glendora and South Pasadena — are trying something novel: a Bicycle Friendly Business District pilot project to encourage more people to bike to local shops. The idea is get businesses involved in adding more bike amenities that, in turn, will help attract more customers to their stores. The following looks at why being bike-friendly is, in fact, good business. 

It’s no secret that we’re bike advocates at Metro. We are true believers that bikes are a viable way to get around our region and that bike infrastructure provides a variety of benefits ranging from affordability to less pollution.

However, in the era of Alternative Facts it’s more important than ever to advocate for our plans by working with good ol’ fashioned data — as Metro’s Measure M is going to be supplying billions of dollars for walking and biking improvements in the coming years. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite studies to talk about an issue where perceptions and reality sometimes fail to meet: bikes and businesses.

In cities and dense urban environments, businesses sometimes oppose changes to streets that would improve walking and biking access and safety because these changes occasionally require a loss of some parking spaces. Business owners view parking spaces as an important way for customers to access their stores and the thinking goes that if you reduce parking availability, a drop in sales will follow.

This is an understandable assumption. We’ve all had that moment when we think about going to a store or a restaurant that requires driving, and then we remember that the parking is horrible…and we change our mind, don’t go or go somewhere else where parking is easier.

And thus the perception: parking is a huge factor for businesses in urban areas. But let’s take a closer look at the facts and consider how customers actually arrive at many businesses:

As reported in The Conversation, restaurateurs in Brisbane, Australia were surprised to find out that although they had a relatively accurate sense of the number of patrons who biked or walked to their eateries, they didn’t have as firm a grasp on the number of customers who used cars and public transportation.

When they actually looked at the data, it turns out restaurant owners “over-estimated by more than double the actual importance of customers who came by car.” In the study, one in three customers walked and/or cycled to the restaurant precincts, and almost half the customers arrived by public transportation, including bus, train and ferry.”

While every city is different, this study highlights the importance of making decisions based on actual data. As consumers become more educated about the effects of their actions and choices on the environment, their modes of transport may evolve, and proprietors need to take this into account or risk losing business.

Ok, but what about the numbers? Because at the end of the day the dollars have to make sense. 

Instead of hurting businesses, there have been many instances of increased revenue in businesses along walking and biking-improved streets. Just a few examples:

After Fort Worth installed its very first “road diet,” where bike lanes replaced one or more car travel lanes, restaurant revenues went up a combined total of 179 percent along the improved street.

In Los Angeles, the businesses along York Ave that received a road diet had higher sales tax revenue than their counterparts without the road diet.

On Salt Lake City’s Broadway Avenue, retail sales increased after some parking was replaced with protected bike lanes. An in-house study done by the Salt Lake City Department of Transportation found that in the first six months of the next year after the protected lanes were added, retail sales were up 8.8 percent over the first six months of the prior year, compared to a seven percent increase citywide.

After the construction of a protected bike lane on 9th Avenue in New York City, local businesses saw a 49 percent increase in retail sales. On other streets in the borough, the average was only three percent, according to a 2012 study by the city’s Department of Transportation.

It’s important to consider that none of these studies could absolutely show that new bike infrastructure improved retail sales. But the data certainly suggests that these types of improvements are not the business killers store owners sometimes assume them to be.

So why does better pedestrian and bike access help local businesses? There may be several contributing factors, including:

•Those who walk and bike on streets move past businesses more slowly, which gives pedestrians and those on bikes more time to notice businesses that may not register when they are whizzing by in a car.

•Increased infrastructure for biking and walking encourages local patronage. Unless you’re a triathlete, you’re going to travel fewer miles by bike or foot than you are by car, which means you’re going to go to the places that are conveniently nearby.

•Those who travel by active transportation (aka non-motorized transport like walking and biking) tend to take more trips, which makes them “competitive consumers,” as pointed out in this CityLab article, which spotlights cyclists in Portland. Excerpt: 

“An analysis of 78 businesses in metropolitan Portland found that non-drivers, including cyclists, are “competitive consumers,” spending similar amounts or more, on average, than their counterparts using automobiles.” So over the course of a given month, cyclists spent less than drivers on grocery trips, but more at restaurants, bars, and convenience stores. The common theme emerged: cyclists spend less per trip, but they make more trips.”

Adding infrastructure that supports walking and biking results in safer, slower streets that create more attractive, secure environments for hanging out. As Elly Blue explains in Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy:

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.

None of this should be hugely surprising. There are plenty of streets and communities that have managed to find room for cars (often in off-street garages and lots), bike infrastructure and transit. Places like DTLA, downtown Santa Monica and many neighborhoods in Long Beach (to name a few) all have tremendous amounts of people because they’re nice places to visit, walk and ride.

Of course, there are always exceptions. What works in a city may not work as well in the ‘burbs. We absolutely understand, too, that there are some businesses that rely more heavily on customers with cars — a furniture store, for example.

Business owners have every right to consider how changes will impact their bottom lines. But there is a growing body of evidence that many businesses — particularly in urban areas — may actually do better if there are more ways to access them than just driving.

What do you think, readers? Did we overlook any studies? What are your experiences as a business owner or patron?

3 replies

  1. I’m a cyclist and frequent Expo line traveller. Just like you need to learn how to drive a car you need how to ride a bike safely and learn how to navigate public transportation. I’m originally from Amsterdam where riding a bike is more natural than driving a car. It has taught me not to fear cars; you have to learn how to ride defensively and anticipate what cars might do. The first important lesson is that you need to make yourself visible.When I ride in heavy traffic and there’ no bike lane I take the lane and ride in the center of the lane ext; it will make you more visible and it forces cars to ride around you. If you ride extremely on the right close to the curb it invites cars to squeeze by you and cut you off. At traffic lights I always ride to the front and place myself in front of the car waiting for the light; again it makes the drivers aware of you and you’re not behind a row of cars inhaling their tailpipe fumes. I make sure that I do not block right turning cars and I always get appreciative looks from those drivers. You have to be assertive as a bike rider of your rights and your place in traffic; if every bicycle rider does that cars will treat us with more respect.

  2. As a bike rider, I would only consider biking in a neighborhood if there were protected bike lanes, separated from cars, or if I could access my destination via quiet residential side streets. I don’t consider a bike lane which passes between moving cars and parked cars safe enough. I would not bike in downtown Los Angeles except for a special event like CicLAvia where the roads are blocked off to cars. If a public agency wants to provide more protected bike lanes, more power to you, but I won’t ride on dangerous streets.