Why Bicyclists Are Better Customers Than Drivers for Local Business

“It may not have sand and crashing waves, but the Monon Trail is the equivalent of beachfront property in the Indianapolis area." Photo: Trip Advisor

Do local and state officials tune out when you try to talk to them about bicycling? Are they unconvinced by arguments about public health, transportation options, or clean air? Do business leaders send you packing when you suggest building new bike lanes and bike parking, fearing that the loss of car parking will keep customers away?

Then show them the money.

Bikes can mean big business, and businesses are beginning to realize it. At a Bike Summit panel Wednesday on the economic boost cycling can provide cities, speakers highlighted another strong message cyclists can bring to politicians when making their case for investment in bike/ped facilities.

Far and away, the biggest reason business owners resist the addition of bike infrastructure is that they’re afraid it will limit parking. Once they realize they can get 12 bike parking spaces for each car spot, sometimes they begin to change their tune. Even better, they begin to discover that cyclists can be their best customers. “We tend to shop closer to home and shop more often,” said April Economides, a consultant who helped the city of Long Beach, California build bicycle-friendly business districts. Rather than jumping in the minivan and heading to the suburbs to go to the big shopping malls, cyclists patronize the businesses in our neighborhoods.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster understands the value of bikes: “I see parts of the city on my bike that I would never even notice if I was just driving,” he said. “It’s a way for me personally to get closer to the city.”

That closeness has a dollars-and-cents value. Cyclists travel at what Portland Bike Coordinator Roger Geller calls a “human-scale speed” that allows them to “stop and buy something.” Besides, Economides said, if you’re car-free you’ve got an extra $6,000 jangling around in your pocket that you otherwise would have spent on gas and car maintenance (actually, $8,776 if you believe AAA). According to researchers with Intelligent Communities, a program of the National Building Museum, only 16 percent of household car expenses stay within the local economy.

Free bike portraits, taken in a bicycle-friendly district in Long Beach.

The four bicycle-friendly business districts Economides helped develop in Long Beach provide a model of how to encourage cycling without adding infrastructure. Local businesses see bike access as a boon for local shopping and dining. They have an informal merchant bike-share program, so the business owners themselves can enjoy the benefits of biking around town. The program created the nation’s largest citywide bike discount program, where customers get better prices if they arrive by bike. The program also brought the districts community bike rides, free bike repairs, bike valets at local events, and even free bike portraits, where you can get your picture taken with your bike (see left). The programs have brought a flood of new customers into participating stores.

Two of the four districts didn’t even have a lot of good bike infrastructure to begin with – but there’s more demand for it now, even from businesses that used to be bike-averse.

Long Beach got a stimulus grant to create the districts, and the term of the grant expired just last week. But Economides said participating merchants are now so jazzed about cycling that they’ll carry on the work. And it’s a diverse group of businesses: Organizers reached out to Spanish- and Khmer-speaking merchants in the area and got their full participation. They also left paper flyers and postcards on people’s doorsteps, since not everyone is wired.

“Open Streets,” or ciclovias – events where streets are closed to motorized traffic and become the domain of bicyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, rollerbladers, jugglers, dog-walkers – are another way to bring money to local businesses. Washington University in St. Louis was able to quantify the economic benefit of Open Streets programs: 73 percent of Open Streets participants spent money at a restaurant or store on the route, and 68 percent became aware of a restaurant or store that was new to them.

Business Improvement Districts are another good place to seek support for pro-bike policies, said Andy Hanshaw of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition. Local shopping and dining is what they’re all about, and they might be happy to sponsor community bike rides and new bike parking.

Diane Gershuny of Long Beach's 4th Street Business Association rides around the bicycle-friendly district with her trusty Chihuahua in a vintage bike. Photo: Bike Long Beach

After all, in downtowns turning car lanes over to people can be a great moneymaker. Its most stunning success, perhaps, has been Times Square, “the ultimate end vision of how to pedestrianize the most pedestrian-heavy place in America,” according to Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative. According to a recent study commissioned by the local BID, Times Square helps generate more than one-tenth of the city’s economic activity– on less than one percent of its land.

From park(ing) day, where people create ephemeral parks in parallel parking spaces, to parklets that make those tiny parks more permanent, to pop-up cafés, adding outdoor public space draws people and adds life to the street. Those spaces also often become de facto additional seating for nearby establishments, giving them more capacity for free.

“Bicycling, just like walking, helps make a Main Street more vibrant,” said Economides. “It adds more eyes and ears to the street, so it makes it safer. So think about a mom pushing a stroller. She’s going to want to walk down a block that has more people walking and bicycling; she’ll feel safer. And you do want to attract women and moms. We’re a pretty important shopping base.”

Rory Robinson of the National Park Service found many other examples of bicycling spurring economic revitalization, like the opening of the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville, Colorado, which led to a 19 percent increase in sales tax revenues, helping the city recover from a mine closure in 1999. The 45-mile long Washington & Old Dominion Trail in the D.C. suburbs brings an estimated $7 million into the northern Virginia economy, nearly a quarter of that from out-of-towners. And downtown Dunedin, Florida was suffering a 35 percent storefront vacancy rate until an abandoned CSX railroad track became the Pinellas Trail. Storefront occupancy is now 100 percent, Robinson found. “Business is booming.”

And the economic benefit of bicycling for communities doesn’t end with cyclists’ expensive cappuccinos and impulse buys. Properties near bike paths increase in value 11 percent, said Economides. Realtors and homebuilders consistently find that access and proximity to walking and biking facilities, especially greenways, makes homes easier to sell. A reporter for the Indianapolis Star said it best in 2003: “It may not have sand and crashing waves, but the Monon Trail is the equivalent of beachfront property in the Indianapolis area.”

Add to that the fact that bike lane construction creates about twice as many jobs as road-building for the same amount of money, and you’ve got yourself a great economic argument to take to local leaders and politicians when you ask them to support walking and biking – even (or especially) in tough economic times.