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: ##http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g37209-s406/Indianapolis:Indiana:Sports.And.Activities.html##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: ##http://www.bikelongbeach.org/Planning/Read.aspx?ArticleId=20##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.

31 thoughts on Why Bicyclists Are Better Customers Than Drivers for Local Business

  1. Thank you for this important story. 

    While the numbers take nothing away from Bike Saturdays being a terrific program, based on the current webpage for Bike Saturdays (which your article links to as “the nation’s largest bike discount program”), it is not the nation’s largest. HER Helmet Thursdays, an ecology-economy sustainability project, has a higher number of participating businesses and organizations.  HER Helmet Thursdays motivates males and females to bike on Thursdays year-round.  Created and launched in Monterey County in 2009 as a community service, it is also appropriate for other geographic locations.  Details at http://www.HERHelmetThursdays.com

    We are pleased to work alongside Bike Saturdays in using discounts for cyclists as one more way to help sustain our counties, state, nation, and world.

  2. Great article, Tanya! Here in NYC, we’ve had great success with the first wave of the Bike Friendly Business campaign, getting businesses to hang stickers in their front window that proclaim themselves a  “Bike Friendly Business.” It was not hard to convince businesses – all I had to say was “Do you welcome the business of customers who arrive on a bike?” Answer: YES! “Have you noticed more folks riding to your store lately?” Answer: YES! Final question: “Would you like to become a bike friendly business: most often, the answer was YES!

  3. @96f349e8b6a15ade91901dc135acc313:disqus douglasawillinger Is that an advantage or a disadvantage?  I stop at the grocery on my way home.  It’s like 30 feet off my path.  I walk my bike into the store, fill the basket with heavy stuff like drinks, buy other stuff that goes in my back pack.  After paying I’m out the door and riding again.  In contrast, If I have to circle for parking or park at the far end of a lot, pffft!  Why bother, I can go a few days without Diet Coke.  

    The point?  
    Bigger trunk != greater convenience.

  4. There’s a restaurant nearby that recently replaced a single automobile parking spot pout front with a bike corral.  The place is always packed.  The corral always has 10-12 bikes locked in it (as does the nearby bike rack).  That’s 10-12 customers.  If it were just a parking spot, that’s 1, maybe 2 customers.  4 customers an optimistic upper limit.  

    What a smart business, to remove a car parking spot and install a bike corral!

  5. In a way yes Doug, but even typical american bikes usually have some kind of wrack to hold a little bit.  But in a way that is a huge plus, because it means you are out more often typically every day going by stores getting things.  The more often you see things the more likely you are to buy them, if you shop once a week the store really is not making money on you, its the folks in every day or so making small purchases that are really important.  Now, that is not to say a bike cant carry lots, sometimes more than a car/suv trunk.  Bikfiets, cargo specific bikes etc can carry up to 500lbs in some cases, multiple kids and large refrigerators/appliances.  I would like to see your Corolla do that!  More of this please, a customer on a bike is still a customer and is more likely to be loyal if provided with good parking and friendly service

    KillMoto, love some bike corrals!!! We have to think in terms of how many Customers can we fit not how many cars, and bikes give the biggest bang for your buck!

  6. We want to install bike corrals on 9 th avenue, but the DOT tells us not before 2013 !!!!
    This is infuriating ….

  7. Check out the Streetfilms “Copenhagen Cargo Bikes” to see the incredible schlepping potential of the bicycle.

  8. On my bike with an Xtracycle I routinely carry home five bags of groceries along with a twelve-pack of toilet paper. In the past some of the loads I have carried are two lawn chairs, a Kentucky Derby hat in a huge hat box, irrigation tubing, two preteen girls, six iron Japanese tea pots, and a Tai Chi sword. I have ridden next to people carrying surfboards and cellos on bikes. Mostly I just use my regular bike with two panniers to haul home what I need.

    I have definitely changed my shopping patterns so as to patronize stores I can bike to. When stores and restaurants have bike racks out front, I am more inclined to think they are bike-friendly and feel I am welcome.

    Thanks for the statistic that only 16% of car-related expenses stay within the local economy. As gas prices rise, communities organized around cars where walking and biking are a nightmare will find their economies drained as more and more of everyone’s wealth goes toward carting their 5000lbs of steel around. Communities that make walking and bicycling pleasant will find that their citizens have more money to spend and that they spend that money locally.

  9. Tanya~ Thank you so much for taking interest in our BFBD panel and for such a great article.

    Mari and Ben~ Kudos on your discount programs. From what we’ve researched, NYC’s is the largest program and it spans five boroughs, Monterrey has the largest countywide one, and LB has the largest citywide program. I hope our success in this area inspires other cities, counties and regions to start and grow theirs even larger! Hope to meet you both in person soon – come to Pro Walk/Pro Bike in LB!

    April Economides

  10. Thank you for your research, April. The Long Beach and New York City projects are now on the HER Helmet Thursdays “Goals and Overview” page, which also includes how HER Helmet Thursdays began, in 2009.  Been so busy doing the project, hadn’t realized HER Helmet Thursdays was the nation’s first bicycle-friendly business / discounts for bicyclists project.  You will probably enjoy the KSBW “Project Economy” video about HER Helmet Thursdays too, linked on the same page. http://marilynch.com/blog/her-helmet-thursdays/goals-and-overview

    The 22nd Annual Sea Otter Classic (bike races, recreational rides, expo, and festival), Bicycle Leadership Conference, Interbike IBD Summit, and a California protest ride about distracted driving all take place in Monterey County in April.  We’re grateful to have so many bike-friendly businesses all rolling out the red carpet for cyclists next month, and year-round.

  11. These are really useful stats — thanks for posting! You might also be interested in a resource we put together over at the West Hollywood Bike Coalition: lots of data and research about how bikes help businesses, neighborhoods, public health, etc. http://wehobike.org/all-about-bikes/why-we-need-bikes/

  12. “Way less cargo capacity on bicycles compared to automobiles.”

    Oh, I guess all those merchants didn’t think of that and are actually going broke, and merely imagine that their sales are up.

    Or, maybe people don’t need three passenger seats and a trunk for every purchase they make and so your comment is irrelevant.

  13. I hope the city government of London will read this article. I’m a bit tired seeing ho busses are stuck following bicycles, just because there is no other lane for them.

  14. When I ride my bike I get hungry and thirsty, so I will stop at any local convenient store or eatery.  It is not that hard to explain to the commerce folks.

  15. Just back from Cape Town where 35,000 cyclists plus an equal number of family members, support, etc. turned a quiet Sunday into the busiest of the year for all the towns and suburbs along the route.  They really get it – a cycling event is good business!

  16. This is really inspiring! A virtuous cycle is being revealed:

    • Bike/ped lanes create more jobs per dollar than car roads• Bike customers have more disposable income because they are not driving
    • Bike customers can stop and spend money more easily than drivers
    • More bikes can park in a car parking space than cars can
    • Bike customers shop local, keeping the money in the community
    • Bike customers can stop and talk to friends and neighbors easily, strengthening community
    • Bike customers are healthier, which gives them more time and money to spend.

    The list goes on.

  17. Awesome!  I live in a rural ag area w/ no bike trails and it’s downright dangerous to try to ride on roads w/ no shoulder!  I have been researching bike trails in Sacramento, so I can go take a ride.  But none of them seem to be near any biz disctricts to stop for a snack or beverage without having to go several blocks on streets (busy ones!).  I’m not a fitness rider, per se, so would love to have trails that pass within a block of, or right through, places with cafes or shops that cater to the bike crowd.

  18. I ride my bike more, especially to True Value, the bank, Library,, and to the Carniceria.  I ride slow and on the sidewalks on busy streets and in residential streets.  I wait at the signals and cross like a pedestrian.  No left turn for me.   I ended up on Broadway going the wrong way on a one way bike lane.  Screw that.   My main fear is car doors opening or people coming out of shops with the doors on the sidewalk.  I’ve got great legs, but those shorts for a younger person, don’t you think?. 

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More Evidence That Bike Facilities Are Good for Local Businesses

It’s a shame businesses so often line up against better bike infrastructure. Believing that business depends on customers who drive, local store owners have opposed bike improvements in Philadelphia, Memphis and many other cities. But research shows that bike facilities and local businesses are, in fact, complementary. Joe Peach at Network blog This Big City […]

More Evidence That Bike Facilities Are Good for Local Businesses

It’s a shame businesses so often line up against better bike infrastructure. Believing that business depends on customers who drive, local store owners have opposed bike improvements in Philadelphia, Memphis and many other cities. But research shows that bike facilities and local businesses are, in fact, complementary. Joe Peach at Network blog This Big City […]