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Bikenomics: Bike Lanes on Main Street

This post is excerpted from the Bike Lanes on Main Street chapter of Elly's book Bikenomics. You can pre-order the book here. The publisher will begin shipping preorders around October 25th.

Magnolia Street in Fort Worth, Texas’s newly hip Near Southside, is the sort of story that urban planners dream of.

In 2008, this retail, office, and apartment-lined street was re-striped. The street had been 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%.

“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 staples outside neighborhood restaurants and bars were overflowing. A coffeeshop 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.

What does a bike-friendly community actually look like? It certainly does not look like anyone’s fantasy of a pedestrian or agricultural past. Distances have become too great, cities are too sprawling, and we are all too deeply invested in lives that are spread out across a landscape that has been designed to suit the automobile. Transit is important, but can only take us so far in this dispersed landscape without massive and costly redevelopment of the built environment that is not always done in a way that proves useful and attractive.

This is the genius of the bicycle. Most bike trips are less than 30 minutes. When people ride to get in shape, they tend to go farther, and people who already commute by bike seem content to ride greater, on average, distances to and from work. But for all of the errands of daily life—and perhaps also for the work trips of the vast majority of people who don’t use a bicycle to commute, we want easy transportation. Perhaps this is why, in places where bicycling is common, business density increases—there is demand for clustered retail within neighborhoods. Whatever the reason, this does not just make life more convenient for people who bicycle—it provides more choices and shorter trips for everyone in the neighborhood, however they get around.

At the gas station nearest my home in Portland today, octane gas costs $3.99 a gallon. Not owning a car means I am free from the burden of buying gas, so the $250 a month I might otherwise spend at the pump is mine to dispose of in other ways. Because I live in a central neighborhood and walk nearly everywhere, I’m unlikely to seek bargains at chain stores on the outskirts of town. That extra money stays in the neighborhood, much of it going to locally-owned businesses.

The average trip to the pump costs $50. Two thirds of that—$33 of your hard earned money—goes straight to oil companies; over a third of what we spend at the pump leaves the country. Unless you live in Houston or Kuwait, your money has a long way to travel. Even if you live next door to the company’s headquarters and own stock in it, your economic returns will be slight. These hugely profitable businesses produce relatively few jobs—one job per million dollars of output, compared to twelve times that many in the retail sector.

By contrast, out of every $50 spent in locally owned businesses, $34 stays longer in the local community through taxes, payroll, and local contracts.

My own $50 may not make a huge splash, but when most of my neighbors enjoy the same options afforded by bike-friendly streets and thriving local retail, it adds up to something real and measurable.

Economist Joe Cortright calls this effect the “Green Dividend.” Portlanders, he finds, drive 20% fewer miles every day than the average resident of a comparable metro area. The total money that we save on those miles we don’t drive is $1.1 billion dollars a year. Of this, Cortright estimates that $800 million of this goes right back into our local economy.

That number would be much higher if it included more factors. Driving less allows all Portlanders to enjoy the health benefits of better air quality. And we save a substantial amount of productive time by driving less. Add these factors and our total yearly benefit comes out to $2.6 billion. This is the dividend that we reap for our decent transit system, closeknit neighborhoods, and the relatively tiny investments-amounting to less than one percent of our transportation budget over the past several decades—into bicycle infrastructure.

However small, this infrastructure investment is a key component of the story. If we simply stopped driving but did not have good alternatives, our economy would suffer in much the same way as that of Baltimore, another city with a low-car ownership rates but with depleted populations and much greater poverty levels. Thanks to policies that limit sprawl expansion, combined with decades of slow but steady investments in bikeways instead of freeways, Portlanders have more opportunities than most to travel short distances to grocery stores and restaurants, workplaces and schools. It’s a simple thing on its surface, but we reap the benefits, multiplied.

Studies of the effects of bicycling on retail are still coming in, but they produce nearly unanimous results. One fact is clear: People who ride bicycles spend money. While studies around the world consistently find that customers who arrive at grocery stores, convenience stores, bars, and restaurants by bicycle tend to spend more overall than people who arrive by car, the catch is that they spend less or the same amount each time they visit. They just visit more often.

As the case of Magnolia Street shows, specific improvements to streets that make them more bicycle friendly do wonders for neighborhood businesses—and business owners are taking note. After Portland’s bike corrals were installed, business owners on those blocks estimated that a quarter of their customers arrived by bicycle. Five years after bike lanes went in on Valencia Street in San Francisco, two thirds of business owners on that street said that more of their customers were cyclists, that business had improved overall, and they would support more traffic-calming measures.

Part of this effect is 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 does 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.

...There are many more examples of bike lanes, and bicycling in general, leading to the improvement of retail districts. As is so often the case, though, 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 one of them is always reasonable, but many of them are, and it’s important to hear their grievances—and better to work with them ahead of time rather than after the fact.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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