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In Promoting Biking, Cities Report Economic Benefits

Written by Amanda Maher

In many U.S. cities, summer means an uptick in bicycle traffic. Last Friday, tens of thousands were expected to participate in National Bike to Work Day (May 15) – one of the largest events held as part of National Bike Month.

Over the past decade, cities coast-to-coast have seen a drastic uptick in the number of bicycle commuters. In 2011, CityLab conducted a survey of cities, in which many reported that the number of bike commuters had doubled over the past decade. The cities reporting an increase of over 100 percent included such diverse metros as Portland, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Buffalo, Kansas City and Atlanta.

In many cities, planners are trying to accommodate this trend by adding bicycle lanes in order to lure even more people to trade their cars for a friendlier two-wheeled commute. But adding bicycle lanes comes at a cost—and that cost is usually a reduction in on-street parking, which can create problems for small business owners.

While much attention is often paid to the health and environmental benefits of bicycling, the impact of bicycling on local business sometimes gets less attention. As bicycling ridership increases, cities are finding a positive correlation between cycling and urban economic and business growth. As the bicycling industry grows and bicyclists travel for the sport, recreational cyclists spend money locally on meals, transportation, lodging and entertainment.

At a local level, the benefits translate beyond tourism. A number of studies find that while automobile drivers spend more per visit across all retail establishments, bicyclists spend more per month. The slower pace and ability to park easily allow cyclists to shop more frequently. In Portland, OR, people who traveled to a shopping area by bike spent 25% more per month ($75.66) than those who traveled by car ($61.03). This has translated into $90 million in economic activity and 1,150 jobs for the Portland economy.

Portland is a notoriously bicycle-friendly city; but similar benefits have been realized in Toronto, San Francisco and New York City. For instance, after protected bicycle lanes were installed on NYC’s 9th Avenue, local businesses reported an increase in retail sales that was much larger than those reported in the surrounding area.

Cities like Memphis, TN are now using the installation of bike lanes as a tool for urban revitalization. The Broad Avenue Arts District started with a focus on attracting art-related businesses. But then the installation of “temporary” bike lanes, painted by local volunteers and maintained by the city, “slowed down traffic and people started noticing the businesses more,” explained Pat Brown, co-owner of T Clifton Gallery on Broad Street. Now, the city has expanded the Broad Street revitalization strategy to include a deliberate focus on growing bicycle ridership. Local leaders now reference an “ABC” strategy for the corridor: Arts + Bikes + Community. Already, more than 16 businesses have moved to the district and 29 major property renovations (including 17 at locations deemed blighted) have occurred.

Importantly, a proliferation of bicycle lanes provides inner city residents with a cost-effective mode of transportation. Installing bike lanes in dense, urban environments as part of a larger, transit-oriented design can provide inner city residents with important transportation cost-savings—money that can then be reinvested in the local economy.

Though more affordable than automobiles, bicycle ownership is still out of reach for many low-income residents. The advent of bike-sharing systems (including Hubway in Boston, CitiBike in NYC and others), can drastically lower the costs of bicycle use, especially where municipalities discount membership for income-eligible riders. In Washington, D.C., local officials have embarked on a campaign to draw awareness to the bike system in low-income and minority communities, and are using a federal grant to cover the annual $75 Capital Bikeshare membership fee for low-income residents who qualify.

To realize the full economic benefits of bicycle ridership, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) suggests bike share systems increase the number of locations in low-income communities. NACTO found that the “one in each neighborhood” station siting model does not advance equity and limits cycling as a transportation choice, especially for low-income residents, and that station density and spacing can encourage use.

An increase in bike lanes in urban environments can have a large impact beyond health and environmental sustainability. When strategies are implemented thoughtfully, bicycling can boost local business, revitalize commercial districts and provide significant transportation cost-savings for local residents.

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