Bike lanes: Good or bad for business?

New bike lanes are not often sincerely welcomed into neighborhoods. In fact, they nearly always receive pushback whether from residents or business owners, both of whom tend to worry about the loss of parking and driving lane space that often results from bike lane additions. This fear is not entirely unwarranted, but the benefits of bike lanes—in most cases—outweigh the negatives.

Protected bike lane in Seattle

Protected bike lane in Seattle

Last year, CityLab collected and summarized a number of studies on the economic impacts of bike lanes. I won’t waste time repeating its content but I invite you to take a look at the information provided for cities ranging from Dublin to Los Angeles.

If you’re a bike advocate looking for a business-based argument for bike lanes, you might not like what you read. Based on this array of data CityLab provides, it would be hard to make the case that bike lanes drastically increase profits for area businesses, but, significantly, what the data does prove is that bike lanes do not have a negative impact on economic viability for businesses. This is crucial because that’s one of the key arguments against them.

Let’s check in with some towns that added bike lanes to see how they’re handling the controversy and inevitable pushback. A recent article in the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, explains the impact of separated on-street bike lanes in several Canadian cities:

[In Calgary,] “We saw and embraced what the community was participating in, which was an active lifestyle and very active use of bike lanes,” says Karen Kho, service director for Teatro Group, of the café’s bike-friendly additions. Such touches aren’t just meant to encourage customers on bicycles to stop by, Ms. Kho says, they’re for employees too, many of whom cycle to work. […]

 Yes, businesses publicly denouncing bike lanes are still common, but shops, bars and restaurants are starting to back bike infrastructure and reach out to a new and growing customer base.

And here’s a response from Vancouver: 

In Vancouver, some businesses decided not to renew their leases since downtown bike lanes arrived on Hornby Street and Dunsmuir Street in 2010, but Charles Gauthier [president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association] says most have adapted to the bike lanes and accepted them.

I don’t blame local businesses for their initial hesitance to a big change on the streets outside their stores. But it’s good to see that they’ve begun to realize the benefits of bike lanes, too. In the article, Mr. Gauthier explains the eventual welcoming of bikes into business districts: 

“There’s been a sea change in the attitude about cyclists and frankly the value that the cycling community and the cycling consumer is bringing to the marketplace […] Businesses are responding by making it clear they’re catering to them.”

These businesses weren’t entirely unfounded in their fear that they might lose customers over bike lane additions, but based on the studies above, they should be able to look forward to a steady, and perhaps even increasing, customer base.

Naturally, the economic reasons for bike lanes go far beyond direct profits to stores: Chiefly, bike lanes are a low-cost street adjustment that enable residents to travel safely and very affordably to their destinations. In addition, biking causes far less wear and tear on streets than cars do, meaning that as users shift from driving to biking, they lower maintenance costs for the municipality. Those are two convincing economic arguments in favor of bike lanes. Of course, biking is also better for the environment than driving and an excellent form of exercise to improve community health.

In conclusion, it’s important to recognize that all of the studies mentioned in the CityLab article are less than 10 years old. In Calgary, Canada, the impact of bike lanes is still in the process of being measured. What impact will they have 10 years from now? 20? Time will tell.

The incremental, low-cost, block by block method with which they are being implemented means that we can continue to test and discover the values (or drawbacks) of bike lanes in our towns.

(All photos by Adam Coppola Photography)

Related stories