Bikes and Business: The Economic Side of Cycling

Bikes and Business: The Economic Side of Cycling

Sasha Pincus

Staff Writer

The conversation surrounding America’s infrastructure is often overly sparing, particularly when it comes to biking. The dust kicked up by partisan debates over spending and investment settles down, and we turn instead to a quick round of Scattergories. Ways to get from here to there: trains, busses, bridges, highways. I’m sorry, you used the wrong letters, save those for another round!

The thing is, though, by neglecting to include bicycle infrastructure as part of that conversation, we’re passing up monumental opportunities—some of which come with much smaller price tags than you might expect.

Biking, in particular, offers a rare amount of reward relative to its investment risk. Of course, there are limitations (prohibitive distance between Point A and Point B, adverse seasonal conditions, etc.), but a strategic outlook reveals that such hurdles aren’t nearly as insurmountable as they once appeared. And they’re entirely worth jumping.

For the individual commuter, biking offers a clean, healthy, and cost-effective alternative to motor vehicles. Not only do bikes create zero meaningful pollution, but studies have also shown that people who bike to work are healthier and more productive, and require less time off. For communities, though, the possible returns on investment are even more profound.

In 2007, John Pucher and Ralph Buehler (researchers at Rutgers University) published a study titled “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany.” In it, they outline the cultural and economic benefits to building out biking.

“Not only do the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany have high and growing levels of cycling, but their cyclists comprise virtually all segments of society,” Pucher and Buehler write. Their research goes on to show that people of every age and demographic are taking advantage of their two-wheeled tools, and they’re not just zipping around the block. According to Pucher and Buehler, people are shopping, exploring, and commuting via bicycle every day. Better yet, they’re doing it safely.

Because it’s such a societally accepted initiative, biking in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands is notably well-organized. Children are taught to ride in the earliest years of their education, and are expected to pass an exam not unlike our driver’s tests. They’re taught about road safety, how to conduct themselves at intersections, and the appropriate signals to use when sharing the road. As children grow into society’s adults, that implicit understanding—that the roads are for motorists and bikers—remains.

From there, infrastructure is put in place to reflect and sustain that compromise.

In Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, bike lanes are popular, and are often accompanied by precautionary guard rails. Specialized traffic lights neatly dictate right-of-way, and parking solutions are numerous. Traditional bike racks are situated throughout different areas, as well as covered (and sometimes heated) structures to shelter riders in inclement weather. Trains and busses are prepared to accommodate bike storage, and the digital revolution has ushered in a variety of apps for renting and sharing bikes. “At the same time,” Pucher and Buehler write, “car use is made expensive and less convenient through a host of taxes and restrictions on car ownership, use, and parking.”

Each of the aforementioned elements, in and of themselves, are uncomplicated, and when executed as a holistic and systematic initiative, the results are unmistakable. People bike farther distances, and they do so well into the more mature years of their lives, using their bikes for everything from errands to daily work commutes. They can do this because their local and national governments have supported this transition to more bike-friendly roadways.

Again, from Pucher and Buehler: “In Germany, for example, the federal government contributed over €1.1 billion to doubling the extent of bikeways along federal highways from 1980 to 2000, and is now devoting €100 million per year for further bikeway extensions, cycling research, and demonstration projects. In addition, about €2 billion a year in revenues from the motor fuel tax are earmarked for a special urban transport investment fund, which provides 70- 85% federal matching funds for state and local governments wanting to build cycling facilities (paths, lanes, bridges, traffic signals, signs, parking, etc.).” It’s only been in the past thirty years or so that these countries have shifted the focus of their infrastructure spending to better accommodate cyclists. In so doing, municipalities have prioritized urban plans that are more people-friendly over those that are strictly car-friendly, thereby making their cities more livable and more sustainable than their American, British, and Australian counterparts.

So, what can we do to follow their lead?

Some solutions are obvious: updated traffic lights, and integration with current public transport systems. Others take more work. Bike lanes are particularly controversial, as they take up precious city space. The solution to that, though, is a seemingly counter-intuitive one: parking structures. And not for bikes, but for cars.

The Congress for New Urbanism powers a publication called Build a Better Burb. In it, Jocelyn Wenk recently published an article entitled. “Financing Parking Garages: Q&A with Parking Consultant Gerard Giosa.” However disinterested your inner child may be by that premise, allow yourself a few moments to consider this conversation, in which Giosa explained two outrageous successes: “The Town of Morristown,” Giosa said, “constructed a $10 million downtown parking garage in 2000 that became the catalyst for over $60 million in new residential and commercial development in the immediate vicinity over the next five years. A second 800-car downtown garage that was completed in 2008 at a cost of about $16 million supported a new round of residential and commercial redevelopment totaling $125 million.”

When asked if the structures were worth the cost (as opposed to traditional lots), he explained, “Surface parking gobbles up so much land that it begins to negatively affect the character and walkability of a [community]. … A garage … can be tucked into the center of a downtown block.”

This creates a major boon not just as far as biking is concerned, but for the community overall. Not only are the streets largely freed up to better share space (with parking spots converted to bike lanes), but the garages localize given retail communities. Shops, restaurants, and businesses pop up within an easy walking distance of the structure, enlivening the atmosphere and creating more surface area for economic growth.

Problems begin to arise, however, when there isn’t enough follow through on a project. This past year, Henry Grabar published an article for Slate titled “Why Bicycling Infrastructure Fails Bicyclists.” Above all, he cites outdated infrastructure, and a lack of oversight as the biggest offenders. “Sometimes lanes suddenly switch from one side of the street to the other,” he reports. “Sometimes they end without warning. Cars turn across them without signal permission. Mostly, they are full of double-parked cars.”

Furthermore, despite the illegality of obstructing a bike lane, erratic enforcement of such regulations leaves little to no disincentive for motorists to do exactly that. For example, according to Henry, “in fiscal year 2015, the NYPD issued 77,000 tickets to vehicles parked in bike lanes. That means that for every city block of bike lane, the department is issuing approximately one obstruction ticket every three months.”

An increase in biking cannot work without communal support. Fortunately, we live in a remarkably connected and innovative time, and as towns, cities, and counties continue to grow larger, we can work to promote not just cleaner lifestyles, but stronger economies.

Because, let’s not forget: bikers buy things.

Distance cyclists need accommodations, food, and supplies. They also require regular repair services, be it for their bikes, their equipment, or medical care for themselves. Short term bikers have similar needs, and bring with them the added benefit of a more conserving lifestyle that localizes the expenditure of capital, while also protecting the environment.

As a community, consider what cycling can do for you and yours. Then consider what it might take to pursue it. From infrastructure updates and stronger oversight processes, to member incentives for businesses who provide accommodations for cycling employees, the avenues are endless. Give it a shot. Odds are, it’ll pay off in the long run.