ideas cities data bike lanes

The battle on the bike lanes needs a mindset shift

But the bike lanes were a done deal and were soon installed. Earlier this year, Jesse Coburn, an investigative writer with Streetsblog New York, wondered if those predictions of economic collapse had come true. So he asked the city finance department to give him a few years of sales figures for that stretch of Skillman Ave. How were the businesses doing on that street?

discreetly, it turns out. In the year following the arrival of bike lanes, businesses on Skillman saw a 12% increase in sales, compared to 3% in Queens overall. Additionally, that stretch of road saw the opening of new businesses, while Queens posted a net loss overall.

The fact is that the real merchants along Skillman? They didn’t believe it. When Coburn spoke to them and described what he had found, only a few shop owners admitted that the alleys had helped. Many still insisted that the alleys were killing their part of the city. And the emotions ran hot: Someone scattered nails on the cycle path.

This little parable turns out to be a fascinating look at the challenges cities face like them try to update They urban infrastructure— to clear the air, reduce greenhouse gas emissionsand speed up the journey make cities more bike-friendly. There is a growing body of data showing that installing bike lanes and making streets more pedestrian-friendly improves a place’s economic fortunes. Car and parking lot removal work. But the people who run local businesses are simply not convinced, even when their own street shows. Given that kind of mess, can political fights over bike lanes ever end?

In 2013, researchers at the New York City Department of Transportation studied seven stretches of road that had installed bike lanes or created pedestrian precincts. The city analyzed business numbers along those routes and found that by the third year, sales grew faster in five streets than in the borough overall, on average, up to five times faster.

SUBSCRIBEsubscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorites Ideas writers.

Beyond New York, a research meta-survey conducted in 23 cities found that bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly design it did not hurt local retail and grocery stores. (“Fears of dire consequences for local businesses,” the researchers concluded, “are unfounded.”) More recent work has shown much the same thing.

The truth is that in fairly dense areas, bicycles are more efficient at moving people. You may lose a motorist’s business, but you gain buyers who can now get there more easily by bike. “Bicyclists and walkers are consumers, too,” notes Susan Handy, a professor of environmental science and policy at UC Davis (and co-author of that metastudy I mentioned above). Additionally, streets redesigned for bicycles and pedestrians tend to become more pleasant places to hang out, so “in many cases, this has created much nicer environments that are really useful for those activities.”

Mom-and-pop stores are usually pretty nimble about recognizing situations that will help their bottom line (which often have thin and flimsy profit margins). So why the blind spot here? Perhaps it is that attention gravitates to horror stories and some traders get screwed over when bike lanes come.

I spoke to Cindy Hughes, co-owner of Fast Phil’s hair salon in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She said business plummeted by at least 40% when the city removed nearby parking to put in a bike lane. Most of her customers she drives (she kept count), many are from nearby towns. Only a very few have made the switch to cycling, and even those almost certainly won’t be cycling in the snowy Boston winters. So while Hughes advocates bike lanes—”cyclists deserve to be safe”—she sees the loss of parking as an existential risk. “Look, 90 percent of my clients drive,” she told me. “For our business, bike lanes are much worse than Covid was.”

For others, the pushback is cultural, says Henry Grabar, a writer for Slate whose book on parking, Paved paradisewill be released next May. Small business owners are often drivers who commute from other parts of the city by car, Grabar points out. They are often longtime locals as well. “They tend to be people with deep roots in the city, who have been around since before the neighborhood became what it is today,” she adds. Driving around the city is so normal for them that riding a bicycle seems strange and unusual, notwithstanding its push from Covidwhen bike sales exploded by 75%.

And there is a negativity bias. “People who have trouble finding parking are always talking about it,” notes Grabar. “But people who walk in directly or by bike won’t talk about it.” So shop owners will understandably create a sense of parking as an out-of-control problem, while the increase in pedestrians or cyclists may not register.

Psychology conquers all! Who knew, right? The snarling division between shop owners and bike lane advocates seems to resonate with our larger culture wars over climate change. If we’ve learned anything about the culture wars, it’s that data isn’t very good at changing minds.

When Janette Sadik-Khan headed the New York City Department of Transportation in the early 2000s, she oversaw the implementation of bike lanes and received fierce backlash from residents and business owners who furiously claimed there weren’t enough cyclists to justify the installation of lanes. Now, she ironically notes, the lanes are so full of activity that naysayers have moved on to claiming the problem is the opposite: There are too many cyclists getting in the way of cars. As she puts it, “the status quo is a hell of a drug.”

Maybe the bike lanes will always be full, until enough of the public is finally inebriated about climate change, and it seems rash not have them.

Crises, after all, have a way of opening people’s eyes to possibilities. During Covid, restaurants and cafes lost so much business that cities across the country began allowing them to build sidewalk seating where people could sit, safely, in the fresh air. It has significantly reduced parking, but why, well, crisis, the shop owners saw no way around it. Patrons have loved the outdoor seating so much that cities are making it permanent: A New York City study of several streets closed during Covid found that store owners are making more money than before and diners are enjoying the style of outdoor life. If the data doesn’t change their mind, customers might.