13 Jan

The Economic Case for Bike-Friendly Business Districts

Jeremy West, co-owner of Primal Flower – an art, gift and flower shop in Long Beach, California's East Village Arts District – embarks on a customer delivery of plants, using the bike trailer he custom-designed to hook onto the back of one of the district's shared bikes. Part of the Long Beach Bike-Friendly Business District program includes an informal merchant bike share for errands and deliveries.

Happy 2012, everyone!

As we embark on a brand new year, and the City of Long Beach’s Bike-Friendly Business District program draws to a close (the pilot ends March 17; Green Octopus manages the program), lets review some of the ways bicycling helps business districts become more economically vibrant.

But first: What’s that photo above? That’s Jeremy West, co-owner of Primal Flower – an art, gift and flower shop in Long Beach, California’s East Village Arts District – shown here embarking on a customer delivery of plants, using the bike trailer he custom-designed to hook onto the back of one of the district’s shared bikes. Part of the Long Beach Bike-Friendly Business District program includes an informal merchant bike share for errands and deliveries. For more info, visit the January 17th issue of my Bikes Mean Business column for Women on Bikes SoCal!

Now, back to business – how bicycling helps business districts:

–        There’s a strong bike local/buy local connection: A driver may go straight across or out of town to shop and dine and end up missing the offerings in his or her own neighborhood. Bicycling introduces us to those shops, restaurants, and cafes within a few miles of our home and work. Bicyclists are also more likely than drivers to notice businesses they pass because they are moving slower and are more closely connected to the street. At the Los Angeles County Bike Summit, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster remarked, “I see parts of the city on my bike that I would never even notice if I was just driving. And I love it. So it’s not only great exercise, it’s a way for me personally to get closer to the city.”

–        Most trips are short trips: 40% of U.S. trips are 2 miles or less – an easy distance for most people to bicycle – yet 68% are driven, 26% are walked, and only 2% are biked  (source: “National Household Travel Survey,” 2010). This high percentage gives districts a strong reason to both incentivize bicyclists to their district and also convert current driving customers to bicyclists.

–        Bicyclists have more disposable income: A shift in modal choice from auto to bicycle typically means more discretionary income, because the typical cost for a commuter to own and operate a bicycle in the U.S. is less than $300/year. A California Bay Area bike commuter saves an average of $7,000 per year over owning a car. People who live ‘car light’ save money, too. (Source: “The Economic Effects of Traffic Calming on Urban Small Businesses,” 2003.)

–        Businesses on bike lanes report more “feet on the street” and increased sales: A 2009 study of Bloor Street in Toronto showed that bicyclists and pedestrians spent more money in the area than drivers. The study concluded that bicycle facilities would increase commercial activity on the street. (Source: “Bike Lanes, On-Street Parking and Business: A study of Bloor Street in Toronto’s Annex Neighborhood,” 2009.) Two-thirds of merchants along San Francisco’s Valencia Street say the new bike lanes have a positive economic impact on their business. Two-thirds support more traffic calming measures on the street and all of the merchants say they’d be supportive depending on the project. (Source: “The Economic Effects of Traffic Calming on Urban Small Businesses,” 2003.)

–        Safety: More “feet on the street” makes a district safer and friendlier, thereby attracting more people and potential customers.

–        It gives districts more car parking: “We need more parking” is a common demand business districts make on their city governments. Converting some of a district’s drivers to bicyclists opens up car parking, thereby decreasing the need to build more.

–        It’s taxpayer-friendly: Bike parking is less expensive to build and maintain that car parking. It is more efficient and affordable to taxpayers. It is also cheaper for customers since it’s free!

–        Bicycle Tourism: Using the bicycle as a mode of transport for vacations is on the rise, both for weekend getaways and multi-state road trips. These cyclists spend money at hotels, restaurants, shops and other places of businesses. Business districts that welcome them are seeing increased sales. Out-of-state bicycling tourists traveling to Wisconsin generate $532 million a year in economic activity. (Source: University of Wisconsin, 2010) A similar study from Oregon is expected to come out by 2012. The creation of bike-only hotels, hostels and campsites are on the rise to attract riders and spur economic development. (Source: Adventure Cycling.)

–        Increased Worker Productivity: In the U.K., regular bicyclists take 1.3 fewer sick days per year, saving around $200m through reduced absenteeism – a projected savings of $3.2bn over the next 10 years. (Source: London School of Economics, 2011) U.S. businesses could incentive their employees to bike to work, and U.S. business districts could become more welcoming to them.

–        It’s All-American: Bicycling is something that appeals to a wide variety of people, of diverse ages, races, genders, and political backgrounds. It’s refreshingly old-fashioned. It’s as conservative as it is radical, since it’s efficient and individualistic.

Lets make this a great year for bicycling and business!

10 Nov

The Beauty of the Bike Limo

Today is the beta launch of Women on Bikes SoCal! I am happy to be a part of this important effort to get more women and girls on bikes. I’m part of the WoB team and the business columnist.

Here is my “Bike Love Story” – or how I fell in love with the bicycle. I’ll paste it below, too. After you read it, please check out the rest of the WoB site and post your Bike Love Story.

The Beauty of the Bike Limo

Like many kids, I learned how to ride a bicycle without training wheels at age six, with my parents and grandparents taking turns running up and down the sidewalk holding on to the back of my seat until that magical moment when they let go and I kept on riding. I remember singing “I love Pippy Longstocking, up and away, and a sha-na-na!” over and over…and over… and feeling really cool. It’s one of my clearest memories from childhood, and I think it’s because of the strong feeling of freedom and independence it gave me.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m happy to say that not much has changed. My daughter, currently age six, and I don’t own a car and happily ride our bikes around Long Beach, read Pippy stories, and are pretty independent young ladies. Long Beach is still flat, still warm and sunny, and still has more bikeable streets than many Southern California and U.S. cities.

One thing that has changed, at least in my life, is the advent of the co-pilot bike extension, also called a ‘tag-along,’ or what Audrey and I refer to as our ‘bike limo.’ This quick-release extension turns my bike into a tandem, with a seat, pedals and handlebars for Audrey behind me. It’s our ‘car,’ if you will, getting us to and from school, the grocery store, pizza nights out, and across town to events. Audrey absolutely loves it and often busts out into song while we’re riding.

After my Pippy bike memory, the next ones are as follows: riding my bike to elementary school, junior high, and part of high school with friends; riding along East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz during college to beat the blues and stay in shape; riding a little in Claremont 2006-08; and then not riding again seriously until early 2010 in San Francisco, where I lived on a big hill and owned a very heavy and rusty mountain bike.

When I lived in San Francisco previously – as well as Berkeley, Portland, and D.C. – I loved walking and taking public transit. It wasn’t until my friend, Amanda Ravenhill, reminded me it would be much faster to bike across the city than take the very slow bus. So I hopped on my bike and never looked back. I’m a busy woman, and bicycling made it possible for me to get more done. I was also quickly reminded how much fun it was to ride and that glorious feeling of independence and strength that comes with it.

I’m a sustainability consultant and founded my company Green Octopus Consulting in 2003. In July 2010, I decided to move back to Long Beach to help ‘green’ my hometown and, to most people’s surprise, not buy a car, only borrowing one occasionally, mostly for nighttime trips to Los Angeles. People thought I was irrational to attempt this, but I thought it would be a good experiment – and, if I was successful, a good example to other parents and business owners.

Well, it’s been over a year now, and I’d say the experiment has been a success. Traveling by bike has pretty much revolutionized Audrey’s and my life. It has also given me a new career passion, as I’ve added one more service to my repertoire of helping cities develop and implement sustainability plans: I help get more people on bikes.

Soon after I moved back home, the city hired me to create and manage the nation’s first Bike Friendly Business District (BFBD) program in partnership with four business districts. With an MBA in Sustainable Management and history of working with business associations, the BFBD program is a great fit for my passions and strengths. I work with a large number of stakeholders in helping persuade community members to bike and buy local by offering free bike repairs, bike valets, a ‘Bike Saturdays’ discount program, bike photo portraits, fun bike-themed events, and a casual bike share system for merchants and their employees to go to meetings, run errands, and make deliveries.

When we bike instead of drive, the environmental and health benefits are obvious, but it’s also important to remember it helps keep local businesses in business and our neighborhoods vibrant. Having lived without a car for most of my life and knowing the joy of shopping local and developing relationships with local shop owners, I am grateful to be in a position to help others realize the same joy, especially business owners and parents, two groups that often think they’re too busy for bikes. It’s rewarding to see them realize how bikes are good for their bottom line and often more convenient than a car.

I often describe Long Beach as having gone through a political ‘climate change,’ because there is now an openness to discuss environmental sustainability and how to achieve it in our city whereas, in the past, most people dismissed it. With that said, I rarely talk about environmentalism when talking bikes. Instead, I remind people that riding a bike is old school, Main Street, and American as apple pie. It’s also fiscally conservative and efficient.

If Audrey and I can influence families, business owners, and other community members to live car-light, we’ll feel like moving home to Long Beach hasn’t just benefited our own personal lives but perhaps also the lives and local economy of this town we love. But don’t get me wrong – we’ve got an entire nation to convert. This is just the beginning.

26 Oct

Old School Localism

When I was 16, growing up in Long Beach, California, I’d drive – not walk – two very short blocks to pick up a gallon of milk or cuppa joe in a disposable cup. When my friends and I wanted to shop, we drove to a mall on a traffic-jammed freeway to buy clothes made in China from fluorescent-lit chain stores. I ate bagel dogs from CostCo and fried chicken from KFC.

Nowadays….my life in the LBC is a little different. My daughter and I commute everywhere via bike and foot and don’t own a car. We shop locally, eat healthfully, use reusable food and beverage containers, buy most of our clothes second-hand and have everything we need within biking distance. And it’s so much more fun.

None of this impresses my Greek grandparents. In the “old country,” living this way wasn’t a choice but a necessity. Just as they smiled at me when I tried to teach them about ‘the three R’s’ (after all, they explained, they’ve been practicing ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ for decades), I was surprised when a colleague claimed green building was “invented” in the 1970’s. We’re so disconnected from our earth – our home – we forget the very first dwellings were as green as buildings can be: made solely out of materials from the earth and designed strategically with sun and wind in mind (fancy words for “HVAC”).

Aside from the immigrant necessity to live lightly, this is just common sense and economic, my Republican grandparents asserted. Why throw something away you can reuse? Why pay money to drive to buy toxic-sprayed produce when you can grow your own organic and better tasting fruits and veggies at home, for free? Why drive to work and pay for a gym membership when you can bike to work and save time and money and enjoy fresh air along the way? My grandpa biked eight miles to work for years and loved it. These ideas are far from new.

Indeed, what’s old is new again. Green building, bicycle commuting and farmers markets are refreshingly old. That is why those of us seeking to live lightly on our earth must approach sustainable living with humility. What can we learn from our elders? What can we learn from indigenous populations? What can the natural systems of insects, plants, and rainforests teach us about how to design cities? What were the old marketplace models that resulted in lively public squares, supported local farmers and resulted in a congenial populace? If our favorite cities we love to wax poetic about were designed before the invention of the automobile, why do we keep designing and living in cities that are the exact opposite of this?

Contemporary economists, city planners and bureaucrats are finally starting to realize that these issues form an interdependent web. Renovating our cities – like Copenhagen did in the 1970’s – so that people can get to work, school and shopping errands car-free has a tremendously positive affect on our economy, our health, and our communities. And while some of these renovations require large up-front investments (such as new light rail), many of our economic and social woes can be solved by low-tech, inexpensive solutions – such as creating informal bike sharing programs, produce exchanges and parklets. Both are needed to set our cities up for economic success.

Walking and biking is more cost efficient than driving a car – not just because of the direct expenses to car owners but because car infrastructure (including parking) is much more expensive to taxpayers than bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Walking and biking’s direct link to buying local helps keep wealth within the community since many small business owners live in town – in contrast to a corporation headquartered in another city. There is nothing new about the idea of walking down the street and supporting your local shop owner or bicycling your child to school. These ideas are very ‘main street’ and American as apple pie. They are fiscally conservative and efficient.

So before you hop in that SUV to Walmart with your restless kindergartener in tow, consider instead the far-reaching effects that riding a tandem to your local store will have on your child, yourself and your city. For starter’s, your kid will love it – and joyful living is the most important ingredient to any successful community. Imagine if 10 of your friends did the same. This is how the change to localism happens: slowly, intentionally, and humbly. Old school.

April Economides is the principal of Green Octopus Consulting, which helps business districts become more healthy and FUN through old school ideas like bike/buy local programs and public space creation. She manages the City of Long Beach’s Bike Saturdays and Bike-Friendly Business District programs.

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Green Octopus Consulting | Long Beach, CA | info(at)greenoctopus(dot)net | 562.234.0046