Saturday, January 26, 2013

Biking and Business part 2

A somewhat delayed follow up to this post.  These thoughts were precipitated by the Beacon St Cycletrack proposed for Somerville- important meeting details below.

The problem for advocates, is how to measure the power of bicyclists as consumers, and, what's harder, convince business owners that bicyclists are an important part of their business, and not some group of "others" who don't patronize their businesses.

There have been a lot of studies recently (this one in NYC is getting a lot of press)  about how livable streets are good for businesses.  But it's hard for a business owner to look at a study from a place far away and see how it applies to their business.   They say all politics is local, and real estate is about location location location.  It's hard for a lot of people to extrapolate from data in a completely different context, in a place that they don't know, and to use dry numbers to overcome the fear of change.

The City of Cambridge has been somewhat proactive in doing studies of major business districts to get a baseline, such that when a project comes up, they have data over time, instead of an ad-hoc survey.
Unfortunately many people have extended their skepticism of "big government" to conspiracy-theory level and don't believe traffic counts, and other objective data if it's been gathered by the city.  (see the brouhaha over protected Bike lanes at Prospect Park West in Brooklyn).   So it's hard to convince someone with a survey,  even a survey in their specific neighborhood.

I have a slightly dis-heartening story to this effect.  I was at a local specialty business on Mass Ave between Porter and Harvard (which is a great dense pedestrian strip of mostly small businesses).  The owners of the store are bicyclists, and I even think they said they don't own a car.  We were talking about how miserable it can be to ride down Mass Ave, and I asked them how they would feel if the city proposed removing some parking to make a better, safer bike lane.  I was kind of shocked that they were very opposed.   The co-owner said "I get people coming in here all the time complaining about how hard it is to park here."

The thing is, for every person who drives there and has a hard time parking, I bet there are 10 who are walking by, maybe on their way to one of the squares,  maybe on their way to another business in that stretch, and just stopped in to check it out.  But since it's easy to walk, and easy to park your bike (it's a big bike thoroughfare, even though it's not very pleasant), none of the customers who come in by foot or bike are making a big deal about it.  So they have no way of knowing how many people walk or bike in,  they just hear the squeaky wheels moaning about how hard it is to park.

If you think about it, the (mostly) local (mostly) small businesses that line Beacon should be doing everything possible to encourage local customers.   If you're walking or biking and you need screws, unless you need vast numbers of screws, you're not going to bike out to Home Depot, you're going to go to the hardware store in Inman sq.  If you want to meet friends for drinks, you're not going to go to one of the chain restaurants up in Burlington on 128,  you're going to go to the Thirsty Scholar.

So how should we bikers make ourselves known?  If statistics and government findings are too easily dismissed on an emotional level, how do we make our presence feel personal and real?  Should we complain about poor parking or non-existant bike lanes?  I know some people who argue that you should always wear, or at least carry your helmet in with you when you ride your bike somewhere.  I often find that annoying (one more thing to carry), and I'm not sure that anyone really notices, as Bikeyface pointed out in this great post.  And if they do, it's probably a low level staff or server, not the manager or owner.   I've tried to mention that I rode my bike there, but that is hard to work into conversation.  If anyone has suggestions about how to do that gracefully, please let me know.   I suppose thanking businesses who are bike friendly (i.e. offer bicycle benefits,  have good parking, etc) is not a bad place to start, but that doesn't help convert the people who are anti-bike.
Anecdotally, I heard that one of the business owners on Mass Ave who was desperately opposed to the taking of parking for bike lanes has now started calling police on cars who block the lane which brings him so many customers.

The Boston Cyclists Union and Livable Streets did a survey in November where were asked people to say why they were on Beacon St, and how they got there.  It actually showed that the majority of people walk to destinations there, with bicyclists and automobiles almost tied for 2nd.

It's a difficult issue, and I'm hoping that some of you out there have ideas for how to bring the topic up and encourage small businesses to see us, and quantify us in a way that makes sense to them.  We can lead them to the cycletrack, but if we can't convince them that bikers are good customers and the cycle track is good for their business, they're going to feel resentful and continue to oppose the project.
Even if we can tell them "I told you so" after three years, like the NYC study, that's doesn't help get the cycletrack be put in in the first place.

If you bicycle on Beacon St, especially if you're a Somerville resident I strongly encourage you to come to the public meeting this Monday, January 28th to support better bicycle facilities on this important regional cycle route.  It's at the Argenziano School (290 Washington St, Somerville) at 6pm.  If you speak up, you might want to mention if you shop by bicycle, and explain that you buy stuff or are a customer when riding your bicycle just as much as people who drive.


  1. I'd like to make it, but 6pm is still too early for my schedule. As far as how I make myself visible as a cyclist consumer ... my most common practice is to bring along some kind of bike luggage for carrying my purchases (either courier bag or panniers or detached saddlebag) and whenever the shopkeeper asks me if I need a bag then I just hold up the luggage and say, "no, all set."

    It's an optimal time as to when they're actually paying attention to me and can notice other cyclist cues (ie. helmet) but can also associate bicycles with actual patrons who give them money as well as help them save on things like shopping bags.

  2. Suggestion: if the business you're patronizing is a service business, leave an extra 5% on the tip. Draw a tiny picture of a bike on the check, and add "Thanks for being a bike-friendly business!" I assure you that staff will report to management.

  3. You have hit on it in your post - cyclists will go to that hardware store in Inman Square with only a minor effort on the store's part while motorists will not because the Home Depot is a few cents cheaper and parking is easier as well. That is why neighborhood groceries are almost all gone.

  4. Re: The PPW in Brooklyn. I lived on PPW for a couple of years (on the Windsor Terrace end before complete gentrification), and I have to say, you are unlikely to find a more overpriviledged set of self-centered weenies as the top end of Park Slope. Nothing in that article is surprising. Boston and Cambridge are paragons of efficiency compared to New York. And as bad as driving around here can be, it's not comparable to the East Village. Man, you have to be seriously nuts to drive there.

    One way to show how much cyclists mean to the businesses in the area is to favor those that support cyclists. If a shopowner who doesn't want the bike lane sees all the cyclists choosing to go elsewhere, they may change their mind when the difference shows up in their cash register.

  5. I was in Inman Square Hardware last week and asked the owner how business was, and he said 2012 was a phenomenal year. Home Depot has a lot of parking, but the time you waste getting there, parking and navigating the store are really not worth it. The key to the parking issue is to get the price of parking right (not to high/ not too low).

    Until we do this there will always be a famine mentality where there are shortages of parking and we don't charge enough.

    BTW: important meeting on Beacon Street tonight 6:30 at Somerville JFK school.