Even city officials and transportation planners are recognizing that the small cost of bike infrastructure provides a big payoff for taxpayers and business owners. While the price tag on a bike lane is a fraction of the cost of a single mile of freeway, researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute found that building bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure creates nearly 50 percent more jobs than road-only projects. And that’s just the beginning of the equation.
A recent study from North Carolina’s Outer Banks showed that the one-time investment of $6.7 million for a network of bike lanes has yielded an annual nine-to-one return thanks to increased bicycle tourism. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), Portland, OR, is just beginning to see the swell of benefits from its 300-mile (500-kilometer) bicycle network. Based on fuel savings and health care costs, RTC estimates that by 2040, the $57 million investment will generate net benefits of $1.2 billion, more than eight dollars for each dollar spent.
Bicycles Appeal to the Next Generation
Using little more than chalk, cardboard, and plastic cones, Jason Roberts did in six hours what traditional tactics couldn’t do for decades. In partnership with local advocates and city officials, the founder of Team Better Block, a consulting firm that creates temporary demonstrations of complete streets, visited Tulsa, OK, with the challenge of jump-starting the economic engine of long-struggling Whittier Square.
Roberts’ tools were cheap and commonplace: crosswalks marked with white tape and bike lanes delineated by cardboard. Cones and angled parking took the busy thoroughfare down to two lanes.
And suddenly, everything changed.
“It was a Wednesday night and we didn’t really advertise the event,” Roberts recalled. “But just by putting in bike lanes and a few pop-up shops, all the cars in the area started stopping. The food trucks ran out of food, and the retailers were telling me, ‘We just don’t do this kind of business.’” Roberts’ response was simple: Create a better streetscape and those ringing cash registers could become the new status quo.
Both advocates and city staff have sought out Team Better Block to replicate that process in cities nationwide. Already, some of those demonstrations are becoming permanent installations – even in markets not known for their bike-friendliness, like Dallas and Fort Worth, TX.
That’s not to say that Roberts doesn’t often face resistance from the business community. Last year, his team was invited to reimagine a six-lane thoroughfare in Wichita, KS, but the city planner anticipated a challenge. In this conservative town, he cautioned, innovative ideas from Copenhagen and even New York City won’t be well received. While skeptical business owners were openly wary at the outset, opposition quickly fell away when they saw the temporary bike lanes and pedestrian islands in action. Almost overnight, the owners of the doughnut shop, the gourmet soup café and other establishments became the strongest supporters of making the bike facilities permanent. “Wide roads act like moats, cutting off one neighborhood from another,” Roberts said. “We stitch that back together again.”
By restoring the fabric of the city, biking has become an economic development tool for many cities. Bike improvements in Minneapolis paid huge dividends when the massive advertising firm Colle + McVoy relocated from the suburbs specifically because of the impressive trail network and better biking. “Our employees are healthier, happier and more productive,” the company’s CEO said in a newspaper article. “We’re attracting some of the best talents in the industry.”
Even in New York City, biking is adding a shine to the Big Apple. As the city was considering the adoption of a bike share system, 33 executives at high-tech companies like Foursquare and Tumblr publicly urged the mayor to support the bike share as a means to “attract and retain the investment and talent” necessary to be competitive.
After all, the next generation of workers – and consumers – are less interested in driving than their parents. According to a recent report from the US Public Interest Research Group, the average American drove 6 percent less in 2011 than 2004. Among young adults (16- to 34-year-olds), car use plummeted 23 percent from 2001 to 2009.
Appealing to that demographic has made cycling cities all the more attractive to the most innovative companies. Late last year, with the opening of another protected cycle track in Chicago, IL, Mayor Rahm Emanuel emphasized that “it’s no coincidence” that bicycling and business are both skyrocketing in the Windy City. “We moved from 15th to 10th worldwide in start-up economy,” he added. “No city worldwide moved that far that fast that quickly . . . And you cannot be for a start-up, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”
In Roberts’ neighborhood in Dallas, bicycling isn’t just a transportation option; it’s a signal about the values of the community. “The impact of this bike infrastructure isn’t just safer streets,” he said. “It’s a statement to the rest of the city that this is a different part of town. We’re seeing this influx of the creative class. It’s palpable and they weren’t moving here five years ago. That’s really a huge advantage. Just about every city is doing everything it can to woo the next generation, and they’re looking for better public amenities.”
For Pat Brown, the next generation for Broad Avenue in Memphis couldn’t be brighter. Businesses on the once-struggling strip aren’t just surviving – they’re thriving. “In the two years since we’ve just been talking about the bike lanes, we’ve seen exceptional growth – at least 50 percent per year,” Brown said. “We’re counting the days until [the bike lanes] are permanent. We couldn’t be more excited.”
Carolyn Szczepanksi is the director of communications and Women Bike at the League of American Bicyclists, which promotes and protects the rights of people who bike in communities across the US.