Five years ago, the city of Queens, New York, announced that it would be putting bike lanes onto a stretch of Skillman Ave—and removing 116 parking spots. Cyclists loved the plan, but local business owners went ballistic. Taking out those parking spots, as they argued at protests and in letters to the city council, would devastate stores and restaurants along Skillman. “Parking here is already a nightmare,” one fumed at a protest rally.
But the bike lanes were a done deal, and soon they were in place. Early this year, Jesse Coburn—an investigative writer with Streetsblog New York—wondered whether those predictions of economic collapse came true. So he asked the city’s Department of Finance to give him a few years’ worth of sales figures for that stretch of Skillman Ave. How had the businesses on that street fared?
Quite well, it turns out. In the year after the bike lanes arrived, businesses on Skillman saw sales rise by 12 percent, compared to 3 percent for Queens in general. What’s more, that section of road saw new businesses open, while Queens overall had a net loss.
The thing is, the actual merchants along Skillman? They didn’t believe it. When Coburn spoke to them and described what he’d found, only a few store owners admitted the lanes had helped. Many still insisted the lanes were killing their part of the city. And emotions ran hot: Someone scattered tacks on the bike lane.
This little parable turns out to be a fascinating glimpse at the challenges cities face as they try to update their urban infrastructure—to clean up the air, reduce greenhouse emissions, and speed up travel by making towns more bike-friendly. There’s an rising mound of data showing that installing bike lanes and making streets more pedestrian-friendly boosts the economic fortunes of a place. Removing cars and parking spots works. But the folks who run local businesses simply aren’t convinced, even when their own street performs. Given that sort of mess, can political fights over bike lanes ever end?
In 2013, researchers at New York City’s Department of Transportation studied seven stretches of road that had installed bike lanes or created pedestrian-friendly areas. The city crunched the numbers for businesses along those routes and found that by the third year, sales grew faster on five of the streets than in the borough overall, on average—up to five times faster, in fact.
Beyond New York, a meta-survey of research from 23 cities found that bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly design didn’t hurt local retail and food stores. (“Fears of disastrous consequences for local businesses,” the researchers concluded, “are unfounded.”) More recent work has shown roughly the same.
The truth is that in fairly dense areas, bikes are more efficient at moving people around. You might lose one car driver’s business—but you gain shoppers who now can arrive more easily on bikes. “Cyclists and pedestrians are consumers too,” notes Susan Handy, a professor of environmental science and policy at UC Davis (and a coauthor of that metastudy I mentioned above). Plus, streets redesigned for bikes and pedestrians tend to become more pleasant places to loiter, so “in a lot of cases, that’s created much nicer environments that are really good for those businesses.”