One way to fight climate change is by encouraging non-carbon-based modes of transportation — like building public spaces that are friendly to bike travel. But “merchants have a perception that customers primarily access their business by car,” as the study notes, and that removing car infrastructure will hurt their revenues. The conflict has played out over bike lane installations in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City — especially when the lanes involve removing street parking spaces.
So Kyle Rowe, the study’s author, looked at two case studies in Seattle. The first was the redesign of Greenwood Ave. in the fourth quarter of 2010. The road was changed from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction, plus a center turn lane and a bike lane. Rowe collected the taxable retail sales data for the six-block business district that lies at the southern stretch of the bike lane project. For control comparisons, he also collected data from a nearby business district that did not have a bike lane installed (the “Neighborhood Comparison”) and for Northwest Seattle as a whole (the “Neighborhood-Wide Comparison”). Finally, to make sure all three comparisons were apples-to-apples, Rowe used “sales indexing” — dividing the total number of sales from the studied district by the total number of businesses, with all three sharing the same starting value of 100 percent.
The result? The construction of the bike lanes had no discernible impact on the Greenwood Ave. district’s sales versus the other areas.
The second case study was of a small business district at the intersection of Seattle’s Latona Ave. and NE 65 St. The bike lane was installed on 65th St., and while it didn’t alter the lanes, it did remove 12 parking spaces that lay alongside the business district. As a result, the project actually caused even more consternation amongst local store owners than the Greenwood Ave. project did.
Rowe applied the same methodology — comparisons to a nearby business district without a bike lane, and the Northwest Seattle area as a whole. He did not find a negative effect, to put it mildly.
So does that huge spike in sales for the Latona Ave. and NE 65th St. businesses after the construction mean the bike lanes actually boosted business? Maybe.
The problem is that, due to legal restrictions, the only data Rowe could access was aggregate: total numbers for sales and total numbers for businesses in any designated area. The law doesn’t allow for individual businesses and their specific sales to be identified. So it’s impossible to tell if, for instance, a new and extremely successful business moved into the district around the same time the bike lane was constructed, and that was what boosted sales.
But the one thing there was no evidence for was a negative impact to the local economy from the bike lanes.
For the curious, Rowe’s paper ends with a discussion of his methodology, its various caveats, and ways it could be improved upon and expanded with other surveys to facilitate future conversations between bike lane planners and local business communities.
“One cannot point a finger at the businesses for resisting change given that they have little to no information on how street improvements will affect their business,” Rowe notes in his conclusion. “Shortening this data gap will not only decrease stakeholder resistance but potentially increase stakeholder support and allow for planners and the retail industry to work together on these projects.”