The latest evidence that bike lanes are good for business
A new study in Toronto supports what other cities have found: trading street parking for a bike lane doesn’t hurt the local economy, and often helps.
New bike lanes tend to draw controversy the way reflectors attract light — especially when those bike lanes replace street parking. The loudest protests usually come from ground-floor merchants, who understandably fear a loss of revenue from customers arriving by car. But in city after city, researchers have found that replacing street parking with a bike lane has no negative impact on business — and in many cases has a positive one.
The latest data point comes from Toronto. For a pilot project launched in August 2016, the city replaced street parking with a bike lane along a 1.5-mile stretch of Bloor Street, just northwest of the University of Toronto campus. The pilot removed 136 on-street parking spaces, leading retailers in the area to raise concerns.
To evaluate the business impact of the pilot, a group of researchers from U of T and the Center for Active Transportation conducted surveys of merchants and visitors before and after the bike lane’s installation. These surveys focused on four metrics: (1) spending, (2) customer counts, (3) visit frequency, and (4) vacancies.
As an extra measure, the researchers conducted surveys along a stretch of Bloor a couple miles east of the pilot site, with similar retail properties but no bike lane. This “control” area helped them gauge whether any economic changes were truly the result of the pilot itself, or merely reflected broader trends in the city.
Good news across the board: “We find all indicators point to increased economic activity on Bloor Street following the installation of the bike lane,” the researchers report in a paper set for publication in the Journal of the American Planning Association. Here’s a closer look at the numbers:
1. Monthly spending rose.
In the pilot area, significantly more visitors to Bloor Street spent more than $100 per month there after the bike lanes were installed than before (53 percent to 44 percent). Spending also rose in the control area, so this one metric can’t tell the whole story, but as a baseline it shows the absence of a retail doomsday.
More to the point: cyclist spending grew the most, with cyclists showing a 16 percent increase in odds of spending $100 a month on Bloor compared to visitors using other modes. In other words, the general spending increase was largely a cyclist-spending increase. There was no significant increase in cyclist spending in the control area.
2. The number of customers rose.
In talking to Bloor merchants, the researchers found that 55 percent served more than 100 weekday customers after the bike lane’s installation, versus 34 percent before, with food service and retail also showing statistically significant gains. The average Bloor merchant served 104 weekday customers post-bike lane (in 2017) versus 73 before (in 2015).
It wasn’t just a weekday trend. There was a significant rise in customers on Saturdays, too.
3. The frequency of visits rose.
In surveying visitors, the researchers found that people tended to visit Bloor three more days per month after the bike lane installation. The control site had no significant change in visit frequency.
There was a rise in regular visits, too. Before the pilot, 47 percent of people visited Bloor merchants 15 or more days a month. After the pilot, that number rose to 60.5 percent. Regular visit frequency also rose in the control site, though not quite as much.
Critically, visitors arriving by bike specifically to make retail or shopping trips soared, rising 12 and 14 percentage points, respectively. This increase in bike visitors came even as the share of drivers stayed the same. In other words, there was no sharp drop in the share of shoppers arriving by car, as some merchants feared.
4. Vacancies held steady.
That was true in both the pilot area and the control site.
So the picture is clear and consistent with findings from other cities: When street parking is converted into bike lanes in urban areas with commercial ground floors, economic activity as a whole remains as strong as before, and often stronger.
Caveats and causes
To be sure, it wasn’t all rosy. For example, unlike food or retail, general service establishments showed no significant weekday customer gains, and actually showed slight declines on weekends (in terms of the share of businesses seeing more than 100 customers). Such unintended consequences merit further study — and, if validated, may suggest a need for nuanced policies.
More granular data could help, particularly when it comes to generating support from wary merchants. The researchers did not have data on foot traffic, sales taxes, or credit card processing data, all of which could have painted a fuller picture. That said, the City of Toronto did review credit and debit card processing data and found spending to be up nearly 4.5 percent in the pilot area, compared with just over 2 percent in the control area.
Just why bike lanes have a neutral-to-positive impact on spending remains an open question. The strongest theory — one supported by the Bloor study — is that while cyclists lacking a car trunk might not make large purchases, they make more total purchases over a given period, since an area is now easier and safer for them to visit. (The large-purchase barrier also stands to change as more retailers shift toward on-demand delivery over in-store merchandise.)
It’s also the case that, even when immediate street-parking spaces are eliminated for a bike lane, most cities have abundant parking options nearby. That was certainly true on Bloor; as mentioned, the share of visitors arriving by car specifically to shop did not change significantly after the bike lane’s installation, and even rose slightly, from 6 to 8 percent. Drivers did report more difficulty parking after the change, but harder to park doesn’t necessarily mean harder to shop.
And after all, harder to park is part of the point. There are many reasons beyond economics why it’s good for a city to trade street-parking for cycling, including greater safety, more public space, and less pollution. All these factors, combined with the business case, were enough to sell Toronto: In 2017, the city made the pilot changes permanent.