Solving Cities

Do bicycles improve urban economies?

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In cities throughout the US, the amount of bike-infrastructure is increasing and the number of bicycle commuters is climbing. But should cities fast-track bicycle projects to jump-start the economy?

Bicycles are rapidly becoming a common sight in cities throughout the US. From Washington, D.C. to Portland, Ore. the amount of bike-infrastructure is increasing and the number of bicycle commuters is climbing. But should cities fast-track more bicycle projects to jump-start the economy?

Joe Peach on the This Big City blog thinks it's a good idea. His main reasons:

  • Bicycle-related infrastructure is relatively cheap to install compared to new roads or mass transit systems.
  • It's easier to interact with local businesses when traveling by bike.

But bicyclists can't carry as much stuff as vehicles. So does that lessen the economic impact that bicyclists have on businesses? Assuming a high demand for bicycle usage, Peach says that bicyclists have the advantage of being able to fit more people into a small space than cars, even though they might spend less per trip.

A study from Australia attempts to put some figures behind this thinking. Based on data from more than 1,000 survey respondents, Alison Lee found that, even though cyclists spend less on average, improvements to urban bicycle networks still bring retail benefits. Lee suggests that by replacing one car parking space with six bicycle parking facilities, the lower average spend of a cyclist could be multiplied, offering improved revenue opportunities for nearby businesses. Of course, this simple mathematical equation, whilst theoretically true, assumes enough demand to keep the bicycle parking facilities adequately full.

Despite this, Lee’s findings are remarkably similar to a study from the Dutch city of Utrecht which found that whilst bicycle-based consumers spend less per transaction, they make more visits and spend the most collectively. This isn’t the only connection – a German study found similar results, calling cyclists ‘better customers’ due to them making eleven trips per month compared to seven for motorists. And the Swiss are in on it too, where research into parking space profitability found that each square metre of bicycle parking generated €7500 compared to €6625 for cars. This seems to confirm basic logic – devoid of any significant storage space, cyclists are likely to spend less and shop more.

Peach also reports that the average number of jobs created for every $1 million of bike infrastructure is 11.4 jobs compared to 7.8 jobs per million spent on road-only construction.

With so many cities struggling financially, bicycle-infrastructure seems like a cheap, obvious place to start.

Local Economic Implications of Urban Bicycle Networks [This Big City]

Photo: xrrr/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure