A Few Data Points For the Next Time WNYC Talks Bike Lanes

This morning, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer discussed the Columbus Avenue bike lane with reporter Kate Hinds. The show covered a fair amount of ground in a short amount of time, but gave a lot of airtime to a key assumption which has given cover to street safety opponents — that small retailers in New York City need to maintain as much on-street parking as possible — and let it go unchallenged for much of the segment.

Potential customers on Columbus Avenue. Photo: Stephen Miller

“The main sticking point of whether the bike lane hurts small businesses led to a tie vote” at committee, Lehrer said in his introduction, though the main factor was the predictable opposition from a pair of committee chairs who reflexively block measures as simple as adding sidewalk bike racks.

Hinds added that “the loss of parking spaces is a continual sticking point” which “throws small retailers into a tizzy.” But it wasn’t until the very end of the segment that she mentioned the Columbus Avenue BID’s 100 percent occupancy rate and the fact that the bike lane definitely isn’t hurting businesses south of 82nd Street.

There’s plenty of other data out there showing that retailers in a transit-rich, walkable neighborhood like the Upper West Side benefit from bike- and pedestrian-friendly street redesigns, which WNYC could have referred to when discussing the demonstrably false assumption that these businesses rely on customers who drive up and shop.

Some of the most recent and thorough research comes from a study of sales tax receipts, commercial rents, and property tax assessments in areas where streets have been redesigned to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. The preliminary data published by NYC DOT consultant Bennett Midland showed that of 11 NYC retail corridors with recent street improvements, eight have bigger sales increases than nearby commercial streets and the borough-wide average. According to Bennett Midland’s Eric Lee, “We can say in New York today that bicycle lanes, pedestrian improvements and plazas — the removal of travel lanes and parking — do not do damage” to retail sales.

Multiple surveys have revealed that merchants are poor judges of how their customers access their stores. In Vancouver, downtown merchants on streets where protected bike lanes have been installed also badly misjudged the percentage of their customers who arrived by car. In Toronto, merchants consistently overestimated the percentage of their customers who drive to go shopping.

Closer to home, intercept surveys reveal that driving shoppers are a very small percentage of the customer base for NYC retailers. Only 2 percent of people Project for Public Spaces surveyed walking past Columbus Avenue shops had driven there. Three out of every four Upper West Side households don’t own a car.

The proof is in the pudding, yet the assumption that parking is paramount to New York City retailers persists. Next time the issue comes up on WNYC, hopefully they’ll be quicker to challenge this red herring.

  • Jonathan Rabinowitz

    Unfortunately, it is not illegal to advocate for something that is against your best interests. Business owners want to please their customers, to the point of having parking available even when there’s no evidence that any significant fraction of customers is actually coming to shop via private motor vehicle.  

    What galls me about the Brian Lehrer show is that in his call-in segments, the reporter is treated as an impartial voice of reason, and given the task of explaining the natural biases of the callers.

  • Even in the most transit and pedestrian rich metropolis in the United States, where less than 50% of the people own a car (probably much less in Manhattan), it is still hard to convince people that some minor restrictions on automobile traffic that then greatly benefit pedestrian and the ever growing bicycle mode, is good for them. 

    It’s amazing how hard of a lift this still is in NYC but it is getting better.  I think in 2 more years you NYC folk won’t be having this discussion anymore, Staten Island excluded.

  • Even in the most transit and pedestrian rich metropolis in the United States, where less than 50% of the people own a car (probably much less in Manhattan), it is still hard to convince people that some minor restrictions on automobile traffic that then greatly benefit pedestrian and the ever growing bicycle mode, is good for them. 

    It’s amazing how hard of a lift this still is in NYC but it is getting better.  I think in 2 more years you NYC folk won’t be having this discussion anymore, Staten Island excluded.

  • Morris Zapp

    But if they go citing a bunch of facts and data what would Brian Lehrer and company have to gossip about?

  • Anonymous

    I think we all know that the reason most small businesses object to loss of parking spots is not because their customers arrive by car.  It is because the business owners or employees want those spots for themselves, or to use for deliveries.

    The  need for delivery vehicles to find curbside parking is legitimate, and current street designs on commercial avenues could benefit from the inclusion (and enforcement of) some kind of delivery loading/unloading zone.

    As for the shop owners who want a space outside their store to use for their private vehicles, that’s just raw entitlement with complete disregard for the needs of the community and the city as a whole.

  • KillMoto

    Maybe it’s time for city & state DOTs to consider bike racks parking.  So if a 1/4 mile bike lane results in a loss of 4 motor car storage spots, but they put in an equivalent number of bike racks, the net loss of “parking” is zero.  

    And since cars theoretically carry more people than bikes, I wouldn’t cry if a 1:5 ratio was required – that a loss of one motor car storage spot had to be replaced with bike rack space for 5 cycles in order to be considered equivalent. 

    Take away people’s fear of losing parking – even if it means re-defining the meaning of the word parking for dubious political purposes – and fewer people would whine.  

  • Driver

    I would be surprised if store owners and employees are parking at metered spots all day at $3 per hour.  It would be cheaper and probably more convenient to park at a garage.

  • Joe

    remember someone who does not pay for gas,insurance,PARKING,maintenance has more discretionary dollars to spend at a business. Businesses that locate on high volume routes and offer goods or services that complement those cyclists and pedestrians reap that benefit. Put a tav, a good restaurant, produce stand, where your obvious customer is going to be.

  • Driver

    By that logic, someone who does not pay high prices to live in Manhattan has more discretionary dollars to spend at a business.  Both statements are simply absurd.

  • Pengel

    I think the perception is that someone who parks and then shops is wealthy enough to spend a lot of money in those stores, and therefore should be catered to. Completely illogical but what do you expect?

  • Jonathan Rabinowitz

    Brian Lehrer bringing this up again, “Has a bike lane ever changed your shopping habits,” or if you work in a store, has a bike lane affected business?” Nice reference to Streetsblog, but he didn’t say he had asked Ben Fried to come on the show as he did for the previous segment on the Journal-News piece on gun ownership in Westchester.

  • Ben Kintisch

    The follow up segment that Brian ran was better than the first segment, with several cyclists talking about how they use bikes to do errands and go out to eat. A couple of motorists who got on the air made no sense, including one man who lives in Upper Manhattan and complained how he can’t park in the East Village any more. If he doesn’t want to bike there, may I recommend the subway?

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