Shopkeepers don't buy NYC's bike business pitch

New York City claims business has boomed since installing this bike lane. Merchants are skeptical.

As New York rolls out its long-delayed bike-share program with 6,000 two-wheelers this week, fans and critics are voicing a familiar chorus about the latest effort to improve bike access. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promoted cycling by adding 350 miles of bike lanes, a crusade that has deeply divided residents.

Cyclists may celebrate, but drivers resent losing lanes and parking. The Department of Transportation defends its ambitious push with numbers on safety. It’s also increasingly making a business case. A public DOT document claimed retail business along a Manhattan bike lane increased by 49 percent.

Research from other cities shows that bike access can boost business. But the eye-popping number the city now claims raises questions. Critics have long accused the DOT of cherry-picking and spinning numbers to build support for its cycling program.

Marketplace visited numerous small businesses on 9th Avenue between 23rd and 31st streets, the stretch of protected bike lane where the city says sales have skyrocketed, to get shopkeepers' takes. Managers of restaurants, dry cleaners, bars and convenience stores reacted with disbelief. Most said they saw little impact.

“Business is still the same,” deli manager Waddah Ali said, between ringing up customers. “We didn’t see any difference.”

Some merchants felt the bike lane is actually hurting their business, citing lost parking spaces and inconveniences for suppliers.

“They have to park a block away, or someplace where they could park, to bring deliveries here,” complained hardware store manager Billy Acosta. “There’s no parking. You can’t stop for a minute.”

Local retailers may be skeptical, but a study from Portland, Ore., found that bikers tend to visit stores more often than drivers and spend more over time. Among the riders on 9th Avenue the day Marketplace visited was Elizabeth Beam, who stood alongside her green Schwinn sipping an iced coffee.

“I had to have a coffee,” Beam said. “New York runs on caffeine.”

She’s an example of how bikers can help business. Unlike drivers, who need to find parking, cyclists can easily stop, lock up and shop.

But where is the evidence to back up New York’s claim that retail sales along the route have surged 49 percent?

The Department of Transportation declined several Marketplace requests for the raw data. Over the course of a week and a half, the DOT also refused to give an interview. Asked about local businesses’ disbelief of the city’s number, the DOT said those shopkeepers don’t represent the bigger picture.

“While undoubtedly there are numerous reasons why individual businesses will experience sales trends that differ from the overall average,” a department spokesman said in an email, “this does not contradict the finding that overall sales of local businesses dramatically improved.”

Until the city produces its data, merchants and cycling opponents are bound to remain skeptical about New York’s business case for bikes.

Kai Ryssdal: Citibike -- New York's long awaited and often delayed bike-share program -- is officially rolling. Six thousand new bicycles have been added to the melange that is traffic in the big city -- cabbies, buses, trucks, cars and pedestrians.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has built 350 miles of bike lanes not without controversy. Cyclists are celebrating; drivers are never happy about losing lanes and parking.

The Department of Transportation is making a business case, too. It says bike access can boost local commerce. But by 49 percent!? That's what New York claims about one Manhattan bike lane.

So Marketplace's Mark Garrison pedaled down 9th Avenue to investigate.

Mark Garrison: I’m at Enoch’s Bike Shop renting one with a basket I can lash my recording gear to, because New York streets are bumpy and treacherous. Manager William Gillespie tells me to watch out.

William Gillespie: There’s a lot of newbies out here, man. There’s a lot of rookies out on the road.

As a subway rider, that includes me, so I listen carefully to his safety tips before heading over to the 9th Avenue bike lane, where the city claims local businesses are thriving.

I stop into a deli, where manager Waddah Ali is ringing up a steady flow of customers. The grilled chicken sandwich special with avocado and chipotle sauce bears his name. He shrugs off the bike lane.

Waddah Ali: Not a big difference. I don’t know, maybe a different avenue, different street, but what I see here, 30th street, 9th avenue, not a big difference.

I got a similar answer from other businesses on his block. When I told people about the 49% sales increase number from the city, they didn’t believe it. Critics have long accused the Transportation Department of cherry-picking and spinning numbers to push its bike program. I ride south to visit other stores.

There aren’t too many other bikers, but it is a little overcast. Elizabeth Beam jumped off her green Schwinn to refuel.

Elizabeth Beam: I had to have a coffee. New York runs on caffeine.

She doesn’t know it, but she’s a human data point in the business case for bike lanes. With no parking needed, riders can just stop, lock up and shop. That’s one reason other cities have found bikers help business. Beam’s a big fan of New York’s bike lanes.

Beam: I love ‘em. Love them.

But businesses aren’t feeling it. Dry cleaners, bars, convenience stores, they told me the same thing I heard up the street. Most say they haven’t seen a difference. Some, like hardware store manager Billy Acosta, think bike lanes are hurting business.

He says lost parking spaces are a nightmare for his customers and suppliers.

Billy Acosta: They have to park a block away, or someplace where they could park, to bring deliveries here. They complain because there’s no parking, you can’t stop for a minute.

I asked the city’s Transportation Department several times to back up its claim about a 49% rise in retail sales along the route. Over a week and a half, the office refused to give an interview or provide raw data. The Department says individual shopkeepers don’t know the big picture. But the city won’t show how it got such a big number. We don’t know if it’s any more scientific than a bike ride. I get back on to ride the last block.

In New York, I’m Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.


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