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Shopkeepers don’t buy NYC’s bike business pitch

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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.

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