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The economics of bike boulevards: Debunking the myth that bike infrastructure will hurt business

Posted Dec 22 2009 11:05am
Will this mean economic ruin for northwest downtown? Image courtesy of Payton Chung via Flickr

Will this incredibly attractive street mean economic ruin for northwest downtown? Image courtesy of Payton Chung via Flickr

Given the overwhelming support for the Austin Master Bike Plan and successful recent implementation of new bicycle infrastructure, it was a bit surprising to hear the vocal opposition to the City of Austin plan to convert Nueces Street to a bicycle boulevard. Time and again both at the meeting and in the press, we heard some property owners say bikes were all fine and good, but putting a bicycle boulevard on their street would lower property values, hurt business, and generally create an economic Armageddon in northwest downtown. Unfortunately, while City staff were very prepared to talk about the what bike boulevards look like and do to the physical space, they had no good answer to these legitimate economic concerns about what is essentially uncharted territory for Austin bike infrastructure.

Are we asking that these businesses be sacrificed for the greater public good? Hardly.  A quick look at what other cities have done to calm traffic and create space for pedestrians and bicycles have done nothing but improve property values and business in general. An August 2008 Transportation Alternatives multi-city study found that reducing automobile traffic on streets increased property values from anywhere between 10-30% after calming was implemented. Moreover for owners of commercial property, tenant vacancy rates improve in one instance having vacancy rates falling an astonishing 70% to 20% within five years of implementing measures to reduce car traffic. As for retail business, there is only upside with sales jumping an average of 10-25% with the creation of multi-modal space. Increased pedestrian and bicycle use appears to be very good for business.

What is also interesting about these measures is that even those who initially oppose them come to embrace them for the positive economic and local environmental improvements they provide. On Valencia Street in San Francisco, local business owners voiced opposition when traffic calming was proposed yet several years later 65% of owners on the street said it had a positive effect while only 4% thought it had a negative effect. The turnaround was so great that 65% also approved of greater traffic calming than what was currently implemented.

So why is this happening? Some of the Nueces Street property owners have argued preserving easy auto access is critical to maintaining the viability of the area. Well, bike boulevards and other traffic calming maintain access for customer traveling by car while all but eliminate cut through traffic. This cut through traffic is simply trying to get elsewhere limiting likelihood of spontaneous stops. So if traffic calming does not adversely affect current customer access where is the economic growth coming from? When you create a space for pedestrians and bicyclists, you are creating a place where people travel at a slower pace and tend to linger. This means more retail business. Indeed, this was the reason indoor malls were created. By making a space for people to shop and linger, you greatly increased the amount and frequency in which people make purchases. And why the property value increase? It turns out for as much as people like the convenience of cars they don’t like the reality of traffic very much. The Transportation Alternatives study found homes on quiet streets within the same neighborhood command 10% more in sale value versus their counterparts on busy streets. People don’t like the noise and pollution of cars and will pay more to avoid them.

So we find bike boulevards and other traffic calming is not only good for quality of life but also good for business. It’s time for Austin to reap the rewards these tools can bring to our community.

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