Saturday, May 18, 2024

In late August to September, protected bike lanes were installed on Massachusetts Avenue from City Hall on Inman Street to Trowbridge Street, resulting in the removal of some parking. At the beginning of January, a restaurant owner on this stretch wrote to the City Council explaining that “since the beginning of November, we have seen a dramatic decrease in sales,” and blamed this decrease in sales on the newly installed bike lanes.

Were bike lanes really the problem? The lanes were installed in September, and apparently sales were unaffected in September and October, when the parking changes were already in effect. If parking was the problem, why was the impact on sales delayed by more than a month, to November?

The most likely answer is that the bike lanes were not the cause of declining sales. Rather, it was the omicron-fueled spike in Covid cases that began in November.

Effect on restaurants

Restaurants took a massive hit to business during the pandemic. To measure the impact of Covid-19, the OpenTable restaurant reservation service has been surveying restaurants about seated diners based on online, phone and walk-in reservations. OpenTable compares the data with figures from 2019 – for instance, a Tuesday in Week 2 of this year is compared with a Tuesday in Week 2 of 2019.

Here’s the seating data for Cambridge, averaged out to remove one-off events such as holidays and short-term weather conditions. In it, 100 percent means the number of diners on that day was equal to the comparable day three years ago. In January 2021, restaurants only had 10 percent of the number of seated diners they had in January 2019 – a clear illustration of the devastating impact of the pandemic on the restaurant industry.

As vaccines became more widely available and Covid cases declined, restaurant seating gradually increased, approaching a peak of nearly 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels in late October (marked by a blue dotted line). But in November, restaurant dining started declining.

Covid strikes back

What happened in November? A new Covid surge. Let’s compare new Covid-19 cases in Massachusetts (the red line) to restaurant seating data (blue line):

In October, Covid cases were flat or declining; dining was flat in September and actually increased in October (the peak is marked with a dotted line). In November, new Covid cases in Massachusetts doubled – and dining correspondingly decreased. In December, a huge spike in cases was matched by a collapse in the number of seated diners. As Covid cases declined in late January and February, restaurant dining has gradually increased back to summer 2021 levels, even as the weather remains cool and outdoor dining options limited. While we don’t have data on how takeout orders may have compensated for loss of in-person dining customers, the winter omicron surge was clearly a huge blow to restaurants.

Beyond restaurants, other businesses, especially those involving closer physical contact such as hairdressers, tattoo parlors and massage therapists, likely suffered from similar impacts, as people weighed the need for products and services against the risk of Covid exposure.

Protected bike lanes should be designed in ways that meet the loading and parking needs of businesses. But before blaming new bike lanes for bad retail sales, we need to confront the elephant in the room: retail businesses across all of Cambridge suffered in late fall and winter due to the omicron surge, regardless of whether they were near a new bike lane. If we want to help small businesses, we need to address Covid’s past impacts, and plan for potential future surges.

Itamar Turner-Trauring, Oxford Street