Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A shopper arrives by bicycle Jan. 25 at the Porter Square Shopping Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

I am the daughter of small-business owners and an advocate for small businesses here in Cambridge and nationally. I am also an avid bicyclist, environmentalist and safety advocate.

My vision for Cambridge is one with interconnected, protected bicycle lanes, safe and comfortable walking conditions, fast and reliable transit and thriving local businesses, in which our streetscapes are destinations for people, not just thoroughfares or parking lots. We are all better off when people have an actual choice beyond their car, where reliable public transportation, safe bicycling infrastructure or comfortable walking conditions are viable options. I also envision inclusive city processes, broad consultation of diverse stakeholders and creative design solutions.

To bridge this challenging conversation, I have worked to elevate dialogue between Cambridge Local First and Cambridge Bike Safety, two key advocacy groups, alongside stakeholders including the city’s Director of Traffic, Parking & Transportation, Joe Barr, and the president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association, Ruth Ryals. You can see three recent such conversations on Cambridge Community Television, here and here (the last 20 minutes of the conversation) as well as here (the first 45 minutes of the conversation). And I have supported the efforts of the “Designing a Better Mass Ave (North of Harvard Square) For All” working group of residents, which has worked tirelessly to promote a shared vision for our streets that benefits small businesses and bicyclists alike. In particular, the plan emphasizes taking out the median strip and being creative about finding room for parking, cyclists and people walking and riding the bus.

Cambridge’s city government is engaging with a plan to add protected bike lanes, bus lanes and safer crossings on Massachusetts Avenue, one of the corridors carrying the most people in the city. This decision has stirred significant debate in Cambridge. The objection to the loss of on-street parking spaces on behalf of local businesses lies at the center of the debate.

This debate is understandable! After all, this is an incredibly difficult time for small businesses in Cambridge and around the country. Many business owners face an existential crisis. I’ve seen this firsthand; my parents’ restaurant has struggled during the pandemic to stay afloat.

Entrepreneurship in Cambridge and around the United States has been declining for decades. This trend is a function of multi-decade bank consolidation, changing consumer preferences, relaxed antitrust measures leading to an increase in monopolistic competition and international investment that yields higher rents, widespread construction and displacement.

The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. One national study shows that 45 percent of business owners report that operating during the pandemic has damaged their mental well-being; 60 percent of business owners report having not taken a week or more off of work for any reason since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

The concerns are real. Our businesses in Cambridge are struggling to survive.

But the case for advocating for both small businesses and protected bicycle lanes is strong.

The case for small businesses

Wealth inequality and economic mobility: Small businesses are the primary vehicle for upward economic mobility for working-class and immigrant families (my family started a small business upon arriving here from Greece), and their multi-decade decline has contributed significantly to rising wealth inequality throughout the U.S. You can read more about these ideas here.

Climate action: Small businesses are vastly more sustainable than big business. They consume fewer resources, source their goods locally, locate closer to residents and take up less space. Local procurement – to produce and consume as closely as possible to one’s residence – is the most sustainable method of consumption. Further, the development of local food systems takes a people-centered approach, because they depend on the contribution of many from the community, rather than the control of a few. This promotes participatory governance of food systems as well as the ecosystems used for production. As we fight for a greener world, we need to invest in local sourcing of our consumption.

Community reinvestment: Small businesses reinvest wealth back into a community at far greater rates than big businesses. Approximately 48 cents to the dollar is reinvested back in the community with small businesses; 14 cents to the dollar with big businesses; and 1 cent to the dollar with Amazon. The local multiplier effect is enormous! Small-business owners are about twice more philanthropic to local causes than big businesses, and regularly sit on local nonprofit boards. They are much more connected to the community than big business, in every way.

The case for protected bicycle and bus lanes and safer walking conditions

Public safety: Massachusetts Avenue is a high-crash corridor, and least safe for people traveling by bike or foot. Shortening crossing distances and creating protected bike lanes provides a much-needed separation between people and cars. Protected bike lanes enable folks of all ages to feel safe enough to ride bicycles, especially for short trips, the majority of all travel.

Climate action: As climate change intensifies, we need to take every action possible to slow the changes. It’s paramount to create incentives for people to choose green transportation such as bicycling, riding transit and walking.

Equity, health and community: Walking, bicycling and taking the bus are the most economical, healthiest and often fastest ways to travel within the city. Access to safe streets and reliable bus routes are key to enabling people from all walks of life to have trips that are comfortable and dignified.

Why small businesses and protected bicycle lanes work well together

Research in cities similar to Cambridge shows that small businesses and bicycle lanes do not only coexist, they complement and benefit each other. The data shows that bicycle lanes have, in aggregate, a neutral or even positive effect on local businesses. Over and over again, studies in Portland, New York City, Dublin, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle, Melbourne and elsewhere show that non-drivers, including cyclists, are “competitive consumers, spending similar amounts or more, on average, than their counterparts using automobiles.” These studies show that replacing on-street parking with a bike lane has little to no impact on local business, and in some cases might even increase business. While cyclists tend to spend less per shopping trip than drivers, they also tend to make more trips, pumping more total money into the local economy over time. 

Protected bicycle lanes can help existing small businesses directly. A recent shopping challenge sponsored by Cambridge Bicycle Safety illustrated how cyclists – who enjoy the ease of accessible parking directly in front of stores – do their everyday shopping by bicycle, drawing significant following on social media connected by the hashtag IBikeIBuyMassAve. Additionally, as bicycling becomes safer, and more people choose this transportation option, congestion on our streets will reduce, enabling faster vehicular transit for residents who cannot bike themselves.

Ultimately, I believe bicycle lanes and small businesses can coexist beautifully. We need inclusive city processes, broad consultation of diverse stakeholders and creative design solutions to make this work. I hope that you will join me in advocating for, using and enjoying both small businesses and streets that work for people in Cambridge.