Thursday, July 18, 2024

Cambridge’s newly released economic impact study on bike lanes give us two key pieces of information, one old, one new:

  • What we already knew: If you ask business owners, many are concerned about bike lanes and claim they affect revenue.
  • What’s new: Objective measures show no meaningful economic differences between streets with and without recently built bike lanes.

The study included three objective measures: employment trends, and commercial property rents and vacancies. Separated bike lanes didn’t affect any of these. As the study summarizes:

  • “There was generally little difference in employment trends between treatment and control corridors during the relevant time periods before and after bike facility construction.”
  • “Differences in commercial property [rents or vacancies] within corridors and between time periods, or between treatment and control corridors, are not substantial and may vary by location.”

This pattern, with businesses’ worries and complaints not aligning with objective evidence, is something we’ve seen before in Cambridge’s history and in other cities.

Past public health fights in Cambridge

Separated bike lanes are a public health measure: based on separate research by the Federal Highway Administration and city staff, Cambridge’s new separated bike lanes cut crash rates by as much as 50 percent and significantly reduced the severity of injuries. There’s another proven public health measure that was unpopular with Cambridge businesses when first introduced: banning indoor smoking.

Many restaurant and bar owners spent years fighting against this ban, including in 1994 and 2003. The latter article quotes Joe Sater, one of the owners of the Middle East club: “I don’t think we can live through this experiment. If you look at Brookline, where smokers congregated in the clubs, nightlife doesn’t exist now that a smoking ban has been put into place.”

These dire predictions by businesses were wrong. Twenty years later, the Middle East has multiple shows this weekend and Cambridge and Brookline still have restaurants and bars, even though indoor smoking is still banned. And importantly, these businesses attracted customers who had previously avoided smoke-filled locations. All of us, and staff in particular, benefit from a reduction in secondhand smoke and nicotine exposure. Inhaling toxic smoke is no longer, as one bar owner claimed at the time, “part of the business.”

Bike lane installations in other cities

Returning to separated bike lanes, the pattern of businesses predicting significant damage that is then disproved by objective data is also found in other cities. Consider bike lanes installed in New York in 2017; as Streetsblog reports, businesses were not happy:

“Protected bike lanes do not guarantee safer streets, but it will mean a loss of business,” Gary O’Neill, owner of the Aubergine Cafe on Skillman, said a few months later.

But when New York City looked at sales tax data, the opposite result emerged: Business was doing fine. This pattern repeated itself across many cities, from Toronto to Berlin, as businesses opposed bike lanes but objective data later showed that these fears were unwarranted.

We don’t need to fear change

As the owner of a small business, I know how nerve-wracking it is to be at the mercy of changes outside my control. But while restaurant and bar owners never wanted their customers and employees to suffer from the many health impacts of secondhand smoke, they let their fear of change override their better instincts. And as it turned out, these fears were unwarranted.

Just like banning indoor smoking, separated bike lanes are a critical, proven and necessary public health measure. And change is still scary, especially for businesses recovering from Covid disruptions. But the objective data, from cities around the world and from right here in Cambridge, shows that we don’t have to fear bike lanes’ economic impact.

In fact, people biking are great customers for small, local businesses: listen to these interviews of local shoppers and consider that no one is likely to bike from Cambridge to the Burlington Mall. The study itself found that at most 17 percent of intercepted customers arrived by car. While not an exact number, it does give a sense of scale, and realistically this number won’t be going up. On the other hand, Somerville is going to roll out a major network of separated bike lanes over the next six years and Boston is building more safe bike infrastructure, as are other neighboring towns. So we will see increasing numbers of shoppers who are able to safely bike to Cambridge stores.