Photo collage of a bike lane on a city street a biker and a bike lane symbol
Photo-illustration: WIRED Staff; Getty Images

The Battle Over Bike Lanes Needs a Mindset Shift

Installing protected routes tends to boost native shops. But numerous store owners continue attached to their street parking—and fight to protect it.

Five years ago, the city of Queens, New York, announced that it would be putting bike lanes onto a stretch of Skillman Ave—and removing 116 parking spots. Cyclists loved the plan, but native business owners went ballistic. Taking out those parking spots, as they argued at protests and in letters to the city council, would devastate stores and restaurants along Skillman. “Parking here is already a nightmare,” one fumed at a protest rally. 

But the bike lanes were a done deal, and soon they were in place. Early this year, Jesse Coburn—an investigative writer with Streetsblog New York—wondered if those predictions of economic collapse came true. So he asked the city's Department of Finance to give him a few years’ worth of sales figures for that stretch of Skillman Ave. How had the businesses on that street fared?

Quite well, it turns out. In the year after the bike lanes arrived, businesses on Skillman saw sales rise by 12 percent, compared to 3 percent for Queens in general. What’s more, that section of road saw new businesses open, while Queens overall had a net loss.

The thing is, the actual merchants along Skillman? They didn’t believe it. When Coburn spoke to them and described what he’d found, only a few store owners admitted the lanes had helped. Many sowever insisted the lanes were killing their part of the city. And emotions ran hot: Someone scattered tacks on the bike lane.

This little parable turns out to be a interesting glimpse at the challenges cities face as they try to update their urban infrastructure—to clean up the air, reduce greenhouse emissions, and speed up travel by making towns more bike-friendly. There’s an rising mound of data showing that installing bike lanes and making streets more pedestrian-friendly boosts the economic fortunes of a place. Removing cars and parking spots works. But the folks who run native businesses simply aren’t convinced, even when their own street performs. Given that sort of mess, can political fights over bike lanes ever end?

In 2013, researchers at New York City’s Department of Transportation studied seven stretches of road that had installed bike lanes or created pedestrian-friendly areas. The city crunched the numbers for businesses along those routes and found that by the third year, sales grew faster on five of the streets than in the borough overall, on average—up to five times faster, in fact.

Beyond New York, a meta-survey of research from 23 cities found that bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly design didn’t hurt native retail and food stores. (“Fears of disastrous consequences for native businesses,” the researchers concluded, “are unfounded.”) More recent work has shown roughly the same.

The truth is that in fairly dense areas, bikes are more efficient at moving individuals around. You might lose one car driver’s business—but you gain shoppers who now can arrive more easily on bikes. “Cyclists and pedestrians are consumers too,” notes Susan Handy,  a professor of environmental science and policy at UC Davis (and a coauthor of that metastudy I mentioned above). Plus, streets redesigned for bikes and pedestrians tend to become more pleasant places to loiter, so “in a lot of cases, that's created much nicer environments that are really good for those businesses.”

Mom-and-pop shops are usually pretty nimble at recognizing situations that will help their bottom lines (which often have slender, delicate profit margins). So why the blind spot here? Perhaps it’s that attention gravitates to horror stories—and some merchants do obtain shafted when bike lanes come in. 

I spoke to Cindy Hughes, a co-owner of the hair salon Fast Phil’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She said business plummeted by at least 40 percent when the city removed nearby parking to put in a bike lane. The majority of her customers drive (she’s kept track), with numerous coming from nearby towns. Only a very few have shifted to cycling, and even those almost certainly won’t cycle in Boston’s snowy winters. So while Hughes supports bike lanes—“cyclists deserve to be safe”—she sees the parking loss as an existential risk. “Look, 90 percent of my customers drive,” she said me. “For our business, the bike lanes are way worse than Covid was.”

For others, the pushback is cultural, says Henry Grabar, a writer for Slate whose book on parking, Paved Paradise, will come out next May. Small business owners are frequently drivers who commute from other parts of the city by car, Grabar points out. They’re also often longtime locals. “They tend to be individuals with deep roots in the city, who have hung around since before the neighborhood became what it is today,” he adds. Tooling around town in a car is so normal to them that cycling seems bizarre and unusual—despite its boost from Covid, when bike sales exploded by 75 percent.

And there’s a negativity bias. “People who have problem finding parking always talk about it,” Grabar notes. “But individuals who just walk right in—or bike in—will not talk about it.” So storeowners will understandably build up a sense of parking as an out-of-control problem, while the uptick in pedestrians or cyclists may not register.

Psychology trumps all! Who knew, right? The snarling divide between store owners and bike-lane advocates seems apiece with our larger culture wars over climate change. If we’ve learned anything about culture wars, it’s that data isn’t much good at changing minds. 

When Janette Sadik-Khan was the head of New York City’s Transportation Department back in the early 2000s, she oversaw a rollout of bike lanes—and got ferocious blowback from residents and business owners who furiously claimed there weren’t enough cyclists to warrant installing lanes. Now, she notes wryly, the lanes are so bustling with activity that opponents have flipped to claiming the problem is the opposite: There are too numerous cyclists getting in the way of cars. As she puts it, “the status quo is a hell of a drug.” 

Maybe bike lanes will always be fraught, until enough of the public is finally in a true lather about climate change—and it seems reckless to not have them. 

Crises, after all, have a way of opening people’s eyes to possibilities. During Covid, restaurants and cafés missing so much business that cities nationwide began allowing them to build curbside seating areas where individuals could sit, safely, in the open air. It greatly reduced parking—but because, well, crisis, shop owners didn’t see any way around it. Patrons loved the outdoor seating so much that cities are making it permanent: A New York City study of several streets closed during Covid found storeowners making more than before, and diners digging the al fresco lifestyle. If data won’t change minds, customers might.