Imagine this scenario. You are a member of the city council in a mid-size city. There is a proposal before the city council to install bike lanes along a two-mile stretch of a six-lane arterial street, whereby a vehicular lane would be replaced by a bike lane in each direction. The proposal would complete a gap in the bike lane network along this major east-west spine through the city. The city’s bicycle master plan calls for the installation of bike lanes along this stretch of road. The public works director recommends the bike lanes. A city survey of businesses found that of 61 respondents, 60 percent were in favor of the bike lanes. However, the chamber of commerce opposes the bike lanes citing a survey of its members that found that 80 percent of the 127 respondents opposed the bike lanes. How would you vote on the proposed bike lanes? Putting aside the political ramifications of voting against the chamber, the decision probably rests on whether or not you believe that reducing the number of traffic lanes in favor of bike lanes benefits local businesses.

If you’re reading this blog you are probably aware of the arguments favoring complete streets (i.e., streets that safely accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit, in addition to automobiles). This approach in the design of streets aims to make walking and bicycling a safer and more convenient travel option for residents, and in turn make a business district a more attractive and comfortable space for all people, including those who arrive by car. Often this approach means trading a vehicular lane for a bike lane and/or additional sidewalk space. This is when cities may get push back from wary residents and business owners. In her book “Joyride” Mia Birk describes her efforts at make bicycling a legitimate and respected mode of transportation in Portland, Oregon and her sometimes contentious encounters with angry citizens and scared business owners when new bike lanes were proposed. In my hometown of Long Beach, California a few business owners were wary of the installation of separated bike lanes that replaced one vehicle lane in the downtown business district. A year later the dedicated bike lanes have contributed to a thriving corridor of restaurants that cater to the bicyclist consumer.

A separated bike lane in downtown Long Beach

What is the best way to make the economic case for adopting a complete streets approach to redesigning transportation infrastructure? Elly Blue, in here blog series Bikenomics, looks at the scope of the economic impact of bicycling from personal finance to the national budget. She references a recent study in Melbourne that found bike parking spaces are better at generating revenue than car parking spaces. She goes on to write:

And those customers may have more disposable income, not to mention more incentive and motivation to spend locally. Researchers have found that people who bike (and walk) to local retail businesses spend more money there.

One of the first of recent studies making the case for accommodating bikes in business districts was the report, Bike Lanes, On-Street Parking and Business. It’s a study of Bloor Street in Toronto, Canada and it shows that removing parking for either bike lanes or a widened sidewalk would benefit local businesses in that area. April Economides, founder of Green Octopus Consulting, is currently making the business case for bicycling across North America. She piloted the first Bike Friendly Business District (BFBD) program in the nation in Long Beach. According to her, a BFBD should integrate bikes into a business district’s operations, events and promotions. As part of the BFBD program in Long Beach a rewards program for bicyclists called Bike Saturdays was created where merchants encouraged people to bike to area shops and restaurants by offering discounts to bicyclists. As a volunteer for this program I saw the enthusiasm local business owners had for the opportunity to expand their customer base. The program currently has over 150 participating businesses.

Although bicycle and complete streets proponents, of which I am one, may feel that the facts are on their side – that by installing bike lanes, expanding sidewalks, and creating new pedestrian spaces business districts will become more attractive to potential customers – they can’t discount the opinions of those that disagree if they expect to make positive changes in their community. Ben Brown of Better! Cities and Towns recently wrote that it might not matter that we have a sound logical argument. He writes about psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia and his research into how people make judgments.

The Haidt mantra is “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” Which is pretty much the opposite of the way many of us confront opposing viewpoints. Especially those of us who’ve been rewarded throughout our careers for fashioning methodical, logical arguments to defend our intentions.

He goes on to write.

Haidt makes the point that much of our species’ evolutionary success is tied to adaptive behaviors related to teaming up, in forming bonds beyond the kinds of kinship ties that allow other animals to work cooperatively. But that teaming up process requires implicit, oftentimes unconscious, agreements about the right way to look at the world and the right way to evaluate choices. Faced with threats to our positions, we’re likely to rally round our teams’ claims and discount the other guys’, even if evidence mounts that our positions are being undermined by unfolding events.

To engage those that disagree with us Brown writes, “we should open ourselves up to the idea that we all share a similar intuition-favored operating system” and identify which intuitions are guiding our decisions.

This brings me back to the scenario I described earlier. The details were borrowed from an article in the May 8th online edition of the Ventura County Star. Citing opposition from businesses, the Simi Valley City Council “rejected a proposal to complete a bicycle lane route that would have let cyclists pedal directly from the city’s east end to its west end.” Although I personally believe the City Council made a poor choice, I find it hard to fault the decision it came to. The fact is local businesses were, at the very least, not enthusiastic about the addition of bike lanes. As proponents of bicycle infrastructure and complete streets we must work with the business community by not only making a logical reasoned case, but by also understanding what is guiding our, and their, decision making process. The end project may not exactly look like what we envisioned, but it will almost assuredly be a positive step forward in making our communities better places to live.