Kimberly Kinchen, business network writer
In the last few years, bike-friendly business programs have emerged across the U.S. as influential tools for economic development and community engagement. From cities large and small to rural regions, businesses and people on bikes are partnering for mutual benefit: better bike amenities bring riders and their dollars to local economies.
In their most popular form, bike-friendly programs help businesses dangle carrots, offering advice on how best to attract and reward people on bikes. Essentials like good bike parking and perks like discounts for traveling to a store by bike feature prominently. The programs are most often managed by local bike advocacy organizations or bicycle programs in municipal planning or transportation departments. Coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants are typical participants, but programs shouldn’t overlook unlikely candidates. When the Pullman Chamber of Commerce in eastern Washington State made bike racks available for its members, the local optometrists signed up, says Executive Director Marie Dymkoski.
Most programs focus on providing rewards to bike riders. Downtown on the Go (DOTG), Tacoma, Washington’s chamber of commerce, looked at their city’s bike commuting rate, which is lower than average, with concern that participating businesses might not see quick results. So before launching its program in 2014, DOTG thought carefully about how to ensure that businesses would see immediate results. It settled on a “cash mob” model. Each month DOTG partners with a single business to offer a 10 percent discount on services. “We can’t mob 50 businesses, but we can mob one at a time,” says Kristina Walker, DOTG executive director. DOTG promotes the business through its bike listserv and on its site. Walker says the most successful partnerships happen when the featured business enthusiastically work to promote their month. Goodwill Coffee Buzz topped all lattes with bike-themed decorations; King’s Books created a bike-themed window display; and some businesses promoted bike-to-work for their employees.
Bike-friendly business districts represent a more ambitious approach, unifying local bike-friendly efforts under common branding to more effectively build awareness. They also offer a larger suite of amenities, programs, and events concentrated in a single neighborhood rather than individual businesses that may be rooted in all corners of a city. Often run by chambers of commerce or business improvement districts, features of bike-friendly business districts can include developing a bike-friendly map or directory of the district to highlight participating businesses, creating bike ambassadors to conduct outreach, sponsoring rides like Kidical Mass, or free or low-cost bike repair.
Try bike tourism
Rural areas that have fewer local bike riders but are near recreational bicycling routes can benefit from a tourist-focused program. In Oregon, bike tourists spend more than $1 million a day. The state recently invested in promoting bicycling in its rural towns, which were seeing a lot of people on bikes but not necessarily capturing their vacation spending. The Travel Oregon program is free, requiring businesses to provide a minimum of just five amenities. These can be as simple and inexpensive as making restrooms and drinking water available to bike riders to more substantial services like secure and dry bike storage with lodging to offering bike tours or shuttle service and long-term vehicle parking. Many are services that business already provide, underscoring how economical participation can be. The program also offers the rural businesses low-cost, branded signage. The easily recognizable signs touting amenities make it easier for tired touring bicyclists to see their choices and know where they can spend their dollars. And participating businesses are promoted in the state’s official bike tourism guide and its visitor’s guide. Both rural and urban communities along the Great Allegheny Passage developed a similarly exemplary program.
The list of benefits that such programs bring to bike riders and businesses is not endless, but it is long and substantial. For the riders, being made to feel welcome and having a convenient experience can be as much or better a reward than a monetary discount. Living a bike-centric lifestyle is easier, which can encourage others to try biking, shifting some local trips away from cars.
Perhaps most importantly, such programs focus economic activity at the local level, where smaller businesses can better compete against chains, big box stores, and online retailers. Early-adopter businesses position themselves at the forefront of positive change. They stand to reap the rewards not only of increased visibility and profit, but also of contributing to stronger, more engaged communities.