American drivers spend 600 hours per year in their cars, which can equate to roughly five years—or seven percent—of their lives. Still, the belief that there’s no alternative for getting to work or running errands provides pretty good resistance to the notion of commuting by bike. We spoke to shops around the country that are proving that push-back is worth it.
At QBP, our commuters are both committed and lucky. We have plenty of bike lanes and paths that smooth the way in. Once here there are showers, lockers and indoor bike parking (not to mention a café that serves breakfast). It’s easy for us to forget what it’s like for everyone else when we encourage biking as a primary transportation choice. We spoke with shop owners and sales folks around the country to see how they help cyclists in their communities overcome common hurdles.
State Of The Union
When it comes to commuting and safe cycling, not all cities are created equal. Cities from coast to coast have worked to facilitate ridership at different rates, or struggled to overcome urban design challenges.
“City founders decided to make all of the streets wide enough to turn a horse-drawn wagon around in the street,” says Brent Hulme of SLC Bike Company in Salt Lake City. “The result is streets that are wide, with plenty of space for bikes and all of the other forms of transportation.”
In New York City, Matt Bigler from Bicycle Habitat notes, “NYC added protected lanes and a bike share program that has encouraged people to increase the usage of bicycles in their daily lives.”
Just to the north however, Cat Bartash of Ace Wheelworks in Boston shares a different scenario. “The state of cycling in the greater Boston area is honestly a mess,” she says. “The streets are just large enough for a car with parking spots on both sides, and the bike lanes that we do have are often right up against the parked cars, making dooring a big problem.”
And to the west, Paul Moore of Arriving By Bike in Eugene, Ore., explains, “People here recognize that we have it good compared to the American norm, but when they start riding for transportation, it becomes clear that Eugene still has an opportunity for significant improvements.”
One thing everyone seems to point out, however, is that things are getting better, and bicycle commuting is growing. Joe Nocella of 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn says, “I actually think it’s this expansion that allows us and the roughly 200 other shops in NYC to exist.”
In Utah, cities are seeing government participation as well. Hulme points out that the Salt Lake City mayor is a bicycle commuter who declared 2013 as the “Year of the Bike.” “The local mass-transit organization, UTA, has facilitated the use of bicycles with all of their trains and buses, and much of this change has been in the last five years,” Hulme says.
Moore of Eugene says that many in the city public works department and in the community have made big contributions. And in Boston, Bartash points not only to newly elected officials, but external forces as well. “There are political leaders who are cyclists, but the increase of commuters that came about from the gas crisis a few years ago has helped things get better,” she says.
Along with these increasingly positive outside factors, shops have adapted to capitalize on what’s attractive to commuters in order to benefit their shops overall. For example, Brooklyn’s Nocella strategically located 718 Cyclery. “When we moved into our new space two and a half years ago, I made sure it was on the confluence of a few bike routes, both for commuters and for weekend park-goers,” he says.
Others like SLC Bike Company and Ace Wheelworks have embraced those riders who were already there, but are providing them with more support. “Our strategy has always been to focus on anyone that wants to ride a bike, but because of our urban location we happen to see plenty of commuters,” says Hulme.
Bigler let his New York neighborhood and cycling environment guide some stocking decisions for Bicycle Habitat. “We have put significantly more emphasis on hybrid and commuting bikes, as well as road bikes, because the improved infrastructure has made more people feel safe to head out on long rides around New York City.”
For these shops, taking the initiative to foster a commuting culture on a community level has also become part of the business plan. SLC Bike Company, Ace Wheelworks and Arriving By Bike all participate heavily in advocacy groups and local events, and Bicycle Habitat even contributes a portion of its sales to a New York City organization called Transportation Alternatives. 718 Cyclery offers free maintenance classes every week year round to empower riders, and Bicycle Space in Washington D.C. leads unique urban rides.
“We organize numerous casual and fun rides each week so that all levels of riders feel comfortable out on the road,” says Jordan Mittelman of Bicycle Space. “By doing this, we aim to normalize the presence of cyclists in the city and encourage others to take interest. We facilitate exploration and discovery of special aspects of the city and generate support for important causes. We have led tours of school gardens, murals and other valuable public amenities to motivate and inspire people to get involved in making their city a better place to live.”
In the end though, decisively hooking one individual after another and supporting each customer in the decision to commute can be more effective for building a community of riders than casting a wide net to see if you spark interest in a handful of people. Sometimes it just takes reminding people of the benefits of bike commuting. “I tell them the subway pass costs (roughly) $100 a month,” says Nocella at 718 Cyclery. “The savings from not using that will pay for a great bike in short order. I also espouse the fitness aspects and the freedom of commuting on their own terms.”
Mittleman and his coworkers do the same at Washington, D.C.’s Bicycle Space. “We encourage customers to commute by bike because it is often a more convenient way to get to work than other modes of travel. Moreover, we aim to convince people to use their bikes for transportation in general. When you sell biking as a lifestyle, riding to work becomes a natural extension of that.”
And like so many shop people, Moore and his coworkers in Eugene do what might be the easiest thing of all: They lead by example. “We don’t so much encourage our customers as provide the gear, guidance and enthusiasm that helps them make the leap. Our store is all about bicycle transportation. We all get around town on our bikes. It just seems like a natural and obvious thing to do.”