BY WILL VANLUE | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
My wife and I sold our second car a few years ago. When we made that leap, we put some of the money we saved each month away in the bank, but some we spent on fun things like dining out, going to the movies, or fixing up our yard. When we moved to Portland about 10 months ago, we brought our car and our disposable income with us. It turns out we’re in good company. Census data from 2011 shows a majority of families (or “households” as the census refers to them) new to the Portland-Metro area since 2005 are light on car ownership, with more working-age adults than cars at home.
That’s very good news for local businesses, especially if they make it easy for people to visit their establishment without a car. Many of the new households in our region have more disposable income than they would if they owned more cars, but the benefits of having more customers without cars don’t stop at cold, hard cash. It also gives businesses a way to stretch scarce resources, like limited real estate, to reach more customers, regardless of how those customers want to travel.
It’s not too difficult to make the connection between reduced household expenses and increased discretionary spending, so we can start there. Portland State University researchers found that patrons who don’t drive visit businesses more frequently (approximately 13 trips per month on average) and spend more money (24% more per month) than customers who arrive in a private motor vehicle.
Businesses that only cater to one type of traffic or another also miss out on the chance to create relationships with people new to a community. People tend to develop habits early after they move to a new home: finding grocery stores, restaurants, hardware stores, and other businesses that fit into their new routine. If customers don’t want to drive all the time, they’re likely to develop relationships with businesses that provide easy options for arriving by bicycle, on foot, and by bus or train.
Yet there’s a whole other group of benefits that come from giving your customers the options they want: it clears up space for customers who don’t have a choice and still needs to get to the store in a car. Even if a business has limited space for cars, it makes sense to convert some parking stalls to serve customers who want to park their bicycles. It’s easy to park 10 customers’ bicycles in the space it takes to park one customer’s car.
Think of a store that has room for three parked cars. One customer visiting the store in a car takes up a full third of the parking lot, and they leave room for just two more customers to visit in their cars. Now think what happens if the store’s owner installs bicycle parking in one of the parking spaces. Customers can now easily visit the store on two wheels, and when they do, they take up a tiny fraction of the total space available -- a measly 3% of the parking lot’s capacity. A bicycle-riding customer still leaves room for two more car-dependent customers, but the forward-thinking store owner now has room for nine additional customers! The total capacity of the parking lot is quadrupled, from serving three customers to serving a dozen, by simply reconfiguring one parking space.
Of course, bike parking alone doesn’t necessarily mean customers will have an easy time getting to the store on a bicycle. Thankfully, streamlining our streets has a shared benefit for everyone, no matter what sort of vehicle they’re in or on.
A survey of one street in Portland found that installation of a safe, practical bike lane -- designated with bright green paint -- cut the number of people riding bikes in front of car traffic by a full 75%. People who drove a car on the street didn’t feel that the green lane made driving any less convenient or slower, and they enjoyed having fewer stressful interactions with people on bicycles.
Streamlined streets also give customers better options to get around and visit businesses when traffic gets bad, as it inevitably does every summer during construction season. The math on how bicycles improve traffic is similar to the math with parking: every person on a bicycle is one less car stuck idling in traffic, blocking the way to the next intersection. When someone chooses to ride a bicycle, the square footage saved on the street more than makes up for the small amount of space needed for a bicycle lane.
Every day I wake up in Portland, I’m thankful my wife and I moved here with our one car. The money we saved by selling our second car opened new possibilities for us, and the options we have for getting around to local businesses allow us spend that extra money right here in our neighborhood.
Will Vanlue is the communications manager for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.
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