Bike-Friendly Business Districts: An Innovative Pilot Program from Long Beach, California by April Economides

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Kathleen Schaaf owner of Meow Vintage boutique with Diane Gershuny publicist for Long Beach's 4th Street Retro Row - one of the Bike-Friendly Business Districts

In October 2010, the City of Long Beach embarked on the nation’s first Bike-Friendly Business District program with grant of $72,000 from the Los Angeles County Department of Health. The city wanted to increase bicycle trips to local business districts and, hopefully, as a result, increase their number of customers. It hired my company, Green Octopus Consulting, to figure out how to do this, in partnership with the four districts written into the grant – Bixby Knolls, Cambodia Town, the East Village Arts District, and 4th Street Retro Row.

After informing the districts of the grant, educating them on the bike-business connection, and developing, implementing and promoting everything over a 17-month period with as much of their input and time as they were able to contribute – as they tried to stay afloat during a recession and the end of redevelopment agencies – we’re nearing the close of our experiment. And I did run the program as an experiment, testing as many ideas as we had time and money for, so we’d know what works and what doesn’t. Here’s what we did:

Became Educated on how bicycling helps their districts economically. Most business owners had reservations about bikes at the outset and were unaware of the economic benefits.

Started a Discount Program called Bike Saturdays, whereby customers who ride their bike receive a discount every Saturday. Currently, the program has 145 business participants, about 300 known users a month (average of two per business) and 400 Facebook and 200 Twitterfollowers. This program has also brought the businesses new customers on days other than Saturday, customers who forget to ask for the discount, and customers who walk in instead of bike. All of these situations bring the participants new customers, sales and publicity.

Offered free bike tune-ups to more than 195 bikes at 19 clinics. The ones held inside bike shops brought the shops more than 45 new customers (combined) and more than $2,000 in combined sales, because, while waiting, they’d realize they need a helmet, bike lights, or other accessory.

Installed bike racks for more than 50 businesses that didn’t realize the city provides a free bike rack to any business who requests one and that the liability associated with the racks lies with the city, not the business.

Built bike valet kits for each district and parked more than 235 bikes at 16 events. Bike valets are a welcoming touch at events and also a friendly nudge to bike, not drive.

Piloted sidewalk stencils that say “Walk Bikes”to reduce bike-pedestrian accidents and help educate bicyclists that it’s dangerous and illegal to ride on Long Beach business district sidewalks.

Held seven community rides to get new people on bikes and introduce them to the local districts. “The DENGUE FEVER community bike ride, where these rock stars were riding around in our new cargo bike with our Cambodia Town logo, was so much fun. It brought together diverse community leaders, including our councilperson, as well as others from throughout the city that had yet to discover our district. Bicycling has been part of Cambodian culture for decades, and it was neat for us to celebrate this in Long Beach, which is home to the largest Cambodian population in the U.S.” -Pasin Chanou, chair, Cambodia Town, Inc.

Created partnerships and held special events, like the bike-themed March 2010 East Village Arts District Second Saturday event, whereby four shop openings and re-openings were timed for that night, a BMX art installation of rideable Egyptian pyramids was created and ridden, and store discounts and two free bike valets were offered to bicyclists, all of which increased event attendees, business sales, and publicity for the district beyond the event. We also participated in Park(ing) Day, recruited famous bicycling advocate Mia Birk to speak at a BFBD bookshop, promoted Small Business Saturday in the BFBDs, held a bike fair, partnered with photographer Shereef Moustafa to offer free Long Beach Bicycle Portraits, and partnered with Long Beach Pedaler Society to provide new delivery service for a BFBD restaurant and complimentary pedicab rides at our events.

Promotion and publicity to educate the public via print advertising, city and business association websites, flyers, posters, postcards, social media, videos and in-person outreach. We also secured significant media coverage in local and national outlets.

…And last but not least: We started aninformal merchant bike share! Bikes and cargo bikes were purchased for each district’s merchants and employees to use in place of cars for errands and deliveries and to show off in parades. Each district chose its own bike models and colors. Here’s what a few of the stakeholders have to say:

“I'll be honest, at first I was a little scared, because I haven't ridden a bike in about a decade. …But I actually really enjoy it. Turns out riding a bike is a lot like riding a bike. …I will definitely ride it a lot more now that I have usurped my phobia. My nephew [an employee] rides it all the time, too. It has provided a convenient alternative to the three-block walk to Vons (it's a long three blocks and we are lazy) or to give up a good parking spot and drive. Also, both of us being healthy eaters, I appreciate the fact it has increased our mobility and subsequently expanded our range of lunch options, allowing me to spend more money within the community at places I wouldn't normally have time to get to.” -Clay Wood, owner, Clay on 1st

“I love the Arts District bike. It's so useful for my business and me. I can make fast and easy deliveries, take it to the bank, and use it to run business and personal errands. When business is slow, I take it for a cruise along the beach.” -Proum Ry, owner, Wa Wa Restaurant

“As the publicist for 4th Street’s ‘Retro Row,’ our vintage-inspired GT Windstream ‘Streamline’ coaster – dubbed the ‘Rebel Rider’ – is the perfect vehicle for me and my trusty Chihuahua companion Lucie to disseminate posters, postcards and flyers around town to promote our bike-friendly events. It also offers an economical and fun way to cruise the street regularly and check in with our merchants to get the scoop on what’s going on in our ‘hood!” -Diane Gershuny, publicist, 4th Street Business Association

“The BFBD bike has been extremely helpful to my office for when we need to run down the street for an errand or check out an issue. We can put our cameras or even graffiti remover in our basket and zip over to where we need to go. Plus it encourages business owners and residents to get out and ride, too. We get lots of fun looks when we ride around on the cargo bike. We experimented with grocery deliveries at Trader Joes and want to expand this program even more in 2012.” -Blair Cohn, executive director, Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association

The Long Beach program has caught the attention of cities, merchants groups, and media outlets around the U.S., and it is our hope that BFBDs will sprout up around the nation. They’re a healthy solution for our communities and local businesses.

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April Economides, principal of Green Octopus Consulting, was hired to create and manage the BFBD program for the City of Long Beach. She gives talks and trainings on BFBDs and the economic case for bicycling to business and civic groups. She holds an MBA in Sustainable Management and is an avid bicycle commuter.