April Economides

Elly Blue's Bikenomics by April Economides

Elly Blue - image courtesy of Caroline Paquette for Little Package

One of my favorite people in the bicycling advocacy world is Elly Blue, who coined the term “Bikenomics.” Her zine “Bikenomics: How bicycling will save the economy (if we let it)” is a compilation of 10 articles she wrote for Grist.org the first half of 2011, and is a delightful must-read for transportation planners and city officials – and anyone who works in the health industry, sustainability field, or who drives a car or rides a bike. In other words, everyone.

Blue, a Portland resident, co-runs PDX by Bike, a business that helps people find their way around Portland by bicycle, and the Portland Society, a business alliance for professional women who are passionate about bicycling. Her blog Taking the Lane is a blog about “bicycling, economics, feminism, and other cultural commentary.”

I had the pleasure of chatting with her recently, and here’s what we talked about:

AE: You’re always involved in interesting projects. What’s on your plate for 2012?

EB: Ouf. I'm trying to pare down and focus on just doing just a few things well. Right now that's writing and publishing work that will hopefully help keep bringing the conversation about bikes to the next level. I'm about to head on a speaking tour in the U.S. south with my partner Joe, who makes documentaries about bikes, and our friend Joshua who is a vegan chef. I can't wait! I'm also excited to put more energy into the Portland Society. This year I'd like to keep supporting our members’ professional development and also step out into the political and civic sphere.

AE: With a clear understanding of ecological economics, yet using layman’s terms to appeal to a wide audience, in your Bikenomics zine you do an excellent job of dispelling the myth of ‘free parking’ and detailing the societal costs of car crashes, sedentariness, and urban sprawl – and then contrasting these with bicycle transportation. Few political and business leaders understand the true cost of these problems, and I’m convinced if they did, more would work to improve them and see a bicycle-friendly U.S. as a smart investment. Considering the strength of the oil lobby and their related industries, do you think this is mostly a matter of ignorance and that better education can save the day?

EB: We're in an exciting cultural moment – there is a growing climate of openness to bicycling right now, just as we are with the food movement. More and more people and communities are discovering bicycle transportation and making it work for them in amazing ways and much of it seems to be economically motivated.

I'd rather talk about it in terms of inspiration instead of education. …When people work together and are inclusive and listen to each other, we've seen communities make huge changes for bikes, culturally and in infrastructure, in a relatively short period of time. For instance, I just spent the weekend in Seattle, which has become home to a booming bike movement in just the last decade. Their neighborhood greenways network, thanks to a powerhouse grassroots coalition, has gone from conception to implementation in just three years, which for transportation infrastructure is light speed. Within the next decade they'll have transformed the city, and there doesn't seem to be any controversy in store. When you build coalitions and forge ahead with determination, all this stuff really is possible.

AE: For those who have yet to read your zine, please explain what you see as the economic reasons a city should become bike-friendly.

EB: Car infrastructure is expensive and creates debt and other expenses which we can't afford, producing poverty. Bicycling, on the other hand, is a low-cost investment that pays off substantial dividends and helps everyone equally, so long as it’s done equitably, producing well-being. Also, bicycling is really fun. There you go, my entire argument.

AE: What are some economic reasons a small business would want to encourage its employees and customers to bike?

EB: It depends on the business, but employees who bike are in better mental and physical health, perform better, and have fewer sick days. Customers who bike tend to have more disposable income and likely live in the community, meaning greater loyalty. And you don't have to pay for parking for either.

AE: What are some successful examples of bike-friendly businesses you’ve seen?

EB: One of my favorite things is seeing new, bike-based businesses open up. Investing in a storefront is often risky or out of reach, but a bike-mounted coffee shop or taco cart or cookie delivery service (all real examples from Portland) requires less capital – that's one way bicycle friendly communities can create economic opportunity. Bike parking is something a lot of business owners have discovered is an effective and highly visible way to support (and benefit from) bicycling. A bike corral provides a tenfold increase in parking spots right outside your door and it's also like a billboard for the business, especially in a place where it's the only one. The standing stone brewery in Ashland is an example. Even if you don't know about their policy of giving employees bikes and financial incentives to ride to work, you immediately know that business will welcome you when you show up in dripping rain gear, and that's worth a lot.

AE: In your “Who Gets To Ride?” section, you get to the heart of why women make only 24% of bicycle trips in the U.S. You acknowledge that many women in the U.S. are low-income and that, on average, we still earn 77 cents for every man’s dollar, there’s a hiring bias against mothers and pregnant women, and we have a higher burden of unpaid labor – daily housework, errands, childrearing, and caring for elderly relatives. And then you brilliantly illustrate how this affects our transportation: “These kinds of responsibilities add up to more complicated transportation needs. Women make more trips than men, with diverse kinds of trips chained together. And twice as many trips are at the service of passengers – the school drop-off, soccer practice, and the play date wedged in there between the grocery run and commute to work.” You conclude that we can reach more bicycling equity if we reach more economic and social equity and if cities improve bike infrastructure. Given that city planners and engineers are – let’s face it – mostly middle-class white men who aren’t bike commuters, how can low-income women and mothers better get our needs met?

EB: I love this question, but there is no one answer. The first thing is to speak up and always keep your vision in mind. Maybe this means finding a cargo bike solution. Maybe it means renegotiating household duties within your family. Maybe it means working with your workplace or the local school to be more bike friendly, or working at the level of city government to fix a dangerous street crossing on your route to the store. On a more macro level, well, why don't we have an ERA? Why don't we have paternity leave in this country? Why aren't we funding education and incentivizing neighborhood schools that kids can walk to? There is plenty to be done. But the burden for doing it should not be entirely on the under served. I do think it's important for decision makers and activists to be aware of the privileges that might subconsciously inform their priorities and to actively seek out and listen to the perspectives of the people they're looking to serve.

AE: What do you think the bike movement in general needs to do better?

EB: The bike movement is used to being quite marginal, and I think it can be quite difficult for advocates and activists who have been working tirelessly for years at a seemingly impossible dream to suddenly have to shift gears and deal with success. We're a bit too used to asking for small, incremental changes, not stepping on anyone's toes. The time has come to dream big. That also means spending big, unfortunately, because we are up against some seriously wealthy, and scared, industries.

AE: What do you think is going well in the U.S. bike-wise?

EB: The movement is on fire. There is so much interest and momentum it really seems unstoppable. Besides being economical, healthy, and fun, bikes are a way for regular people to engage civically without wandering into political quagmires. It's something we can agree on across party lines. How rare is that?

April Economides is the principal of Green Octopus Consulting. She created the nation’s first bike-friendly business district program for the City of Long Beach in partnership with four business districts, as well as “Bike Saturdays” – the largest citywide discount program for bicyclists in the nation. She gives talks and develops bike-friendly business district plans throughout the U.S.

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

Diane Gershunyweb.jpg

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.