Bike Lanes? We Need to Support Hillcrest Merchants

Despite the "Yimby" name, I don't always say yes to every new project.  Just as we criticize NIMBYs for reflexively saying NO to any change, we shouldn't say YES just for the sake of change.  Any proposed change should happen only if it results in a net positive change to the city, for all residents, including businesses. Applying this standard to a current dispute, I wanted to talk about the SANDAG plan to add protected bike lanes in Hillcrest.  The dispute over these lanes is generally divided into two camps: local, established businesses and the All-Powerful Bike Lobby.

  • On one side of the dispute, entrenched organizations that seem to have the City's ear are insisting that any new street design must not harm the local businesses and that the City and County have a duty to ensure the proper infrastructure is in place to allow patrons to easily access any local business.
  • On the other side of the dispute, a vocal minority is blindly asserting the importance of their perceived rights above all others, with the very likely effect that local businesses will be harmed if they get their way by making it more difficult for valuable customers to patronize the businesses.  

I believe that whether to install bike lanes through Hillcrest should be determined, in large part, on the economic effect of the lanes on local businesses.  Because what is Hillcrest without the shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs?  They are the lifeblood of the community and if they fail, the neighborhood fails.  

Although my attempt to mislead probably fooled few people, the framing I use helps to highlight the misunderstanding that gives rise to this dispute.  Generally, the camps are framed as the local businesses focusing only on the bottom line and the bike lobby looking for increased safety for the few at the expense of businesses.

Bike proponents, however, should refuse to cede the economic high ground.  When looking at existing evidence, only one conclusion is clear: the bike lanes are necessary for local businesses to succeed.

San Diego Great Streets already has a good rundown of the bad assumptions being made when local businesses claim bike lanes will hurt their businesses.  Other sites have likewise compiled information on the economic benefits of bike lanes.  Time after time, adding bike lanes results in increased sales for local businesses, not to mention increased property values.

Although San Diego has only started on improving bicycle infrastructure in San Diego, there are already tangible results.  With the new buffered bike lanes on Fourth and Fifth Avenue, bike traffic increased over 300%, resulting in about 60 extra people riding bikes through the area every day because of the lanes.  Although bike lanes may result in some lost parking, that parking is replaced with new people riding through the area, wiping out any adverse effect of lost customers that can't find parking.  Moreover, bike riders tend to spend more than drivers. Once a complete, protected cycle network is built, these numbers will only jump further.

It's easy to get lost in the rhetoric and personal attacks and lose sight of this indisputable truth: both sides of the bike lane dispute are seeking the same thing, i.e., the ability of residents to access local businesses.  Personally, I don't want bike lanes so I can go on a sightseeing cruise through Hillcrest, I want to be able to get to my favorite restaurants and shops on my bike.  I all too often bypass the area when I am on my bike because I don't feel safe riding on University. Some local merchants believe that because customers come by car, the loss of parking and increased traffic will lead to less business.  The other side knows, however, that although some customers may be lost, they will be replaced by an even greater number of cyclists and pedestrians, resulting in a net positive for local businesses.

Too often, the two sides talk past one another.  Proponents of the bike lanes need to engage on the economic issue because this is obviously what matters to the local businesses.  If these businesses want to avoid the overwhelming empirical evidence and instead base their business decisions on a hunch, it stands to reason that they won't have much credibility when it comes time to lean on SANDAG and the City.