Elly Blue’s Bikenomics

12 Mar

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:

April Economides – Q: You’re always involved in interesting projects. What’s on your plate for 2012?

Elly Blue – A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

Long Beach, CA Offers Largest Citywide Discount Program for Bicyclists in Nation

10 Mar

Check out the latest, exciting news about Bike Saturdays, Long Beach’s discount program for bicyclists: http://us4.campaign-archive1.com/?u=6ebdb8af86479d504f8591b57&id=5d4fcb24c8.

Here it is below, too:


To signal their support for a bike-friendly city, more than 145 businesses throughout Long Beach offer bicyclists a discount or deal every Saturday. Some of the business participants, such as The Factory and Viento y Agua, offer their discount every day they’re open. From 15% off bike shop accessories to 20% off a restaurant tab, cycling groups and occasional bicyclists alike are finding a diversity of offers at BikeLongBeach.org.

The program is growing weekly and appears to be the largest citywide discount program for bicyclists in the nation. It sprouted out of the city’s Bike-Friendly Business District program in the neighborhoods of Bixby Knolls, Cambodia Town, Retro Row, and the East Village Arts District and expanded citywide when merchants throughout the city asked to participate.

Bike Saturdays is popular with cycling groups who ride to Long Beach and take advantage of the program after a ride to eat or shop. Conventioneers and other visitors are picking up on it, as well. However, it’s most popular with Long Beach residents who enjoy a relaxing bike ride on the weekend with their family or friends – or with a date.

“My girlfriend and I love to bike around town, and when we heard about the Bike Saturdays program we were really interested,” says downtown Long Beach resident Sean Warner. “We use the long list of participating businesses as a way to check out new bars and restaurants. We just hop on our bikes and enjoy a discount. In fact, I like the program so much I started volunteering for it to help get the word out.”

The program attracts hundreds of participants each month to the many stores that participate. The bigger the discount and the more the business promotes it, the higher the customer response. “Being a coffee shop, we’re always trying to get very involved in the community, and this is something that Long Beach is clearly passionate about – and we are too,” says Michelle Cross, manager of It’s A Grind in Bixby Knolls. “Since we’ve started it, every Saturday we see eight to 10 new faces.”

Visit the Bike Saturdays page to see the list of promotions and plan your next ride destination!

For more info, please contact April Economides, program manager, at april(at)greenoctopus(dot)net or (562) 234-0046. To learn about other Long Beach bike programs, please visit www.bikelongbeach.org.

The Economic Case for Bike-Friendly Business Districts

13 Jan

Happy 2012, everyone!

As we embark on a brand new year, and the City of Long Beach’s Bike-Friendly Business District program draws to a close (the pilot ends March 17; Green Octopus manages the program), lets review some of the ways bicycling helps business districts become more economically vibrant.

But first: What’s that photo above? That’s Jeremy West, co-owner of Primal Flower – an art, gift and flower shop in Long Beach, California’s East Village Arts District – shown here embarking on a customer delivery of plants, using the bike trailer he custom-designed to hook onto the back of one of the district’s shared bikes. Part of the Long Beach Bike-Friendly Business District program includes an informal merchant bike share for errands and deliveries. For more info, visit the January 17th issue of my Bikes Mean Business column for Women on Bikes SoCal!

Now, back to business – how bicycling helps business districts:

–        There’s a strong bike local/buy local connection: A driver may go straight across or out of town to shop and dine and end up missing the offerings in his or her own neighborhood. Bicycling introduces us to those shops, restaurants, and cafes within a few miles of our home and work. Bicyclists are also more likely than drivers to notice businesses they pass because they are moving slower and are more closely connected to the street. At the Los Angeles County Bike Summit, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster remarked, “I see parts of the city on my bike that I would never even notice if I was just driving. And I love it. So it’s not only great exercise, it’s a way for me personally to get closer to the city.”

–        Most trips are short trips: 40% of U.S. trips are 2 miles or less – an easy distance for most people to bicycle – yet 68% are driven, 26% are walked, and only 2% are biked  (source: “National Household Travel Survey,” 2010). This high percentage gives districts a strong reason to both incentivize bicyclists to their district and also convert current driving customers to bicyclists.

–        Bicyclists have more disposable income: A shift in modal choice from auto to bicycle typically means more discretionary income, because the typical cost for a commuter to own and operate a bicycle in the U.S. is less than $300/year. A California Bay Area bike commuter saves an average of $7,000 per year over owning a car. People who live ‘car light’ save money, too. (Source: “The Economic Effects of Traffic Calming on Urban Small Businesses,” 2003.)

–        Businesses on bike lanes report more “feet on the street” and increased sales: A 2009 study of Bloor Street in Toronto showed that bicyclists and pedestrians spent more money in the area than drivers. The study concluded that bicycle facilities would increase commercial activity on the street. (Source: “Bike Lanes, On-Street Parking and Business: A study of Bloor Street in Toronto’s Annex Neighborhood,” 2009.) Two-thirds of merchants along San Francisco’s Valencia Street say the new bike lanes have a positive economic impact on their business. Two-thirds support more traffic calming measures on the street and all of the merchants say they’d be supportive depending on the project. (Source: “The Economic Effects of Traffic Calming on Urban Small Businesses,” 2003.)

–        Safety: More “feet on the street” makes a district safer and friendlier, thereby attracting more people and potential customers.

–        It gives districts more car parking: “We need more parking” is a common demand business districts make on their city governments. Converting some of a district’s drivers to bicyclists opens up car parking, thereby decreasing the need to build more.

–        It’s taxpayer-friendly: Bike parking is less expensive to build and maintain that car parking. It is more efficient and affordable to taxpayers. It is also cheaper for customers since it’s free!

–        Bicycle Tourism: Using the bicycle as a mode of transport for vacations is on the rise, both for weekend getaways and multi-state road trips. These cyclists spend money at hotels, restaurants, shops and other places of businesses. Business districts that welcome them are seeing increased sales. Out-of-state bicycling tourists traveling to Wisconsin generate $532 million a year in economic activity. (Source: University of Wisconsin, 2010) A similar study from Oregon is expected to come out by 2012. The creation of bike-only hotels, hostels and campsites are on the rise to attract riders and spur economic development. (Source: Adventure Cycling.)

–        Increased Worker Productivity: In the U.K., regular bicyclists take 1.3 fewer sick days per year, saving around $200m through reduced absenteeism – a projected savings of $3.2bn over the next 10 years. (Source: London School of Economics, 2011) U.S. businesses could incentive their employees to bike to work, and U.S. business districts could become more welcoming to them.

–        It’s All-American: Bicycling is something that appeals to a wide variety of people, of diverse ages, races, genders, and political backgrounds. It’s refreshingly old-fashioned. It’s as conservative as it is radical, since it’s efficient and individualistic.

Lets make this a great year for bicycling and business!

The Beauty of the Bike Limo

10 Nov

Today is the beta launch of Women on Bikes SoCal! I am happy to be a part of this important effort to get more women and girls on bikes. I’m part of the WoB team and the business columnist.

Here is my “Bike Love Story” – or how I fell in love with the bicycle. I’ll paste it below, too. After you read it, please check out the rest of the WoB site and post your Bike Love Story.

The Beauty of the Bike Limo

Like many kids, I learned how to ride a bicycle without training wheels at age six, with my parents and grandparents taking turns running up and down the sidewalk holding on to the back of my seat until that magical moment when they let go and I kept on riding. I remember singing “I love Pippy Longstocking, up and away, and a sha-na-na!” over and over…and over… and feeling really cool. It’s one of my clearest memories from childhood, and I think it’s because of the strong feeling of freedom and independence it gave me.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m happy to say that not much has changed. My daughter, currently age six, and I don’t own a car and happily ride our bikes around Long Beach, read Pippy stories, and are pretty independent young ladies. Long Beach is still flat, still warm and sunny, and still has more bikeable streets than many Southern California and U.S. cities.

One thing that has changed, at least in my life, is the advent of the co-pilot bike extension, also called a ‘tag-along,’ or what Audrey and I refer to as our ‘bike limo.’ This quick-release extension turns my bike into a tandem, with a seat, pedals and handlebars for Audrey behind me. It’s our ‘car,’ if you will, getting us to and from school, the grocery store, pizza nights out, and across town to events. Audrey absolutely loves it and often busts out into song while we’re riding.

After my Pippy bike memory, the next ones are as follows: riding my bike to elementary school, junior high, and part of high school with friends; riding along East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz during college to beat the blues and stay in shape; riding a little in Claremont 2006-08; and then not riding again seriously until early 2010 in San Francisco, where I lived on a big hill and owned a very heavy and rusty mountain bike.

When I lived in San Francisco previously – as well as Berkeley, Portland, and D.C. – I loved walking and taking public transit. It wasn’t until my friend, Amanda Ravenhill, reminded me it would be much faster to bike across the city than take the very slow bus. So I hopped on my bike and never looked back. I’m a busy woman, and bicycling made it possible for me to get more done. I was also quickly reminded how much fun it was to ride and that glorious feeling of independence and strength that comes with it.

I’m a sustainability consultant and founded my company Green Octopus Consulting in 2003. In July 2010, I decided to move back to Long Beach to help ‘green’ my hometown and, to most people’s surprise, not buy a car, only borrowing one occasionally, mostly for nighttime trips to Los Angeles. People thought I was irrational to attempt this, but I thought it would be a good experiment – and, if I was successful, a good example to other parents and business owners.

Well, it’s been over a year now, and I’d say the experiment has been a success. Traveling by bike has pretty much revolutionized Audrey’s and my life. It has also given me a new career passion, as I’ve added one more service to my repertoire of helping cities develop and implement sustainability plans: I help get more people on bikes.

Soon after I moved back home, the city hired me to create and manage the nation’s first Bike Friendly Business District (BFBD) program in partnership with four business districts. With an MBA in Sustainable Management and history of working with business associations, the BFBD program is a great fit for my passions and strengths. I work with a large number of stakeholders in helping persuade community members to bike and buy local by offering free bike repairs, bike valets, a ‘Bike Saturdays’ discount program, bike photo portraits, fun bike-themed events, and a casual bike share system for merchants and their employees to go to meetings, run errands, and make deliveries.

When we bike instead of drive, the environmental and health benefits are obvious, but it’s also important to remember it helps keep local businesses in business and our neighborhoods vibrant. Having lived without a car for most of my life and knowing the joy of shopping local and developing relationships with local shop owners, I am grateful to be in a position to help others realize the same joy, especially business owners and parents, two groups that often think they’re too busy for bikes. It’s rewarding to see them realize how bikes are good for their bottom line and often more convenient than a car.

I often describe Long Beach as having gone through a political ‘climate change,’ because there is now an openness to discuss environmental sustainability and how to achieve it in our city whereas, in the past, most people dismissed it. With that said, I rarely talk about environmentalism when talking bikes. Instead, I remind people that riding a bike is old school, Main Street, and American as apple pie. It’s also fiscally conservative and efficient.

If Audrey and I can influence families, business owners, and other community members to live car-light, we’ll feel like moving home to Long Beach hasn’t just benefited our own personal lives but perhaps also the lives and local economy of this town we love. But don’t get me wrong – we’ve got an entire nation to convert. This is just the beginning.

Old School Localism

26 Oct

When I was 16, growing up in Long Beach, California, I’d drive – not walk – two very short blocks to pick up a gallon of milk or cuppa joe in a disposable cup. When my friends and I wanted to shop, we drove to a mall on a traffic-jammed freeway to buy clothes made in China from fluorescent-lit chain stores. I ate bagel dogs from CostCo and fried chicken from KFC.

Nowadays….my life in the LBC is a little different. My daughter and I commute everywhere via bike and foot and don’t own a car. We shop locally, eat healthfully, use reusable food and beverage containers, buy most of our clothes second-hand and have everything we need within biking distance. And it’s so much more fun.

None of this impresses my Greek grandparents. In the “old country,” living this way wasn’t a choice but a necessity. Just as they smiled at me when I tried to teach them about ‘the three R’s’ (after all, they explained, they’ve been practicing ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ for decades), I was surprised when a colleague claimed green building was “invented” in the 1970’s. We’re so disconnected from our earth – our home – we forget the very first dwellings were as green as buildings can be: made solely out of materials from the earth and designed strategically with sun and wind in mind (fancy words for “HVAC”).

Aside from the immigrant necessity to live lightly, this is just common sense and economic, my Republican grandparents asserted. Why throw something away you can reuse? Why pay money to drive to buy toxic-sprayed produce when you can grow your own organic and better tasting fruits and veggies at home, for free? Why drive to work and pay for a gym membership when you can bike to work and save time and money and enjoy fresh air along the way? My grandpa biked eight miles to work for years and loved it. These ideas are far from new.

Indeed, what’s old is new again. Green building, bicycle commuting and farmers markets are refreshingly old. That is why those of us seeking to live lightly on our earth must approach sustainable living with humility. What can we learn from our elders? What can we learn from indigenous populations? What can the natural systems of insects, plants, and rainforests teach us about how to design cities? What were the old marketplace models that resulted in lively public squares, supported local farmers and resulted in a congenial populace? If our favorite cities we love to wax poetic about were designed before the invention of the automobile, why do we keep designing and living in cities that are the exact opposite of this?

Contemporary economists, city planners and bureaucrats are finally starting to realize that these issues form an interdependent web. Renovating our cities – like Copenhagen did in the 1970’s – so that people can get to work, school and shopping errands car-free has a tremendously positive affect on our economy, our health, and our communities. And while some of these renovations require large up-front investments (such as new light rail), many of our economic and social woes can be solved by low-tech, inexpensive solutions – such as creating informal bike sharing programs, produce exchanges and parklets. Both are needed to set our cities up for economic success.

Walking and biking is more cost efficient than driving a car – not just because of the direct expenses to car owners but because car infrastructure (including parking) is much more expensive to taxpayers than bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Walking and biking’s direct link to buying local helps keep wealth within the community since many small business owners live in town – in contrast to a corporation headquartered in another city. There is nothing new about the idea of walking down the street and supporting your local shop owner or bicycling your child to school. These ideas are very ‘main street’ and American as apple pie. They are fiscally conservative and efficient.

So before you hop in that SUV to Walmart with your restless kindergartener in tow, consider instead the far-reaching effects that riding a tandem to your local store will have on your child, yourself and your city. For starter’s, your kid will love it – and joyful living is the most important ingredient to any successful community. Imagine if 10 of your friends did the same. This is how the change to localism happens: slowly, intentionally, and humbly. Old school.

April Economides is the principal of Green Octopus Consulting, which helps business districts become more healthy and FUN through old school ideas like bike/buy local programs and public space creation. She manages the City of Long Beach’s Bike Saturdays and Bike-Friendly Business District programs.