Image by Dave Murray for dandyhorse from issue 6.
How MBA students turn the bike lane issue on its head
By Gideon Forman
As Toronto strives to build a network of separated bike lanes throughout the city, some local business owners continue to raise objections.
Some claim the lanes — which can require parking spots to be removed — make it less convenient for drivers to access restaurants and stores, resulting in lost sales. Others complain the lanes impede delivery trucks, making it more difficult for merchants to receive supplies. Still others suggest the new road configuration exacerbates congestion.
The claims aren't always true. City of Toronto data suggest the Bloor lane, for example, has not harmed sales, but the perception remains among some owners that bike lanes threaten their establishments.
So when new routes are proposed — on Danforth Avenue, for example — shopkeepers can be oppositional. In April, a team of MBA students at the Rotman School of Management released a paper on attitudes toward bike lanes by Danforth businesspeople from Broadview to Pape Avenue. Based on an informal survey, it suggests all merchants have concerns about the lanes' impact on parking, with 82 per cent worried about deliveries and 64 per cent about sales. The report is troubling because bike advocates need to find common ground with the commercial sector to expedite cycle tracks' expansion.
What can advocates do? The Rotman students propose a novel solution. What if the issue could be turned on its head? What if the threat were presented not as bike lanes' presence but as their absence?
The students argue that Toronto is becoming a "smart city" featuring projects, such as Google's Quayside pilot, in which active transportation is central. If Danforth merchants want to prosper they need to be part of this trend and embrace the infrastructure of tomorrow.
Bike lanes help neighbourhoods become attractive, people-centred destinations. To reject the lanes is to remain in the past and suffer opportunity costs. The students urge cycling boosters to "position the introduction of bike lanes and transformation of the street as an opportunity to revitalize Danforth that is not to be missed."
Matthew Gaetz, one of the students who wrote the report, says the team's insight occurred when it started contemplating the nature of cities. "City planning is about thinking far into the future," he explains. "When councillors review a proposal, they think in terms of the next 50 years. It clicked for us that cities will be far different then. And at least some businesses have thought of this. So we wondered: can we shift the 'loss' scenario [from parking and sales] to not being included in this new, cool opportunity."
Another of the report's authors, Angela Morcos, agrees: "When we talked about removing parking, the businesses weren't interested. But when we suggested they're behind other neighbourhoods that have bike lanes and are more advanced, they felt they were missing out."
The students also recommend cycling advocates pair businesses whose streets have received bike lanes with businesses whose streets haven't. That could mean connecting a restaurateur on Bloor with one on Danforth. The former might have first-hand experience of the bike lane installation process and could, if the experience were positive, allay colleagues' fears.
Gaetz says this peer-to-peer approach can be superior to one in which businesses are lobbied by advocacy groups. "People are much more likely to respond to those who are like them," he argues. "A businessperson would paint a realistic picture of the bike lanes' introduction. If the Suzuki Foundation says positive things about bike lanes, a businessperson may be skeptical."
Adds Morcos: "When we talked to business owners we found the main people they trust is other businesses. Their peers actually went through the bike lane implementation so they know what they're talking about. Real life experience is valued more than statistics or theories."
The MBA students are telling advocates that, to get business buy-in for cycling infrastructure, they need to reframe the issue.
Photo by Yvonne Bambrick from issue 7.
The narrative needs to move from parking to building a forward-looking community; it's about the losses that ensue if we don’t and the gains that emerge if we do. And advocates need to shift from being lobbyists to facilitators whose job is to get supportive and nervous merchants into the same room and talking among themselves.
Gideon Forman is a transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.
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