In Downtown Vancouver, local merchants wildly overestimate the number of their customers who drive. (The numbers on the left side add up to more than 100 percent apparently because of how the question to merchants was formatted.) Image: Stantec Consulting for City of Vancouver
Few groups speak more loudly in debates over the reallocation of street space than local businesses. In New York, there are merchants who vocally favor a better environment for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit, but all it takes are a few firm believers in easy car access to dictate the terms of the public debate. Case in point: In 2009, merchants in Greenwich Village and along Grand Street were able to get mayoral candidate Bill Thompson on the record against bike lanes.
But businesses aren’t transportation planners. In fact, they usually get basic information about their customers’ travel habits wrong. New evidence from an important study of separated bike lanes in downtown Vancouver [PDF] shows just how mistaken they can be.
Last year, Vancouver built two physically separated bike lanes in the heart of its downtown, along Dunsmuir and Hornby Streets. As is so often the case, area businesses worried that the lanes would harm their bottom line. In response, the city joined with three downtown business associations, hired a team of consultants and set up what it hoped would be a high-quality investigation of the effect of the bike lanes on business.
What the consultants found, though, is that merchants’ perceptions can be deeply flawed.
On the surface, the study found that holding all else constant, the bike lanes led to a 10 percent decline in sales along Hornby and a four percent decline along Dunsmuir. But those estimates were based on self-reported sales numbers from those who cared enough to respond to surveys. In the few instances where the researchers obtained hard sales numbers, they wrote, the “data indicated that estimated loss in sales was not as high as reported.”