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Outside Alforno Bakery & Café, the newest addition to Teatro Group’s seven Calgary restaurants, there’s a bright yellow compressor hose and accompanying “free air” sign, ample parking for bicycles, and a sticker on the front window in support of the cycle track network. (Alforno Bakery and Café)
Outside Alforno Bakery & Café, the newest addition to Teatro Group’s seven Calgary restaurants, there’s a bright yellow compressor hose and accompanying “free air” sign, ample parking for bicycles, and a sticker on the front window in support of the cycle track network. (Alforno Bakery and Café)

How small businesses are learning to love bike lanes Add to ...

Outside Alforno Bakery & Café, the newest addition to Teatro Group’s seven Calgary restaurants, there’s a bright yellow compressor hose and accompanying “free air” sign, ample parking for bicycles, and a sticker on the front window in support of the cycle track network.

The café, located on the 7th Street cycle track – downtown Calgary’s first separated on-street bike lane – opened in January. Inside, a vintage Royale bicycle hangs above a stylish bar for coffee condiments, while customers on two wheels can use a “Cyclists Welcome” loyalty card for a discount on their order.

“We saw and embraced what the community was participating in, which was an active lifestyle and very active use of bike lanes,” says Karen Kho, service director for Teatro Group, of the café’s bike-friendly additions. Such touches aren’t just meant to encourage customers on bicycles to stop by, Ms. Kho says, they’re for employees too, many of whom cycle to work.

Alforno isn’t alone in its bike-friendly approach; small businesses in cities across Canada are increasingly catering to cyclists. Yes, businesses publicly denouncing bike lanes are still common, but shops, bars and restaurants are starting to back bike infrastructure and reach out to a new and growing customer base.

“There’s been a sea change in the attitude about cyclists and frankly the value that the cycling community and the cycling consumer is bringing to the marketplace,” says Charles Gauthier, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. “Businesses are responding by making it clear they’re catering to them.”

In Vancouver, some businesses decided not to renew their leases since downtown bike lanes arrived on Hornby Street and Dunsmuir Street in 2010, but Mr. Gauthier says most have adapted to the bike lanes and accepted them. Others, such as the Burrard, a boutique hotel with free bike rentals, are starting to go a step further, he says, and market to cyclists.

Mr. Gauthier’s own organization has shifted its stance on bike lanes. In 2010, the BIA raised concerns over the loss of 170 on-street parking spaces and how that would affect area businesses’ bottom lines. But an assumption held by many merchants – that most customers arrive by car – turned out to be false, Mr. Gauthier says. A 2011 economic impact study commissioned by the city and other associations, including the Downtown Vancouver BIA, showed most people walked, cycled or took transit to get downtown. Just 20 per cent of customers on Hornby and Dunsmuir arrived by car.

A notion that has proven to be true, Mr. Gauthier says, is that the bike lanes are safer, attracting cyclists of all ages and abilities. “We were to some extent ‘doubting Thomases’ about the statements that were being made by cycling advocates and by the city,” Mr. Gauthier says. “I can now say … it is bringing in a different consumer that we may not have seen, who wouldn’t be comfortable riding a bike in downtown.”

Back in Calgary, attitudes are also shifting. While Alforno moved to the Eau Claire neighbourhood after a permanent cycle track was already opened, another Teatro Group business, restaurant Cucina, operated prior to a cycle track being installed outside its front doors.

“There were reservations about it,” Ms. Kho says of the 8th Avenue cycle track, part of a pilot project of four new, separated downtown bike lanes installed a year ago. After talking to customers and community members, Ms. Kho says concerns were “quickly dispelled.

“We’re allowing another avenue for people to come and visit our restaurant,” she says.

Agustin Louro, president of Bike Calgary, a cycling advocacy organization, says that more than 70 Calgary businesses have publicly expressed support for the cycle track network pilot, which will come before city council this December. Both Calgary Economic Development and the Calgary Chamber of Commerce support the lanes, citing benefits such as boosting business for retailers, curbing employer health care costs, and helping to attract and retain labour.

Not everyone remains convinced, however. Maggie Schofield, executive director of the Calgary Downtown Association, describes lukewarm feedback on the bike lanes from downtown businesses. “It is a very tough economy, and making access more difficult for people, particularly people driving and walking, doesn’t really help,” she says.

In Vancouver, the Commercial Drive Business Society released survey results earlier this year, showing that of nearly 300 business and property owners surveyed, 83 per cent did not support the city’s proposal to build separated bike lanes on Commercial Drive.

The economic impact on Calgary businesses is still being studied. Katherine Glowacz, active transportation planner with the City of Calgary, says a survey of patrons and merchants before the cycle tracks opened, combined with a follow-up survey planned this fall, will measure the cycle track’s “economic vitality.”

In other cities, such as Portland, Ore., researchers have found that people who drive to businesses spend more money per visit, but bike riders visit more often, resulting in spending more money over all. The oft-cited study, out of Portland State University, found that customers arriving by bike spent 24 per cent more per month than customers arriving in cars.

Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto, says his organization has focused on using such research to dispel myths when talking directly to small business owners and employees. Cycle Toronto is currently running two campaigns supporting new bike lanes – Bloor Loves Bikes, and Danforth Loves Bikes – both of which have involved heavy engagement with area businesses.

“We’re talking to local businesses and answering questions and finding out who is supportive and celebrating that, promoting that wider,” Mr. Kolb says. Businesses supportive of the bike lanes are given stickers to display in their windows and featured on a map on Cycle Toronto’s website.

Meanwhile, in other parts of Toronto, businesses have aimed to appeal to cyclists, Mr. Kolb says, through initiatives such as decorative bicycle racks, installed by some business improvement associations, and bike repair stations.

Steam Whistle Brewing first installed a green bike repair station – equipped with a bike rack, tire pump and 10 tools – outside its Toronto brewery in 2013. Since then, the company has purchased, installed and maintained the $2,000 stations outside of pubs and other businesses across Canada, says Sybil Taylor, communications director at Steam Whistle, with 40 stations expected to be in place by the end of this year.

Home & Away, a sports-themed restaurant that opened late last year, is the first Calgary business to install a Steam Whistle bike repair station. The business is not located directly on a cycle track, but Colin Canning, marketing manager for Home & Away, says being a bike-friendly business is important.

“In following the bike lane debate, businesses are always saying, ‘How will this affect our business?’ We take the approach that this can only help us,” Mr. Canning says. “It’s giving us the opportunity for more people to come and enjoy what we offer. Why not embrace [bikes], rather than fight or not even acknowledge them?”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Calgary's cycle track network pilot will come before city council in November.

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