Natural Allies: Local Merchants and Bicyclists by Linda Atkins

I recently heard a Polk Street merchant express trepidation about bike lanes being added there. He was worried the lanes would become obstacles to his customers. When I heard that, I thought, "Geez, what am I, chopped liver?"

I don't own a car and travel almost everywhere on a bicycle. I am a patron of many types of businesses, and I get to those businesses on my bike.

Cyclists and small business owners are natural allies. A street that is welcoming and safe for cyclists is also a nice place for shoppers to stroll. The new Valencia Street bike lanes lend the street a pleasant, small-town feel that is likely to attract more shoppers, diners, and event-goers. Smart neighborhood merchants work to attract cyclists. "Too many merchants believe that the greater number of cars that pass in front of their shops, the better," says Yousef Nazzal, owner of Valencia Whole Foods. "I'd trade each one for a bicyclist - they're more likely to stop and shop."

Besides the fact that cyclists can more easily get to the bookstore three blocks away than a suburban superstore, many will patronize a neighborhood business over a national chain. They value the friendly, unhurried service and firsthand expertise about products and services they find with smaller merchants. Cyclists recognize that small businesses are neighborhood institutions that need our support.

Many cyclists are avid environmentalists, perceiving the link between huge corporations and the poisoning of our air and water. Even if chains weren't bad for the environment, and even if there were a JumboWidgetMegastore right next to my house, I would be unlikely ever to enter it because I consider such stores to be ugly and alienating. It's tragic that America is becoming a country of stripmalls.

I sympathize with merchants who fear that lack of parking is hurting their business. I can understand how they believe the obvious solution is to provide more parking. But we've learned that more spaces lead to gridlocked traffic congestion that discourages customers. The smart alternative is mass transit, walking, and cycling.

Cyclists are natural supporters of neighborhood businesses for many reasons. In turn, smart merchants should welcome cyclists. We are seeing this happen successfully on Valencia Street. Let's hope that our neighboring local merchants on Polk Street and throughout the city will welcome more bicyclists onto those streets soon, too.