Why cycling more could be good for the economy

The pandemic has driven a rise in ridership — and experts say that might give Ontario a needed financial boost and help its economic recovery post-pandemic
By Diane Peters - Published on Apr 20, 2021
According to Ajax active-transportation coordinator Armi De Francia, residents have been more interested in cycling during the pandemic. (Twitter)

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Armi De Francia is noticing a shift in Ajax when it comes to how people are getting around town. “There’s growing enthusiasm for biking,” says the town’s active-transportation coordinator.

Ajax maintains 140 kilometres of cycling trails, dedicated bike lanes, and multi-use lanes, and, thanks to the pandemic — plus some improved signage — residents are increasingly using them, De Francia says. The trail along Lake Ontario is among Ajax’s busiest as people take to two wheels for stress relief by the waterfront. “I’ve even seen people biking on trails in the winter,” says De Francia, a regular cyclist herself, adding that she’s been hearing more coworkers talking about cool bike routes they’ve discovered while cycling for fun or running errands. But a rise in ridership could have other benefits, some experts suggest — it might give Ontario a needed financial boost and contribute to the province’s economic recovery post-pandemic.

“Cycling is very important for creating vibrancy and maintaining the type of stores that have been really punished during this pandemic,” says Beth Savan, a retired senior lecturer in geography from the University of Toronto. Cycling infrastructure, such as bike lanes, parking, and clear signage encourage local buying, which is critical, considering how much small, customer-facing businesses have suffered over the last year. “If you drive past or take the bus, you focus on traffic — you don’t see the shops,” she explains. “But when you’re on a bike, all those businesses are visible.”

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Savan was the principal investigator for a 2017 study of the Bloor Street bike lanes in Toronto. The 2.4-kilometre-long pilot, installed in 2016 and since made permanent and expanded, was opposed by local businesses at first, due to concerns over a loss of customer-parking spots. But the study found that businesses saw increased customer visits — among everyone, not just cyclists — and people were 48 per cent more likely to report spending more than $100 on a Bloor shopping visit after the lanes went in.

The study results came as no surprise to Savan, who’s been researching bike lanes on main streets for decades. “In almost every single case, there was an increase in business following the installation of the bike lanes,” she says. Savan thinks municipalities should just assume, at this point, that cycling boosts retail: “We should not be studying every single bike lane to see if it’ll make good economic sense.” And cargo bikes, e-bikes, and bikes equipped to carry kids, she adds, enable more trips and allow cyclists to haul bigger and heavier loads — a further boon for retailers.

In order to help local businesses and cyclists in Ajax, De Francia says, the town will be further upgrading signs, especially where bike lanes pass strip malls, so that people will know which turns to make to pop in for a bag of milk or to fill a prescription. The town is also encouraging retailers and restaurants to get certified as a bicycle-friendly business by Ontario by Bike, a program that promotes sustainable transportation and tourism (certification entails installing bike storage, posting information about cycling routes, and having a toolkit on hand, among other criteria). In accordance with the town’s master plan, which prioritizes active transportation, Ajax is soon set to build more cycling infrastructure, including lanes downtown.

When people choose to bike instead of drive, they help reduce road congestion — and research suggests that can have an economic impact as well. Gridlocked traffic costs the Toronto area $6 billion in lost productivity a year, according to a 2013 report from the Toronto Board of Trade. Urban cycling is one way to lighten the load on city streets, says Nancy Smith Lea, executive director of the Centre for Active Transportation: “[It’s] a much more efficient way of moving people; moving people by car is the least efficient.” And, she adds, cycling doesn’t have to be the only solution: a targeted approach to reducing car-dependence can also be effective. “We need to get rid of this binary thinking,” she says. “We don’t need to replace every trip. But we can look at some of the short trips made by car and how they can be served by bikes.”

Another benefit: travelling and commuting and running errands by bike keeps more cash in cyclists’ pockets — money that they can then put back into local economies. “For people living in areas where it’s possible to walk or bike for a lot of your trips, that means you’re not spending time in a car or you don’t have a car,” says Smith Lea. “You have more disposable income to spend at restaurants or buying better bikes.”

Cycling also contributes to the tourism economy. Ontario by Bike reports that cycling tourists spent $893 million in Ontario in 2018 alone. Louisa Mursell, executive director of non-profit Transportation Options, which runs the Ontario by Bike network, suggests that cycling-tourism spending could soar in 2021, as people avoid travelling far from home due to COVID-19 — plus many have gotten into biking during the pandemic. “The demand for our bike tours this year is off the charts,” she says. When people go on bike tours or organize their own itineraries to check out rural roads and picturesque small towns, they spend $575 per trip on average, compared to $217 for other visitors, according to Transportation Options. “They’re not just cycling,” says Mursell, noting that these tourists will shell out for accommodations, food, attractions, and shopping.

Smith Lea says few realize that bike lanes and racks cost very little. “It’s just so freaking cheap to build bike infrastructure,” she says. “It’s a drop in the bucket compared to other transportation projects. It’s not complicated, and you can put in a bike lane overnight.” Despite the relatively low cost, though, it can be tough for smaller towns with more limited resources, such as Ajax, to become bike friendly. “We’d like things to move faster, but we have to work within our budget,” says De Francia.

And there are other barriers. Ontario’s winter weather has long been perceived as a challenge for year-round cycling (although there are some signs this is changing). Cycling also has a lingering diversity problem, Smith Lea says. In Toronto, at least, that has to do with who has access to safe ways to cycle: “Over the past few years, we've seen an increasing divide in the amount of new cycling infrastructure being built in the mostly white downtown, as compared to the more racialized inner suburbs.”

Despite these difficulties, acceptance of the mode of transportation is growing, and more businesses are providing bike parking and supporting new lanes, Mursell says: “People’s eyes are open to it now. I think they’ll keep biking, whether they’re young or old. I just hope the infrastructure is in place for them to do it.”

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