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How Bicycling Is Transforming Business

Cities across the US discover that good biking attracts great jobs and top talent to their communities.

Cities across the US discover that good biking attracts great jobs and top talent to their communities.

“Biking is definitely part of our strategy to attract and retain businesses in order to compete in a mobile world,” says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, as we glide across the Mississippi River on one of two bike-and-pedestrian bridges that connect downtown to the University of Minnesota. “We want young talent to come here and stay. And good biking is one of the least expensive ways to send that message.”

As we turn onto to a riverside bike path to inspect another span, the mayor recounts a recent conversation. “I was having dinner with a creative director that a local firm was eager to hire for a key post. He was an American living in Europe, and we spent most of the evening talking about the importance of biking and walking to the life of a city,” Rybak says, smiling. “He took the job.”

Here are a few of the ways Minneapolis has invested in biking:

  1. It has created a network of off-street trails that criss-cross the city;
  2. It has added 180 miles of bike lanes to streets with plans to double that;
  3. It has launched one of the country’s first large-scale bikeshare programs;
  4. And it has created protected lanes to separate people riding bikes from motor traffic.

Now the city lands near the top of all lists ranking America’s best bike cities. That “ratchets up” the city’s appeal to businesses in many fields, Rybak says.

“We moved from the suburbs to downtown Minneapolis to allow our employees to take advantage of the area’s many trails,” explained Christine Fruechte, CEO of the advertising firm Colle + McVoy, in a newspaper op-ed.

David A. Wilson, who directs 1,600 employees at the Minneapolis office of Accenture, a management consulting company, says good biking opportunities are important to the well-educated 25- to 35-year-olds he seeks to hire.

“Five years ago, I don’t think businesspeople were even thinking about bikes as a part of business. Today it’s definitely part of the discussion.” He notes that Accenture recently relocated their Boston and Washington, D.C. offices from suburbs to the city to offer employees better opportunities for biking, walking, and transit.

A creative generation loses its car keys

Young people today are driving significantly less than previous generations, according to a flurry of recent reports. Even Motor Trend magazine notes that young professionals flocking to cities today are less inclined to buy cars and “more likely to spend the money on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and $2,000-plus bikes.”

Annual miles traveled by car among all 16- to 34-year-olds dropped 23 percent from 2001 to 2009, according to a study from the “Frontier Group” think tank—and that does not even count the past three years of recession and $4-a-gallon gas. The Federal Highway Administration found the miles traveled by drivers under 30 dropped from 21 to 14 percent of the total between 1995 and 2009.

These young people represent the “creative class” talent pool that many companies covet. That’s why civic, business, and political leaders around the country are paying attention to the next generation’s wishes for lively, livable places to work and play. This means diverse cultural opportunities, plentiful cafes and restaurants, a tolerant social climate, a variety of housing choices, and ample transportation options like biking—not only for commuting to work, but also for recreation after work and, in some cases, over the lunch hour.

Richard Florida, the economic forecaster who coined the phrase “creative class,” recently described these sought-after workers in the Wall Street Journal as “less interested in owning cars and big houses. They prefer to live in central locations, where they can rent an apartment and use transit or walk or bike to work.”

Florida sees bicycling as critical for thriving cities, which is why he joined New York City’s heated debate last year about the proliferation of bike lanes. “New York has became a haven for creative-class professionals,” he wrote in the Daily News. He added that biking remains important to workers in creative fields even as they grow older. “When they put their kids in child seats or jogging strollers, traffic-free bike paths become especially important to them.”

Thirty-three executives at New York high-tech companies—including Foursquare, Meetup, and Tumblr—also weighed in on biking issues, urging Mayor Bloomberg to “support a bikeshare system as a way to attract and retain the investment and talent for New York City to remain competitive in the fast-growing digital media and internet-oriented economy.”

Bloomberg agreed, and the bikeshare program begins next March with 7,000 bikes for rent.

The city that bikes

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected last year on an aggressive platform of bringing new tech and creative businesses to the city. He scored a major coup this summer with Google-Motorola Mobility’s announcement that it was moving more than 2,000 jobs from a suburban campus to the heart of the city. “One of the things that employees look [at] today is the quality of life and quality of transportation because of the ease that comes with it,” Emanuel explained. “And that ease is having trains as a choice, buses as a choice, and bikes as a choice [for] getting to and from work.”

John Tolva, the City of Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer, says it’s no coincidence that Google-Motorola Mobility’s new home in the Merchandise Mart is right next to Kinzie Street, the city’s first green lane—where bike lanes are physically separated from rushing traffic to make riders feel safer and more comfortable. This idea of creating protected space for people on bikes, borrowed from Northern European countries where bikes account for 10 to 30 percent of trips, is now spreading throughout the U.S.

“Cities that want to shine are building these kinds of better bike facilities as part of a suite of assets that attract business,” says Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lanes Project, which promotes protected bike lanes across the country. “And they find that bike infrastructure is cheap compared to new sports stadiums and light-rail lines, and can be done much faster.”

George Washington University business professor Christopher Leinberger is a leading authority on real estate who predicted the current urban boom in a series of articles for The Atlantic magazine. “Biking is no longer just a niche for the macho guys. It’s for a lot of people now,” he says. “Great urban spaces are all about choices, including in transportation.”

Leinberger marvels at how bicycles are changing Washington, D.C., where he lives. “Bikes have been a critical part of D.C.’s turnaround. They are putting in protected bike lanes, which does a lot more to encourage riding than just a white line of paint between people and a one-ton vehicle.”

Ellen Jones, director of D.C.’s Downtown Business Improvement District, agrees. “It’s just crazy how biking has taken off here, especially the new bikeshare system which a lot of people are using for commuting,” she said. We spoke after she returned from an appointment with managers of a high-tech company wanting to rent an old warehouse downtown. “A lot of their employees bike to work and they were concerned about whether they could easily get their bicycles upstairs. When bicycling is part of the final decision on where a company relocates, then we know its impact.”

The boom in biking is also creating opportunities in the real estate sector. “We don’t work in places that aren’t near bike lanes,” says Jair Lynch, founder and CEO of a D.C. real estate development and construction company. Even in the slow economy, $200 million in new apartments are currently under construction adjacent to the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, a bike “freeway” cutting through the south side of the city.

Another benefit businesses see for locating in bike-friendly locations is a break on health insurance costs. QBP, a bike parts distributor in the Minneapolis area employing 600 people, offered a series of incentives for employees to commute by bike and discovered an unexpected bonus—a 4.4 percent reduction in health care costs, totaling $170,000 a year in savings.

Tracy Pleschourt—partner at Carmichael Lynch, an ad agency in downtown Minneapolis that promotes biking—is excited about the possibilities of the newly launched Zap program, which electronically documents bike trips using on-bike RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) devices and trail-edge sensors. Right now the program offers only gift certificates and discount gear as prizes for frequent biking, but insurers are looking at it as a way to reward health-conscious companies with lots of employees riding bikes.

Beyond big cities & bike meccas

Bikes are improving the business climate even in cities not ranked as bike capitals or large metropolitan regions.

Austin, Texas, is ambitiously expanding its bike infrastructure; its first green lane opened last spring, one of 10 planned for the city. Cirrus Logic, a computer chip company that depends on specially trained engineers, moved to downtown Austin last summer from an outlying location “to become more attractive as an employer,” says PR director Bill Schnell. “We can’t just pluck anybody for our jobs. The people we want are mostly younger, and biking is part of the equation for them.”

CEO Tyson Tuttle relocated Silicon Labs, which designs integrated circuits for computers, to downtown Austin five years ago to be close to the city’s bike trail system. It was one of the first of many tech companies that are now in the area. Tuttle, who himself sometimes rides to work, says it was a smart move. “Biking on the trails is something a lot of employees enjoy, and when people think about joining the company it’s a big draw.”

You might think that Memphis, Tenn., would be the last place in America to believe bikes can take us down the path to prosperity. In 2008, with not a single bike lane inside its city limits, it was named one of the three “Worst Cities for Cycling in America” by Bicycling magazine (alongside Dallas and Miami).

That prompted the city to stripe a few lines of bike lanes, but it landed on the three worst cities list again in 2010 (this time joined by Birmingham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla.). This year Bicycling honored Memphis as the “most improved” city for bicycling. It was also named as one of six cities (along with Portland, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago and Austin) to receive support from the Bikes Belong Foundation’s Green Lane Project to create a network of protected bike lanes. The foundation hopes that these will serve as best practices for other cities to follow.

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