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Bike Shop Owners: The New Infrastructure

In our Winter 2015 American Bicyclist magazine, we looked at the Big Ideas coming our of bike advocacy right now. In this piece from the magazine, Communcations Director Carolyn Szczepanski looked at the idea of bike shops as infrastructure in a bicycle-friendly America. It’s a big idea among many we’ll be discussing at the 2015 National Bike Summit — join us next month by registering today!

Far too often bike shops are at the margins of the conversation about improving and increasing bicycling. Advocates and elected officials are focused on infrastructure — bike lanes and cycle tracks and multi-use trails. Many would argue it’s time for that definition to change.

At the 2013 National Women’s Bicycling Forum, Adonia Lugo, now the League’s Equity Initiative Manager, shared the concept of “human infrastructure” — the existing social networks, community groups, and shared ideas about transportation that make bicycling possible for more people.

If infrastructure is about people as well as pavement, should we spend more time focusing on our allies in retail? A long simmering sentiment, Fred Clements, the director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, brought that notion to the forefront with a widely read piece in 2014.

“There’s more to infrastructure than asphalt, concrete and off-road trails,” Clements wrote. “Many bicycle dealers are becoming increasingly vocal that they are infrastructure too, and that a robust future for cycling in America revolves around bike shops…”

“It’s time for everyone in cycling to consider bike shops a cornerstone of the solution in addition to traditional infrastructure. It’s time for advocates to begin viewing bike shops as part of the infrastructure rather than as something separate. It’s time for consumers to consider this bigger picture when making a purchase…”

“Bike shops as infrastructure is more than mere semantics. If bike shops are infrastructure, the fight for the future of the independent dealer becomes more than a marketplace issue. If bike shops are infrastructure, the continued decline in the number of bike shops across the country is every bicycle advocate’s problem…”

As we’re learning in our Equity Initiative and Women Bike program, though, the current retail infrastructure still has gaping potholes. Many communities — disproportionately low-income and communities of color — have little or no access to retail or repair services, living in vast bike shop deserts. Advocates like Brian Drayton, founder of Richmond Spokes, are working to change that. While calling attention to bike shop deserts and lack of investment from traditional bike organizations and the industry in communities of color, Drayton has pioneered new ideas to provide both jobs and affordable biking to disinvested neighborhoods. His “scalable model” revolves around portable, pop-up shops that contain all the resources to get a community rolling.

“Imagine getting a container stocked with everything you need for a bike shop,” he explained. “Picture the hardest-case neighborhood in Detroit; one with a couple of gardens and a bunch of bombed-out houses. What if you could rally enough support to do a pop-up bike shop for that community, where they would set up and run it on their own terms?”

The traditional retail landscape is evolving as well, with folks like Sarah Johnson asking those same types of questions. The owner of Omaha Bicycling Company, Johnson used her 14 years of bicycling retail experience to create a model that exemplifies her values as an advocate and bucks many bike retail norms. She hates credit, so she owns all her inventory. She keeps the shop closed two days a week so she can go on camping trips and participate in local advocacy meetings. She’s spent $0 on advertising. The result is a successful business that’s not only getting more people on bikes in Omaha, but serves as an advocacy entry point for many of her customers.

Clearly, the best retail infrastructure isn’t a one-way street.

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