Bike Shop Survival is in Everyone’s Interest

shopexteriorWhen people in the bike world think of cycling infrastructure, they usually think of places to ride. Bike paths, bike friendly roads and off-road trails are all part of the necessary network for riding a bicycle.

But there is more to infrastructure than asphalt, concrete and off-road trails. 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.

The dictionary describes infrastructure as the “underlying base or foundation for an organization or system.” By that definition, bike shops can definitely be considered as infrastructure. It’s a rare cyclist who hasn’t taken advantage of a bike shop sometime in their life for bikes, accessories, test rides, repair, service and advice.

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

From a bike dealer in Kansas, “Having a pony in the race does not mean that we aren’t telling the truth. The big question for the public is, do you want someone nearby that can help you with this machine? If your shopping habits don’t reflect what you say you want, then you work against your own self-interest not to do business with us.”

From a California dealer, “I think the big issue here is that we, the LBS (local bike shop), are not regarded as part of the infrastructure. I believe we can make a strong case that we’ve been an integral part of making cycling accessible, and that our declining numbers are a cause, not an effect, of decreased utilization of the bicycle.

“We are not just businesses making money. We are a business-provided for-profit infrastructure that has enabled cyclists for many decades. We are already amazingly efficient at what we do, because we’re already subsidized by owners willing to work for much less than they should. And our competition with each other keeps us efficient in a manner that you will never see in a government project.

“The answer is advocacy for the retail brick & mortar bike shop. We need to get loud about our role in the cycling infrastructure. People should start thinking about what they need to do to support us, as part of the infrastructure, a more efficient part of the infrastructure than any government organization will ever be.”

If this all sounds reasonable, should the definition of bicycle advocacy be expanded to include bike shops? Should traditional advocates step up and make the future of the bicycle dealer a cornerstone of their efforts to pave the way for future growth in cycling? Is an “agnostic” view of marketplace dynamics that doesn’t favor bike shops a mistake? The answer from here is yes.

The bicycle industry and advocates have worked diligently for many years to encourage the government to take bicycles seriously and dedicate a fair proportion of transportation dollars to bicycle facilities. Even tax-averse conservatives can see that the government owns and controls the roads and trails, and has a responsibility to include bicycles in the transportation mix because no other agency can do so. A good argument can also be made that bicycle facilities have been severely under-funded for years. Despite huge progress in facilities in recent years, participation continues to lag behind the potential.

The basic and troubling truth: cycling is still dangerous in many parts of the country, with a frequently tangled mess of deteriorating roads, rusty bridges, streets with potholes, bike lanes to nowhere, angry and distracted drivers, and arrogant disregard for all human-powered transportation from many policy makers.

The work being done to improve this situation is as difficult as it is important. Progress is being made, but while the prospects remain good, a transformed transportation system that gives cyclists their deserved place in the world will take some time.

For bike dealers, the time is now. The local bike shop is fighting for its collective life versus Internet competition and the various other manifestations of the digital age. This fight is somewhat under-the-radar of many involved in bicycle advocacy because it is in the realm of free enterprise. Advocates are used to allowing the marketplace to determine winners and losers. It may now be time to choose sides.

Not all change is progress. It is all too easy to assume that disruptive technologies always lead to progress, that change is always a good thing, and that in the crucible of competition, the strong survive and things improve. When we hear the complaints of bike shops troubled by severe Internet discounting, many view this as mere whining from an endangered species. But if dealers are infrastructure, their continued existence involves everyone involved in the cycling movement.

So let’s not focus only on asphalt, pavement, and responsible off-road trails. It’s time for everyone in cycling to consider bike shops as a cornerstone of the solution. It’s time for advocates to begin viewing bike shops as an important part of the infrastructure rather than something separate. It’s time for the industry to focus on the dealer for quality distribution of specialty products versus commodity products. It’s time for consumers to consider the bigger picture in their own self-interest when making a purchase. Demand excellence, surely, but think before you buy. Even a mediocre bike shop is better than no shop at all. From the cycling movement’s perspective, would the loss of 1,000 bike shops compare to the loss of 1,000 miles of bike trails? More?

A world without bike shops would be a barren wasteland of missed opportunity to transform the world through cycling. The health and vitality of the independent bike shop is a key to the future. The dealer’s fight is every bicycle advocate’s fight. If you want to see a bright future for cycling, it’s time to choose sides.

6 thoughts on “Bike Shop Survival is in Everyone’s Interest

  1. “The basic and troubling truth: cycling is still dangerous in many parts of the country”…”angry and distracted drivers, and arrogant disregard for all human-powered transportation from many policy makers.”

    In Chicago the mayor, Rahm Emanual, is a huge cycling enthusiast. He is attempting to force into the city’s infrastructure miles of cycling trails as well as bike lanes on Chicago’s city streets.

    It has been met with equal parts loud support(cyclists) and condemnation(motorists) because no matter how hard we try, there just isn’t a safe way to ADD that many bike lanes on streets that are already 200+ years old in terms of width—and hemmed in by buildings and sidewalks. Like it or not, live in a world that wasn’t planned for biking.

    On the plus side, the city has updated traffic lights to include bike lane signals, delayed green, etc. to make it a bit less dangerous to bikers. However, the cycling community already faces an uphill battle in terms of it’s reputation.

    Almost weekly there are near misses due to cyclists assuming they have the same right of way as pedestrians. They don’t. Flying through a red light just because “traffic was still” proves to be dangerous to the cyclist and unfair to drivers. We need to teach our brethren that sharing the road goes both ways. Until that happens (and we may have to be OVERLY polite in order to reverse a well-established public image problem) we will struggle for legitimacy in the non-enthusiast world.

  2. This might not be a very popular comment with some, but cyclists looking for an idyllic, bucolic experience aren’t going to find it on a roadway any more than someone driving a car would. Seriously, how often driving a car do you have to watch out for someone doing something stupid… running a turn signal (very popular around here), merging into your lane without looking, lots of everyday things that you don’t even give much thought to because they’re so common and you know you have to watch out for yourself. So why, on a bike, do we expect it to be any different?

    I’m not saying we don’t need better-designed roadways and, in some cases, separate facilities. But sometimes I think we oversell some aspects of the cycling experience, so much so that acting “normal” when out on the roads seems like an imposition, something that we shouldn’t have to do. And we literally lose people from cycling because of that.

  3. I have to agree with Mike here. My two wheel life has included many years of motorcycling as well as bicycling. I have learned that aggressive and bad driving habits are universal to the roadway. The game doesn’t change because you’re on two wheels. People are still texting, running red lights, and on and on. I take total responsibility for keeping myself out of harms way as much as possible. I never expect drivers of any conveyance to provide me with special dispensation because I’m two wheels. In fact, my mindset is often that they’re out to get me and I’m on high alert for jerky moves. I try to convey this mindset to new cyclists and two wheeled commuters whenever possible.

  4. The “infrastructure” bike shops provide works in several ways:
    1) Bike shops make cycling a visible, viable, attractive option in the crowded cacophony of messages that is 21st-century society. Many Americans wouldn’t even think of riding a bike, were not a nearby bike store paying significant money to keep bike riding in front of their eyeballs through traditional media, social media, storefront signage, etc.
    2) Bike shops enable beginners to enter the sport. They work very hard to get new people on bikes, knowing that this will ensure the survival of their beloved sport as well as their own livelihood.
    3) Bike shops are open long hours with trained personnel ready to assist riders with almost any need, on the spot. No other part of the “infrastructure” (government agencies, professional or volunteer advocates, online product sellers, cycling clubs, etc) provides (nor can they provide) this essential service.
    4) Bike shop owners and staff are often (not always, but very often) at the forefront of local advocacy efforts — they are the “boots on the ground”, knowing what the issues are and marshaling grassroots support (through their daily contact with large numbers of active riders) for needed initiatives.
    5) When the number of bike shops in a populated area drops below a critical level, cycling becomes largely invisible and unsupported in crucial ways — and participation in cycling drops. We’ve seen this in town after town, state after state; I challenge anyone to provide a counter-example.

  5. Hard to argue with the above. I guess the question is: Are we in the cycling advocacy business or the bike shop business? No challenge to the truths spoken above. Just asking if our entire business category centers around the hard core cycling enthusiast or is it something larger?

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