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Fred Clements: Bike shop survival is in everyone's interest

Published September 16, 2014
A blog by NBDA executive director Fred Clements.

Editor’s note: This blog post was written by Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. Clements’ previous blog posts can be read on bikedealerblog.wordpress.com.

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When those 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 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.

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 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 facing 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 in addition to traditional infrastructure. It's time for advocates to begin viewing bike shops as part of the infrastructure rather than something separate. It's time for consumers to consider this bigger picture when making a purchase. From a cycling consumer's perspective, would the loss of 1,000 bike shops compare to the loss of 1,000 miles of bike trails? More?

Cycling has been described as a religion by many true converts. To those true believers, it caters not only to physical needs, but psychological and spiritual needs as well. If cycling is compared to a religion, then bike shops are surely the churches, physical places for people to gather, to bond together, to seek counsel, to pursue their faith.

A world without bike shops would be a barren wasteland of missed opportunity to make cycling more visible and important. The health and vitality of the independent bike shop is a key for future growth. The dealer's fight is every bicycle advocate's fight.

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