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Hardware store owner blames bike lanes, not his own lack of business savvy, for falling sales

Gillman’s Ace Hardware. Photo: John Greenfield

In the fall of 2020 Streetsblog Chicago reported on the then newly installed plastic post-"protected" bike lanes on Milwaukee Avenue between California and Western Avenues, in Logan Square. At the presser for the unveiling of the completed bike lanes, some business owners in the area came over to yell complaints about losing parking in front of their storefronts. One of those business owners was the owner of Gillman‘s Ace hardware, Alan Gillman, who was extensively interviewed in a recent Block Club Chicago article claiming that the bike lanes are responsible for the closing of his business.

Gillman claims that the repurposing of car storage into a curbside bike lane has "ruined" his 75 year old hardware store, Gillman Ace hardware at 2118-2120 N. Milwaukee Ave. He claims that business is down “at least a third” since the lanes were installed in fall 2020, and that he has had to lay off an employee, and may close the business. Unfortunately, there was not much investigative journalism in the article to actually back up the claims that bike lanes are responsible for the decline in business.

Local alderman Daniel LaSpata is quoted in the article stating “I think there are a lot of factors in the last couple of years that may have impacted the economy in Chicago.” One of the more obvious factors in the past two years is a global pandemic which has forced many businesses to adapt. Some social media comments in response to the story have noted that Gillman's public political beliefs, the poor organization within the store, and business hours that don't work for some customers are also factors to consider.

Gillman claims that due to a lack of convenient car storage, he lost customers. Gillman states that he reached out to the local alderman to help him buy a nearby parking lot but it didn’t work out. La Spata stated that he is trying to figure out a solution. "We’d never want to put anyone in a position to be less than successful.” I would argue that the only one who needs to do any labor to ensure that the business is successful is Gillman. I agreed with one online commentator that Gillman could have had customers pick up their goods in the alley or started a delivery service if customers were truly inconvenienced by the lack of car storage.

In my opinion, one measure of a business's ability to profit and survive is adaptiveness. There was no exploration as to whether Gilman tried other methods to attract more business or if he had even received direct complaints mentioning a lack of car storage from customers or potential customers.

My issue with the Block Club Chicago article is that there was no investigation as to whether the bike lanes are responsible for the drop in business. Business owners were taken at their word. An owner of a jewelry store claimed that the lack of car storage in front of his business deterred would-be customers. The owner of the jewelry store might be seeing a drop in business because in a global pandemic which negatively and disproportionately impacted black and brown people economically.

When people are trying to meet their basic needs I believe goods like jewelry drops down on the priority spending list. This may have had more to do with the drop in business than bike lanes. Secondly, demographic changes in Logan Square may play a larger role than bike lanes.

At the end of the article, there was a voice of reason from another business owner along the stretch of Milwaukee profiled. Max Hertz, owner of The Bike Lane, a bike shop, at 2130 N Milwaukee, states, “ I think it’s really easy to blame the bike lanes without looking at the bigger picture.” Streetsblog talked to Hertz to ask what he meant about "the bigger picture", elucidating, "If you rely on customers being able to park in front that's not a recipe for a successful business."

Hertz mentioned that his business, like Gillman's Ace, has parking spaces behind the store. (The Bike Lane currently uses these spaces for additional inventory storage.) On our request, Hertz looked out the front window at 11 AM and counted four available metered parking spots on Milwaukee across from the hardware store, and eight available metered spots on Rockwell. He also drives to work frequently and often sees the loading zone around the corner on Francis Place available next to oft-available metered spaces.

I couldn’t agree more and hopefully Block Club Chicago will publish another article with actual data proving or disproving that bike lanes had a negative impact on the hardware store and other businesses along Milwaukee. A meta study published last year,  analyzing 23 studies investigating the impact of bike lanes on business activity in cities across the U.S. and Canada, found: "Taken together, the studies indicate that creating or improving active travel facilities generally has positive or non-significant economic impacts on retail and food service businesses abutting or within a short distance of the facilities, though bicycle facilities might have negative economic effects on auto-centric businesses. The results are similar regardless of whether vehicular parking or travel lanes are removed or reduced to make room for the active travel facilities." 

I found the article irresponsible. I looked at Block Club Chicago's Facebook post for the article and commenters were showing the animus they have toward people who ride bikes.

Given that the creation of bike lanes is often dependent on public approval, I'm afraid some aldermen and their constituents will look at this article and think, "I don't want bike lanes in this ward because they'll hurt business." Hertz also told Streetsblog that he would like to see the bike lanes have a more effective design. "They need to have concrete or barricades, so people don't park in them."

Given the lack of evidence in this article it would be a poor conclusion to draw but I'm afraid lots of people will make it and Chicago will continue to overall lag when it comes to safe bike lanes.

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