Keep your eye on April Economides. She means business. And what she does could be a big deal for bike sharing. If you haven’t heard of Ms. Economides, then you’ve experienced her work. Or you will soon. She’s the bike maven behind the concept of the Bike Friendly Business District (prime locations for bike share stations). She started the first one in her hometown, Long Beach, California, and she’s spreading the idea in communities throughout North America.

Just Google her name, and you’ll understand why her consulting business is called Green Octopus. If there’s a sustainability-related project out there for her to help succeed, she’ll make it happen. And she’s got a track record to prove it. Aside from the Bike Friendly Business Districts, Economides has advised, hosted, designed, promoted, researched, planned, or directed bicycle-related and sustainability-related projects and programs for a host of clients from the public, private, and non-profit sectors for at least fifteen years now. Until just recently, she was the general manager of Bike Nation, Long Beach. We caught up with her in the heat of a grant contest called MY LA2050, in which she’s participating.

Justin Bilow: You’re often characterized as an outspoken figure in bicycle advocacy. How would you describe what you do?

April Economides: My background is a bit different than others’ in the bike scene. I have a diverse background in green business, Business Improvement Districts, place-making, and public outreach. Creating successful bike-friendly business districts necessitates experience in these interrelated areas.

Professionally, I work at the intersection of four main things: urban planning, environmental sustainability, small business advocacy, and social connectedness.

My niche in the bicycling movement is creating Bike Friendly Business Districts. I educate businesses about how bicycling is good for their bottom line—both how it benefits their individual businesses and also their district as a whole. I share with them what other districts are doing in this regard, and I help them develop a customized program for their neighborhood.

JB: What is a Bike Friendly Business District (BFBD)?

AE: A Bike Friendly Business District is where a community encourages people to shop, dine, and run errands via bicycle – and where merchants and employees ride too. BFBDs integrate bicycling into a business district’s existing operations, events, and promotions.

JB: You’ve done a lot of work in other areas of sustainable development. Why focus on bikes?

AE: Because driving less and bicycling more is one of the best ways to reduce our oil dependency – and avoid oil wars and the Keystone pipeline. It reduces sprawl. It reduces parking congestion. It reduces smog and GHG emissions. It makes people and our communities safer, healthier and happier. It strengthens our small businesses and business districts. The simple bicycle brings such a huge number of benefits to our neighborhoods that have deep, meaningful results. The question really is, why wouldn’t I focus on bikes.

JB: I think it’s fair to say that you’re a bicycling advocate. Why do you decide to approach your advocacy work from a business perspective?

AE: Growing up, I used to think business issues were at the opposite end of the spectrum from environmental sustainability. This is, of course, completely wrong. Business depends upon natural systems. The more in-tune they are, the more we prosper.

JB: So many examples of effective bicycle infrastructure and bike share systems can be named that some people wonder “why can’t we just do it the same way that Copenhagen or Amsterdam does it, and call it a day?”  Nonetheless, you stress the importance of getting the community involved early in the process. Why is public participation important?

AE: With any bicycle program, whether it’s Bike Friendly Business Districts, bike share stations, or new bike lanes, reaching out to the community from the get-go is crucial. Not doing so usually backfires. Thoughtful stakeholder engagement is the most important part of any bike program, hands down. I see this as taking the time to listen to people, educating them about your project’s goals, soliciting their ideas and concerns, brainstorming together, and building mutual trust. Creating a program together and through collaboration builds trust and creates better results. If you walk in thinking you have all of the answers, you’re already wrong.

JB: You submitted a proposal for the MyLA2050 grant through the Goldhirsh Foundation. They’re giving ten organizations $100,000 each to implement an innovative project in Los Angeles. Tell us about your proposed project.

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April Economides with her daughter on their “bike limo” in front of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

AE: Our project would create five outstanding Bike Friendly Business Districts in LA County that would also serve as models for other districts to follow. It would create online tools such as educational videos and bike maps for others to use and replicate. Please vote for us, and spread the word!

JB: Let’s talk about the difference between men and women when it comes to cycling. For decades, bicycling tended to be a male-dominated activity. Why do you think this has been the case?

AE: Largely time and children. Women tend to be busier than men due to family obligations of raising children, getting the kids to soccer practice, doing the grocery shopping, taking care of elderly relatives, and in some cases, having to work harder and longer hours than men for equal or less pay. And if we have kids in tow, we need safer streets to transport them on. I ride my single speed real fast on busy streets when I’m by myself. But when my daughter’s with me, I’m super cautious. Women’s bike-riding numbers increase when separated bike lanes go in. And then programs like community bike rides are created to invite them onto them. Family bike sales are on the rise too, especially in cities with separated bike lanes.

JB: Do you think it’s important to get more women on bicycles?

AE: You bet. Who do you think does most of the shopping and errand-running in the U.S.? Women. So they are a key target and benefactor of Bike Friendly Business Districts.

JB: Then how do you get more women riding?

AE: I hope I lead by example. I ride everywhere. And my daughter (who’s 7) and I ride everywhere on our bike limo, a tandem. Some women ride more when they see other women riding. I’ve had many women email me after I speak in their community and say they went out and bought a bike after hearing me speak. That makes my whole day.

I also advocate for separated lanes. Many women and parents prefer complete separation from traffic, so that is what we should build. We will start to see more separated lanes and better designed separated lanes when more women are traffic engineers and urban planners.

JB: Women have adopted bike share use at least as much as men have, if not more. And women have adopted bike share more than cycling in general, even in places with developed bicycle infrastructure. Do you think there’s a good reason for this? 

AE: That’s a good point. I would think it’s partially because bike share is affordable and easy and is therefore very attractive to many people, men included. The marketing tends to be welcoming and colorful—which is also good for visibility ( i.e. safety). The bike itself—being upright, with a step-through, and equipped with a basket—is also attractive to many women because it allows for comfortable riding. I was chatting with Alta Bike Share’s marketing coordinator, Jocelyn Gaudi, about this recently, and she also pointed out that bike share removes the hassle of equipment and having to walk into a bike shop, which can sometimes be intimidating for women.

JB: At the RailVolution conference last October, Long Beach’s Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal asserted in her presentation that Long Beach is the “most bike friendly city in the US.” Really?

AE: Suja was referring to the sign that’s bolted on our City Hall that reads those words. It’s a bold assertion, but it serves to hold us to a worthy goal. It worked on me! After laughing it off as ridiculous from my dreamy apartment in San Francisco, I paused, got it, then immediately moved back to Long Beach to help the city reach that goal. For those of us who like to dream big and see tangible results, bold assertions are motivating. I would love to play a bigger role in what the city is doing bike-wise. I see a lot of opportunity for forging stronger collaborations between everyday riders, the city, and business community.

JB: You have said that you’re a car-free commuter. How are you able to do this in Long Beach?

AE: Quite easily. Every place I’ve moved, I’ve intentionally carved out a life that’s close to my daughter’s school and other places I need and want to visit. I prefer to bike and walk most places. I ride almost everywhere.  About twice a week I take the Blue Line in L.A. with my bike. And if I ever need a car—like to get to a meeting several hours away that’s not conveniently reachable via public transit—I rent one.

JB: Southern California has a notorious reputation for being built to accommodate the automobile to the exclusion of other transportation modes. But many cities in Southern California, like Los Angeles and Long Beach, are changing that. And some are planning to have bike share systems. Will it work? Or is Southern California a lost cause? 

AE: Not to be cliché, but SoCal’s sunny weather and relative flatness makes it ideal for bicycling. So why is ridership much higher in snowy Copenhagen and Minneapolis and rainy Portland? Because they’ve built safer bike infrastructure. In SoCal, where bike infrastructure is poor in many places, bike share can help create the demand to improve it.

It’s important that we also create a great car-share system. Angelenos will be more willing to let go of their need to own a car when we provide folks with a comprehensive car-sharing service. Most cars sit parked all day, not in use. Replacing some of these with shared cars will reduce our costs of creating and maintaining additional car parking and bring a host of other benefits.

JB: What’s your next move? 

AE: I’m encouraged by the strong interest in Bike Friendly Business Districts, and I plan to dive deeper into the work I’m doing in that regard around the U.S. and Canada. It’s neat to sprinkle seeds and help efforts sprout up in different cities.

It’s also important to me to make a positive impact here in L.A. It’s why I moved back home. I would love our team to win the LA2050 grant contest and bring increased bicycling and vitality into L.A.’s small business districts.

JB: What about bike share? Do you see yourself being involved in bike share in the future?

AE: As for my future in bike share? Maybe – we’ll see. Occasionally, tempting job offers come my way, and the single parent in me considers them. As long as I’m making a meaningful contribution, I’m happy.

Feature photo was taken by Evan Patrick Kelly in front of the City Grounds bike shop in the East Village Arts District, one of the four BFBDs in Long Beach.

Justin Bilow studies bicycle and local food system issues at the University of Southern California. He writes about bicycle infrastructure, politics, economics, and culture for BikeShare.com. Contact him at justin@bikeshare.com.