Mar 26 2013
If you read the editorial pages of small-town America’s local papers or scan the websites of rural chambers of commerce — an exercise that will appeal to only a tiny minority of masochists, I’d imagine — you’ll encounter a lot of conspicuous lamentation about the decline of Main Street. The villain is usually the latest big-box store to pave over a wetland just outside the town limits. Or else it’s the Internet, that deadly Web spun by corporate spiders for the sole purpose of entrapping innocent citizens in its sticky meshes. If these evil forces didn’t exist, Main Street would be free to flower once again. Or so the boosters’ argument goes.
A mischievous critic might be tempted to ask why the feckless locals abandoned their friendly, accommdating Main Street merchants to rush off to the big-box stores and online retailers in the first place. Lower prices played their part, of course, as did convenience. How many working couples really looked forward to spending half their weekend trudging from shop to shop in search of the necessities of life — and paying through the nose for the privilege, into the bargain? But this certainly wasn’t the whole story. Anyway, it’s much too big a question for me to tackle here, now or ever.
Instead, I’m going to look at a single case study: Myberry, the little college town where I do much of my shopping. Or where I would do most of my shopping, if (1) the shops sold what I need to buy (it may seem strange, but I can go for years without feeling the urge to buy a bong, a scented candle, or a hand-dipped chocolate truffle), (2) I could afford the prices for the few everyday necessities that are still offered for sale on Main Street, and (3) I could find a place to park. Mind you, there are plenty of parking spaces to be had. But they’re for cars, not bikes. And I do a lot of my shopping on a bike. (Yes, even in winter.)
Here’s one example of the way the local business community welcomes cyclist-shoppers:
This interesting piece of surrealist art occupied a prominent place on Main Street for days — in front of a bike shop, no less. It reminded me of the “Here Be Dragons” tag that medieval mapmakers occasionally placed at the edge of their mappae mundi, as a warning to any traveler foolish enough to contemplate exchanging the security of the known world for the dangers of trackless, uncharted lands. Or maybe the bike shop owner intended it as a tribute to Salvador Dali. In either case, the display smacked more of warning than welcome.
It doesn’t have to be that way. When I was still a girl, and my parents were weighing the pros and cons of opening a roadside restaurant, my grandfather offered this sage advice: “If you give them a place to park, they’ll come.” He wasn’t thinking about bikes, of course. But his advice should nonetheless be heeded by any business hoping to attract cyclists as customers. Give us a place to park — and something more than scented candles and bongs to buy — and you’ll see us shopping on Main Street once again.
I’m waiting for Myberry to recognize this, though I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, it should be said that not all of small-town America is clueless. Even some big cites are coming round. Communities from Portland, Oregon, to Schuylerville, New York, are shining examples of what can be done to encourage two-wheeled travel — and save Main Street from itself, as well.
Will Myberry and others like it heed the clarion call? Who knows? But until they do, don’t expect me to feel much sympathy when the next round of hand-wringing over the “decline of Main Street” begins. The gods help those who help themselves, after all. Give us a place to park and we’ll come. Or not. The choice, ladies and gentlemen of the chambers of commerce, is yours.
- Bikes and Infrastructure, an archive of photo stories at TNO
- “Asphalt, Asphalt, Every Where, Nor Any Place to Park…”
- “No Room at the Curb: A Thought Experiment“
- “Making Cycling Safer and Easier? It Can Be Done: The Case of Portland, Oregon”
- “Cyclists Welcome! Ride-and-Park in Schuylerville, New York”
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