When Bicyclists and Businesses Unite…

Reader Contribution by Staff

Ian Klepetar has been living out of a tent — and building a business empire.

No, he doesn’t have a degree in economics. He’s got no desire to fatten his bank account. Klepetar’s web of nearly 900 businesses is strictly aimed at enriching communities by increasing bicycling.

Three years ago, Klepetar started Bicycling Benefits, an incentive program designed to reward individuals who ride their bikes to shop and dine, and the businesses that support them.

The concept is like any other discount program. In the dozen cities that have embraced Bicycling Benefits, residents can buy a sticker for $5. They slap that sucker on their bike helmet and, when they patron participating businesses, they get a deal on their purchase. Cyclists like keeping some extra money in their pockets. Businesses like expanding their customer base and increasing client loyalty. And the whole community benefits from the shift toward sustainable transportation.

Last week, Klepetar stopped by the Alliance for Biking & Walking in Washington, DC. Laid back in his t-shirt and board shorts, the 32-year-old had hitchhiked the 200 miles to the nation’s capital after running a 50K trail race in Pennsylvania. Since he started Bicycle Benefits, Klepetar has embraced the rambling lifestyle, spending the majority of 2010 pedaling between towns to pitch his idea by day and bedding down as an opportunistic urban camper each night.

The Saratoga Springs native isn’t new to cycling, but says he’s still a relative newcomer to the world of advocacy. “I was a recreational cyclist,” he says. “I did some mountain biking and racing, but it was a couple of events that really pushed me into advocacy. A cyclist and pedestrian were hit in my home town, and I thought, ‘Something has to happen.'”

Common sense and countless studies show there’s safety in numbers. It’s a bit of a paradox but the best way to protect cyclists is to get more people on bicycles. Sure, improving infrastructure, like building bike lanes, is top of the list in plenty of surveys. But money makes the world go round. So Klepetar found a way to harness commercial interests to shift commuting patterns.

The kernel of Bicycling Benefits, he says, started with his sister’s stint in Salt Lake City. In that Utah town, advocates were working on a “Pedal Pass” with the similar goal of getting businesses to provide discounts to bicyclists. Klepetar had never studied business, but he liked the idea. And he had some ideas to improve on the innovative concept.

He decided to make a sticker instead of a card, so folks couldn’t cheat the system and flash their pass after cruising to the store in their SUV. Klepetar also realized the businesses had to be financially invested, otherwise the stickers might gather dust in cash register drawers. Instead of simply giving away the stickers and hoping the participating businesses promoted them, he decided to charge $2.50 per sticker. But when a customer buys one for $5, the business gets to keep the remaining $2.50. Up-front profit = Sweet incentive for any shop owner.

Once he refined the concept, Klepetar took his show on the road. And from Montpelier, Vermont, to Los Angeles, California, Bicycle Benefits is blowing up. More than 900 businesses have joined. More than 12,000 — yep, thousand — stickers have been sold.

“I’ve gotten great feedback,” he says. “A lot of the time I’ll be checking in on businesses and I’ll be a little reluctant to stop into a bar or a retail place after I haven’t been there in year. But then I’ll walk in the door and they’ll say, ‘Where have you been? We need more stickers. Everyone loves the program. It’s the greatest!’ Or I’ll be checking in on a business and there will be someone in front of me using the program. They hear that I started it and they tell me that they go to all these new places now, or they go on a Bicycle Benefits trip every Sunday to check out a new place that’s signed on. Or they’ll tell me they were a recreational cyclist, but now they’ve started biking to the grocery store to get 5 percent off. That’s what keeps me motivated and focused on this. The program is working.”

In fact, it’s working so well that Klepetar is looking for help in spreading Bicycling Benefits from coast to coast. The way he sees it, the program can boost the visibility and efficacy of local and state bicycle advocates. “I like to think of it as a good first step in bike advocacy,” he says. Bicycle Benefits is a highly visible campaign that scores media attention, gets more cyclists (wearing helmets) out on the streets and builds powerful coalitions to push for better infrastructure. “So, when the city puts out the idea of bike lanes and five out of the eight businesses along that stretch have signed on and they see their customers are cyclists,” Klepetar suggests, “it’s easier to win their support.”

Intrigued? Want to bring Bicycle Benefits to your town? Just drop Klepetar a line at ian@bicyclebenefits.org and he’ll get you started.