The Chain Fonda Project: A Social Business to Spread Bicycle Commuting

My ideas are like plane crashes: alarming and usually unexpected. Nonetheless today I offer an idea for a social business which could (I hope) save us money, help slow climate change and peak oil, and make us happier and healthier. Maybe it will also bring me fame so I can get the part I’m angling for in Pirates of the Caribbean 5: The Curse of the Black Eyeliner.

Since some readers may not know what a social business is, let’s start with that.

Short description: it’s a non-profit minus the begging, or a business minus the sociopathy.

Long description: it’s an organization that’s financed like a business to pursue a non-business mission, like reducing poverty. Investors recoup their investments but take no additional dividends. The business sells goods/services to cover costs, sustain itself, and profit, but profit goes back toward the mission, never to investors.

Social businesses are more durable and growable than non-profits, which are ever at the mercy of their benefactors’ whims. The best-known example is the Grameen Bank, which gives microloans to the poor to help them escape poverty. The bank finances itself through low interest rates on loans, and has served millions of people.

Back to my own social business idea, which has to do with bicycles.

Life will be better when we all take to bikes for our daily commutes. There are so many benefits to bike commuting that I can’t cover them all; here are a few I can be bothered to write down:

  1. Reduced fuel costs: saves money, deprives oil companies of funding, and cuts carbon emissions. I save about $400/year in fuel by biking, and will likely save more in the future thanks to rising gas prices.
  2. Reduced car maintenance. I’ve not needed anything beyond oil changes, a battery change, and tire rotations in 6 years, and my car’s 12 years old. I’ve saved thousands.
  3. Cheaper Insurance: if you tell your car insurance company that you bike to work, you can get your insurance cut in half.
  4. Better Health and Lower Health Care Costs: Studies show that cyclists are ill less often, and a study in Portland suggests that for every dollar the city spends on bicycle infrastructure, it saves 5 dollars on health care costs. 500% return on investment = not bad. If you held a stock with that kind of return you’d crap for joy. Your expected return may be better than that because you don’t have to build any bike infrastructure.
  5. More exercise with less discipline: When you commute by bike, exercise just happens without your thinking about it. I get about 200 hours of exercise per year on my bike despite congenital laziness.
  6. More enjoyable, less stressful commute (see here for study): Arrive at work with fresh air in your lungs, jacked heart rate, and no rush hour stress. It’s hard to convey how much nicer my days are since switching to bike. Try biking to work and then dumping coffee into your mouth hole, and you’ll know heaven.
  7. Your city opens up to you: You discover more and meet more people because you aren’t trapped in a metal shell on the freeway. No one can ogle your butt when you’re in a car, nor is it easy to ogle the butts of others.
  8. Quieter, less congested cities: Bikes are quieter and take up less space than cars. See this video of rush hour in Utrecht in the Netherlands to see what rush hour could and should be.
  9. Peace of mind in times of high gas prices: Many people are chewing on their fingers over gas prices. I’m hardly aware of the issue because I hardly buy gas.

The Idea

I hope you believe all that because here’s my idea: a social business, in this case a bicycle retailer, the mission of which is to boost the number of bicycle commuters in its city.

The financial side would be simple (as such things go): the business would sell bikes, biking gear, and services, like any other retailer. It’d be best not to start the business from scratch but to buy an existing bike store and turn it into a social business, to limit the risk of failure.

How would the organization pursue its mission? I don’t know but I’m confident that good methods would emerge once the effort was underway. Ideas off the top of my head:

  1. Discounts or wholesale prices for bicycle commuters.
  2. Give away bikes, gear, or maintenance to randomly chosen bicycle commuters.
  3. Media and PR engagements: spend time interacting with reporters and local officials to spread the mission. The uniqueness of the business will help here.
  4. Work with local government to develop bike infrastructure, bike paths, lanes, signs, parking, etc.
  5. Partner with local companies to cut their health insurance premiums through employee commuter biking programs.
  6. Throw parties for bicycle commuters.
  7. Convince local businesses to give discounts to bike riders.
  8. Give classes on bike commuting.

What’s great about the idea is that the business model is tried and true and the social mission is:

  1. Simple
  2. Measurable
  3. Incremental – it can be divided into parts and accomplished bit by bit. For example, the business could set a goal of “creating” 20 new bicycle commuters in year one, 30 new ones in year two, and 50 in year three.

The key to success will be in getting people excited and organizing that excitement into lasting change. If it works in can spread, perhaps be franchised, take over the world, save all humanity, and get me a lunch with Bruckheimer.

[Heads off for a snack in what can only be described as a sort of pickled sashay]

-From the Sea

P.S. Jane Fonda has nothing to do with anything. 

Posted May 25, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 2 Comments

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  1. Judy says:

    I love your short definition of a social business. But add to your list: Businesses that support bicycling to work provide lockers (and maybe even showers) for bikers.

  2. Joe says:

    First, I love the Bentley brothers. Second, there is an awesome initiative in Minneapolis called NiceRideMN (niceridemn.org) which has public bikes all over the city for use. Since I already take up enough space in my house with boardgames (I try very hard to follow the “Don’t Buy Things” rule, but I fail when it comes to games), I don’t have room for a bike and NiceRide makes a bicycular commute to work possible!

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