Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

How a letter can lead to better biking

Posted by on February 22nd, 2007 at 6:00 am

[Jessica Roberts is a
letter-writing superstar.]

Until the whole world shares our bike-friendly fantasies, it’s up to us to show people the way. This advocacy can take many forms, including the good, old-fashioned, well-mannered letter.

Jessica Roberts is a pro at writing such letters. She’s had many of them published in newspapers and probably hundreds sent to various bureaucrats and elected officials during her tenure as the BTA’s policy advocate.

She now works at Alta Planning and she’s still writing great letters.

The other day she was disappointed in the bike racks at her local drug store so she sent the management a letter. I thought it was something we could all learn from.

Here’s the letter along with a photo she attached to it.

To Whom It May Concern:

Today I arrived at your store to make a purchase by bicycle. I was dismayed to find one of your two bicycle racks entirely blocked by a plant display (see photo, right). As you can imagine, I felt less than welcome at your store, much like your car-driving customers would have felt unwelcome if half of the car parking spots were blocked.

You may not be aware of it, but more and more Portlanders are choosing to ride a bicycle for transportation, including your customers. Over 10% of work trips in Southeast Portland are made by bicycle, and many more local errands are done by bike. Bicycle usage in Portland increased by 18% last year, and continues to rise. Many of your current and future customers ride a bicycle, and they count on being able to find a convenient and available parking spot at your business.

If you continue to send the message that cyclists are unwelcome customers, they will take their business elsewhere. On the other hand, a little effort to welcome cyclists will go a long way.

Please respond to let me know what action you will take to ensure that the bike racks stay clear for the use of your cycling customers.

Sincerely yours,

Jessica Roberts

CC: Evan Manvel, Executive Director, Bicycle Transportation Alliance
Roger Geller, City of Portland Bicycle Coordinator

Thanks for writing that letter Jessica.

I hope it inspires more people to make their concerns known in a similarly considerate, constructive, and encouraging way.

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  • Scott Mizée February 22, 2007 at 6:24 am

    Wow… a real professional, as I expected. Nicely done, Jessica. Thanks for publicizing, Jonathan.

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  • janis February 22, 2007 at 8:02 am

    I agree….very nice letter Jessica. I think it is important to let a business know your thoughts on how you are being treated. You can’t assume that the managers/owners always know what is happening.

    Cheers, Janis

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  • Elliot February 22, 2007 at 9:00 am

    I’ve witnessed that problem many times at the Walgreen’s on Belmont and 39th (where the photo was taken) and tut-tutted, but never really thought of sitting down and writing a letter.

    Maybe it’s time to do something about it and write a friendly reminder to the Pizzicato downtown at PSU. They often do the same thing, blocking a line of bike racks at the Urban Center with stacks of their patio furniture. We all know from recent coverage that bike racks at PSU are in high demand of late. An upscale business like Pizzicato would probably want think twice before exhibiting the same qualities as giant chain drugstore.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 22, 2007 at 9:56 am

    It always feels like such a small thing to do — what good can one letter do? But it makes me feel like I’ve done something with my frustration, and if other cyclists are doing the same, we just might get the word through to business owners that a lot of their current and future customers are cyclists.

    Sometimes I still feel like business owners think that all their customers arrive by car, but I spend most of the $8000 I save yearly (by not owning a car) on local businesses, and there are a lot of other people like me.

    Maybe, letter by letter, we can convince business owners that cyclists are a valuable, growing customer base that they would do better to court than drive away.

    How’s that bike-friendly businesses project going, Jonathan? I have some kudos to add as well as some Hall of Shame proposals….

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  • JP February 22, 2007 at 9:57 am

    I have a tendency to write letters also. I write to my elected representatives, retail store corporate offices, and other public agencies. However, I often wonder if just talking to the manager of the store, making a phone call to the field office of an elected official, or scheduling a meeting is more effective. There is no doubt that writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper is effective, but in these other instances, is a little face-to-face conversation all that’s needed?

    Jessica’s letter is awesome because it so clearly gets to the point, and I’ll continue to write letters myself, but I’m going to try some talking in the meantime.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 22, 2007 at 9:58 am

    p.s. That’s from the Walgreens at 39th and Belmont — in the heart of Portland’s best bike neighborhoods! If they continue to block the bike racks, be sure to mention it when you’re there, and follow up if you’re willing to take another step.

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  • Attornatus_Oregonensis February 22, 2007 at 11:31 am

    I love Jessica Roberts (figuratively). She sets a fine example.

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  • Matt P. February 22, 2007 at 11:52 am

    Another factor letter-writers may wish to consider pointing out: cyclists generate word-of-mouth far disproportionate to our numbers. It’s far more difficult to attract a new customer than to retain a current one. That word-of-mouth does what every advertising campaign tries to accomplish – it brings in potential customers that would ordinarily never know about your business.

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  • John Beaston February 22, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    As a business owner, I can tell you that good old snail-mail letters have a big impact – more than phone calls and more than emails. All the communication is important, but when a person takes the time to write a letter, they have invested themselves in providing the feedback (either positive or negative) and most companies both respect and appreciate that investment. Every single letter we get, we take action on. Things people bitch about get fixed. Suggestions get consideration and evaluation. Kudos get employees rewarded. We want to honor that letter-writing investment. So, I encourage everyone to write if so moved.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 22, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    I spoke to the Assistant Manager about it in person, but he totally blew me off. A letter has to be handled and responded to, so in this case I felt like it was more likely to get in front of someone with the business sense to realize that alienating customers is not in their best interest.

    We’ll see.

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  • sh February 22, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Duh! So simple and elementry that I’ve almost forgotten about the remarkable power of a well-written consumer letter (and this one was pro). Thanks for the reminder that small efforts can have great effect.

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  • organic brian February 22, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    I realize this hardly relates to bike-friendliness, but I have never shopped at that Walgreens, even when I lived a block away. When the store opened up they booted out the nice couple that was serving coffee from a cart in the parking lot, this couple had kept away taggers and picked up litter at the lot for the many months (years?) that the building had no tenant. They were a neighborhood fixture and very much appreciated and loved. Walgreens management claimed that the parking spot was needed for customers, and that they have a company-wide policy against any non-store installations in the parking lots. I have never, EVER seen this lot even 1/2 at capacity for car spaces.

    Another reason to limit my shopping to local businesses which are managed from within the community and not from a corporate office in another state.

    Jessica, there must be somewhere else you can shop! Let this store DIE and a better one will take its place. The attitude about bike parking doesn’t surprise me a bit, it must take a particular type of person to even be able to tolerate the culture of the company to work there.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 22, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Yeah, Brian, I feel you…I don’t go there much, but sometimes a girl just has to pick up a prescription and some first aid supplies. I guess I could go a little further to Fred’s…but it’s not like I’m convinced they’re a paragon of virtue.

    In any case, ALL businesses should be bothering to welcome cyclists. No special exemption for national chains.

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  • David Ross February 22, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    Great letter and I agree that writing such a letter is an under-utilized way to make a difference by communicating to the right people. This whole incident though just reminds me how great Portland is because even with some of the racks blocked the bike parking there is nirvana compared to most any other Walgreens in any other part of the country.

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  • Cecil February 22, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    It is true that letters get response. Sometimes. A few years ago, I went to a fancy Pearl District restaurant and received truly abysmal service (Quel surpris, non?) – I wrote a letter to the management, got a lovely and apologetic letter in return, along with a gift certificate large enough to cover dinner for two. We returned – the service was even worse the second time around. Apparently the message to shape up had not trickled down from management to the actual purveyors of bad service. We did not go back a third time and I did not bother writing annother letter.

    That said, in an earlier life I worked as an office manager for a national chain of upscale home products (rhymes with Hate & Barrel) – part of my job was responding to customer complaints.
    Well-written, polite letters, such as Jessica’s example above, that clearly stated the problem and suggested appropriate solutions, received prompt, courteous attention that resulted in a satisfied customer. Rude, poorly-written letters filled with ad hominem attacks and lacking in suggestions as to how to make the writer happier were promptly round filed. Yes, write those letters, but keep in mind that you want them to be read, not trashed.

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  • Scott Mizée February 23, 2007 at 7:02 am

    organic brian said: Another reason to limit my shopping to local businesses which are managed from within the community and not from a corporate office in another state.

    Jessica said: I guess I could go a little further to Fred’s…but it’s not like I’m convinced they’re a paragon of virtue.

    Jessica’s point has merit. Yes, she could go to Freddy’s, but they are no different than Walgreens as they are owned and managed by the largest Food & Drug retailer in the country–Kroger.

    I also try and support my locally owned and managed businesses, however I’m also cautious about how far I take this concept. I grew up in a household where my dad managed a Sears Catalog Store and later owned a Sears Dealer Store. My brother currently owns the Sears Dealer Store in Scappoose.

    Just because a store has a national name does not necessarily mean my neighbors that earn a living-wage there do not deserve my business.

    organic brian: I agree with you in saying that it is terrible when national chains feel so pressured by our litigous culture that they cannot allow an individual to sell coffee out of a cart in their parking lot. Letters should have been written about that if they were not already.

    With that in mind, I close with the idea that no matter where the business is owned or managed from, how well they pay attention to and serve ALL of their potential and existing customers will eventually result in whether their business flourishes or diminishes.

    Can’t we all just get along and think of others before ourselves… 😛

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  • organic brian February 23, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Scott, there was more than a letter-writing campaign for Walgreens to allow the coffee cart people to stay. There was a campaign, with protests, much of the neighborhood participated and it lasted for weeks. Walgreens just kept giving the company line that it was due to policies from on high which were not subject to change. The reasons they would not allow the cart if I recall had nothing to do with concerns about litigation, they claimed they needed the parking space and also were maintaining the neat appearance of the property. Exactly the sort of thing I despise about these corporate stores, they push out just about anything that’s unique or interesting.

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  • Scott Mizée February 23, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    wow… thanks for the education. That really IS terrible. Makes me think twice about shopping at Walgreens too! In fact, I can only think of three times in my entire life that I have shopped at a Walgreens in the first place.

    needed the parking space and maintaining the neat appearance of the property. Do you know when this event happened? I tried to search for some media coverage of it, but couldn’t find anything at first glance.

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