The Myth of the Urban Driving Shoppers

Rest_North_Beach.jpgA valuable sidewalk, but parking should be removed and the sidewalk widened to accommodate pedestrians and meet ADA requirements.

As we wrote a couple days ago about Jefferson Street, merchants on the commercial street there and throughout the city often assume parking spaces in front of their stores are vital to business, that their customers drive to buy, and that driving customers spend more because they can carry more goods home in their vehicles. 

Because the health of small businesses is a political holy grail locally and nationally, those merchants who believe they will lose parking because of sidewalk widening, BRT, bicycle lanes, or greening, will stand up at meetings and lobby local elected officials to kill the projects, and they are usually successful.  Though it often goes counter to their personal interests, the assumptions associated with automobility and commerce are so deeply enmeshed that dense urban communities don’t thrive as much as they could if more space were given to improving the quality of the pedestrian public realm.

But time and again, shopper intercept studies show this is not the
case, that transit riders and pedestrians spend more in commercial districts than drivers.

In New York City, a study of pedestrian space on Prince Street in Soho found that 89 percent of the people who use Prince Street are arriving by subway, bus, walking or bicycle (PDF). Only 9 percent arrive by car.  By
a ratio of 5:1 shoppers said they would come to Prince Street more
often if they had more space to walk, even if it meant eliminating
parking spaces. The study also found shoppers who value wider
sidewalks over parking spent about five times as much money, in
aggregate, compared to those who value parking over sidewalks.

But that’s New York City, not San Francisco, so it couldn’t be the same here, could it?  In 2008, the TA found that motorists only accounted for 14 percent of all users accessing the Columbus Avenue shopping district (PDF).  Those motorists spent one fifth of the the total of all other modes and visited half as often or less than the other mode users.  Those drivers were typically not from San Francisco and were driving as part of groups or because they didn’t have convenient transit options.

Columbus_spending.jpgTransit riders and pedestrians spend much more on Columbus Avenue than drivers

Parking guru Don Shoup noted in his parking manifesto that Redwood City and Old Pasadena both saw remarkable transformations when those cities managed parking responsibly and invested in pedestrian amenities, with a rise in retail spending and increase in property values. In West Palm Beach, Florida, after investing ten million dollars in traffic calming and pedestrian improvements in the 1990s, the Clematis Street commercial district property values more than doubled (PDF).  In Toronto, Canada, a recent study found that removing parking for pedestrian improvements and bicycle lanes made for better business (PDF).

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program has realized tremendous success promoting investment in street amenities along traditional business districts in towns to promote commercial vitality.  In 2007 alone, the Trust reported the following:

  • Total amount of reinvestment in physical improvements from public and private sources: $44.9 Billion
  • Average reinvestment per community: $11,083,273
  • Net gain in businesses: $82,909
  • Net gain in jobs: $370,514
  • Number of building rehabilitations: $199,519

Clearly if San Francisco were responding to evidence and not errant assumptions, it would adopt an economic stimulus plan based on sidewalk expansion and bicycle lanes.  Too bad the latter are still illegal.

Flickr photo: Snap Man

  • Pretty sure Columbus use to be more narrow (hence wider sidewalks), along with a street car line running down it’s length.

    Sad that we now see the remedies to our problems in the things we ripped up in the name of cars.

  • Thanos

    “…merchants on the commercial street there and throughout the city often assume parking spaces in front of their stores are vital to business,”

    This would be a correct assumption. As a small business owner here in the city, I need those god damn parking spots outside my store, so people can come here, park, and buy crap. We have a bike rack but people who bike don’t buy stuff things since they bike. They do however, come back at a later time on the bus or in a car to buy things.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Here’s a photo of Columbus of years past, courtesy of SocketSite:

    http://www.socketsite.com/Columbus%20Ave%201930.jpg

  • Thanos, what do you sell? Is it really so heavy that people can’t carry it by bike?

    It is hard for me to believe that people who come by bike come back later by bus to buy things, since I find it much easier to carry things on bike than on the bus. It is very easy to carry two full bags of groceries in my bike baskets, and it would be hard to carry them on the bus.

  • GRR

    Thanos,

    I’d be interested to see a more specific response to the data in the article, which seems to indicate that your bike and bus riders may spend less per visit, but come back more often and spend more per month.

    I’d also ask this: to what degree is your own living dependent upon San Francisco’s overall desirability (i.e., a place that attracts high-paying customers and residents). I’d presume that your answer may vary depending on the location of your business and whatever it is that you may sell, but don’t you think we need reasons to draw shoppers into the city/your neighborhood as a whole, and not just to your store?

  • I guess the side walks were really larger, still seems to be “six” lanes: two parking, two driving, two street car.

    I agree with GRR. While I hope Thanos’ business prospers, I think we need to look at the overall livability of North Beach, and the city as a whole. I love my neighborhood, but more reliable transit would make North Beach an even better neighborhood. And I’d argue that car traffic, with the delays that parallel parking brings, really slows down said transit. If MUNI was that much faster, and ran a few extra buses every hour, Thanos, your business would see an increase in costumers as a result of better access to the neighborhood as a whole.

  • Brian

    The truth about street parking in front of businesses is that the spaces are most often filled with the cars of the owners and the employees. Just watch how many employees run out to stuff the meters with quarters all day long. Happens everywhere.

  • L
  • Side note: It is kinda funny that they show this stretch of Columbus as a viable sidewalk. I can’t tell you how many times I find myself telling my wife when we walk past Calzone’s that they need to make the sidewalk wider. The tables (and the tourists) really seem to plant themselves smack in the middle with very little room to walk around them.

  • Matthew Roth finds four case studies in three states and two countries (including SF!) overwhelmingly proving that people who drive cars account for a tiny minority of shoppers, and Thanos unravels that well-crafted tapestry with a resounding “Nah-ah!”

    Touche, Thanos.

    Regarding Columbus:
    http://blog.streetcar.org/2009/01/goodbye-columbus.html

  • Erik

    All those researchers could have saved a bunch of time and money if they had just talked to Thonos first to get their question answered.

  • Erik, the researchers came to a different conclusion than what Thonos stated.

  • Belgand

    I have never driven anywhere in the city to purchase something and can’t imagine doing so. Primarily because I never assume that there will ever be parking anywhere and I wouldn’t want to deal with the traffic even then.

    The amount of parking necessary to encourage shoppers to drive to your establishment is rather large. I’m thinking something along the lines of a free garage or lot, not a few spaces. If all you have is one or two spaces outside I’m going to assume that they will always be filled and I will never be able to find parking there. It won’t even cross my mind that I could drive there. Grocery stores outside of walking distance I will drive to, but they have this level of parking and I’m likely going to be buying a large amount of bulky goods (if I had the money for a bike I’d probably bike instead and just go a bit more often).

    Seriously, parking spaces in front of a shop do not even remotely figure into my likelihood to shop there. Inconvenient access to public transit, however, makes a huge difference. If I can’t easily walk or take convenient transit there I’m not likely to go there at all.

  • MrMission

    Redwood City and Old Pasadena are interesting examples of how cities have improved their sidewalks, but they didn’t actually eliminate parking. In both instances, they created significant off-street parking (for example, garages and parking lots behind the stores where one must pay to park). This solution actually works quite well as the result is a very pedestrian friendly shopping district that is also accessible by cars. By charging for parking, car use is discouraged but not made impossible.

    I am not surprised to see that most people on Columbus Ave. arrive by some means other than car — parking is very limited there. If we eliminated all parking, I am sure no one would arrive by car. However, I am not sure that is a good thing. As a city resident, I almost never go to North Beach because there is no good public transport to there and parking is impossible. (Indeed North Beach is now largely a tourist haven not a place where residents go for that very reason). There are many other areas in the City that lack good public transport access. The effect of eliminating parking, therefore, is to actually balkanize the City and makes parts of it innaccessible to those who live in other neighborhoods. I don’t view that as an improvement.

    Unfortunately, the City’s transist first policy as often interpretted as an anti-car policy. In other words, anything that is bad for cars is good for the City. This approach ignores the desires of the vast majority of the people who live in the City and use cars for work and/or errands. I am definitely in favor of improving public transport but I am doubtful that SF has the density to support great inter-neighbhorhood transit — getting really good transit into and out of FiDi and SOMA would be a major acheivement. So it would be nice if the City would focus on how to best accomodate cars and pedestrians rather than reflexively adopting any policy so long as it is anti-car.

  • emily

    Right, because we really need higher property values in SF…

  • “he effect of eliminating parking, therefore, is to actually balkanize the City and makes parts of it innaccessible to those who live in other neighborhoods. I don’t view that as an improvement.”

    No, this is the product of poor transit planning as one can never build enough parking to sate demand because the existence of parking increases demand.

    The TEP recommends transit connection improvements to North Beach from points south and east.

    The 11 line would connect Van Ness station, SoMa, Montgomery station to North Beach, and the 12 line could connect Potrero to N. Beach.

    Then there is also the two gigabuck Central Subway that should facilitate access to North Beach.

    -marc

  • Peter

    As a city resident, I almost never go to North Beach because there is no good public transport to there and parking is impossible.

    i almost never go because it’s a traffic sewer, but you’re right – there is no transit there.

    I think we need to look at the overall livability of North Beach, and the city as a whole.

    agreed. we advocates need to talk a lot more about private enterprise’s responsibilities to the city and its residents. and that goes for their landlords, too. no ‘broken teeth’ should be allowed, for instance, without significant fines for owners. if owners want an empty shack, they buy one out in Orange County — plenty of availability, I hear.

    The truth about street parking in front of businesses is that the spaces are most often filled with the cars of the owners and the employees.

    i’ve read this, and believe it to a certain extent, but it’d be interesting to get a little more data, and try to think of some imaginative solutions. for instance, a lot of airports allow their employees to park out in the sticks, and then shuttle them in, and then back at the end of their shifts.

    The tables (and the tourists) really seem to plant themselves smack in the middle with very little room to walk around them.

    funny/agreed. turning over more of traffic beach to pedestrians and bikers would be totally awesome. i’m not hopefully that bikers will be allowed to ride there anytime this century, given the extreme love for buses in this city, but at least pedestrians should get a shot even if we bikers don’t – because of our own aversion to real transit.

    Erik, the researchers came to a different conclusion than what Thonos stated.

    i assumed Erik was being sarcastic, and as such, earned himself ‘Hero’ status for the comment. 🙂 sometimes derision is the appropriate response. this stuff is important, and eventually, at some point in the future, people will know that we’re serious about taking back the city for people instead of cars.

    Redwood City and Old Pasadena are interesting examples of how cities have improved their sidewalks, but they didn’t actually eliminate parking.

    Was in Redwood City just today. Its little downtown area is improved, but comparing the parking policies is only fruitful if you do it very carefully, because they’re completely opposite one another in just about every important-to-parking way. SF is 4 times as dense as Redwood City. SF has all sorts of transit that runs within a mile of North Beach. SF has thousands of hotel rooms within walking distance of North Beach. SF has a zillion tourists that are bused or biked into North Beach. There is very little room for parking in SF, in particular North Beach, and there are huge swaths of space in Redwood City.

    [The transit-first policy] approach ignores the desires of the vast majority of the people who live in the City and use cars for work and/or errands.

    The reason they use their cars is because there is no transit for them to use — which makes this argument self-referencing/invalid. We need to strive for efficiency, which is why private automobiles must go.

    The effect of eliminating parking, therefore, is to actually balkanize the City and makes parts of it inaccessible to those who live in other neighborhoods.

    The widening of the sidewalks will be a tremendous boon for North Beach – so no balkanization will happen. During reconstruction of the area, retail rents in the area might hold steady a bit more than they normally would, and then when the project is done — watch out — most expensive real estate in the city. Of course, it’d be nice if they were planning on allowing bikes up there, or provide transit.

    The 11 line would connect Van Ness station, SoMa, Montgomery station to North Beach, and the 12 line could connect Potrero to N. Beach.

    I don’t care what type of buses you run into North Beach – nobody is going to ride them by choice – especially people who are used to driving cars.

  • jon

    The first video in the post linked below shows a full service grocery store in high density Hong Kong that has NO PARKING, yet seems to thrive. Of course, SF’s mileage may differ, but still…

    http://tinyurl.com/bikescapehongkong

    Jon

  • antfaber

    I grew up in Manhattan & I can think on 1 supermarket there (the Pathmark on Pine Slip) that has a parking lot.

  • There are plenty of shopping malls with ample free parking and no customers, see http://www.deadmalls.com/ Parking doesn’t equal retail success.

  • Nan Roth

    There is an element to the parking for shoppers that is missing. We live two blocks from Columbus. We have had to abandon inviting guests for dinner who live outside of our neighborhood. We have a very difficult time getting help with our garden, etc. All visitors to North Beach, particularly restaurant employees park in the residential areas adjacent to the commercial areas. Most of our would-be guests are seniors, like ourselves, for whom bicycling and late night public transit are not an option. I suspect that is an issue with many of the workers from North Beach who park on our street as well. If you have worked long hours behind a stove or washing dishes, a long bike ride loses its appeal, and we have all experienced the shortcomings of late night public transit–long waits in the freezing cold for a bus that may never come. So let’s spend a little time studying the potential impacts of reducing the parking capacity of Columbus Avenue on the adjacent neighborhoods.

  • MrMission

    @emily: so your position is we should do everything in our power to make the City crappy so no one wants to live here and property values go down. Brilliant.

    @Marcos: Why do you think it is impossible to sate demmand for parking? Why do think parking creates demand for more parkings? Is parking like crack somehow? Your position makes no sense.

    Moving street parking to paid garages makes sense because it frees up the streetscape for other uses. Charging for parking eliminates any subsidy for driving and encourages people to think of alternatives. But having parking is critical because public transport, walking and biking are often not viable options. So why not provide alternatives? Why not support solutions that help everyone rather than taking the knee-jerk “cars are evil” approach.

  • MrMission

    @Peter: Your thought that somehow sprucing up Columbus Ave. will prevent balkanization is just wrong; if people get can’t there from other parts of the City, they won’t go there no matter how desirable. Given the lousy public transport in the City, if there is no parking then many people just won’t go there.

    Furthermore, even when public transport options are available many people prefer cars and, in any case, the city does not have the density to provide public transport between every location.

    Your comment that “private cars must go” is just ludicrous and shows a strong totalitarian impulse. Rather than presuming to tell other people what they can and can’t do, maybe you should spend some time actually paying attention to and respecting others’ legitimate needs and concerns.

  • @MrMission: I feel like you are playing the game of everything is either black or white, no gray. I don’t think anyone is advocating that all private cars must go, but there is definitely a correlation between less private car parking and less private car use. Then with less public car use comes less congestion, opening up more road space for transit, in turn helping with reliability of said transit.

    I agree that people prefer private car use. This is the most car dependent on earth. But that is NO argument to continue to feed that habit. We live in a dense (although not dense enough for you, but I see cars as a reason for this city being meeting that density threshold you seek) city that does have transit options. Parking can’t be seen as a right, but rather as a luxury that, more often then not, is forfeited when moving into urban settings.

    Also, if you must use the scary “totalitarian” tactic, I feel like I like live in a car totalitarian society. I have to sacrifice my right to safely cross streets, to not hear horns blowing at all hours, to breath clean air, etc. It is not a matter of telling people what they can and can’t do, but what is best for everyone must be enabled (i.e. safety, health) over convenience.

  • MrMission

    @MikeSonn: Did you actually read these posts? Peter explicitly stated “private cars must go”; that is what I was responding to.

    I totally agree with that if you eliminate parking you will eliminate car use (duh!) but the real question is whether that is good and is that what people really want. My view is that in a city like San Francisco, most people to want to use a mix of cars, public transport, walking etc. So I am in favor of urban planning that facilitates all of those options (which is really much more balanced than the “cars are evil” attitude that many people seem to have).

    Why is parking forfeited when one moves into an urban setting? You seem to strongly dislike cars, but it could just as easily be said that you forfeited the right to be in a vehicle-free setting when you moved into an urban area. In my view the ability of people to get to their jobs, run their business etc. are significant priorities. You may disagree, but that just means that your definition of “what is best for everybody” may not be everybody’s definition. And you shouldn’t be surprised when other people don’t want your views imposed on them.

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