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Only 17 Percent Drive to Downtown SF to Shop, Study Finds

walking_shoppers.jpgThere's gold in them thar shoes. Flickr photo: Billy Quach

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) has released a survey of nearly 1400 shoppers in downtown San Francisco that found less than one-fifth drive to shop, and that they spend less money in aggregate than shoppers using other transportation modes (PDF). The study indicates drivers spend more each trip than transit riders, but visit less often and account for far fewer total visits and therefore spend less total.

The data contradict the stereotype that shoppers drive to shop and by
consequence need on-street parking or free parking to attract them to
downtown and prevent them from shopping at malls in suburban areas.

From the study:

Comparing the recreational activity spending amounts by mode, drivers and carpoolers spent more per visit than all other modes, at an average of $88 each. Considering that they came into downtown San Francisco an average of four days per month for recreational purposes and comprised 17% of all respondents, the monthly total for each driver averaged to $259. Transit riders, spent an average of $40 per visit, but traveled to downtown at almost double the frequency, an average of seven days a month. Therefore, over the course of the month, transit riders spent an average of $274. With transit riders comprising the majority of respondents, 60%, the results show that they generate substantial business in downtown. Walkers outspent both transit riders and drivers, spending $291 per month and came to downtown eight days a month.

TA Transportation Planner Zabe Bent explained that the surveys for the
mode choice study were conducted at three locations downtown (Union
Square near the parking garage, Stockton and Market, and 4th and
Mission near the parking garage) that were meant to capture drivers and
transit riders equally.  The surveys were collected on weekdays during peak
holiday shopping in late November, 2007, and again during weekdays in April, 2008. 

In a complementary study conducted by the TA, 72 percent of business owners surveyed in commercial districts said they
thought their customers drove alone to shop, while another 15 percent
assume customers drove some of the time (PDF).  Further TA data show that while commercial districts in high car ownership neighborhoods like West Portal see up to 41 percent
driving shoppers, nothing comes close to the near 90 percent perception among business owners (PDF).

Picture_3.pngThe vast majority of shoppers don't drive to downtown San Francisco to shop. Image courtesy TA.

Convincing business owners to change their assumptions about shoppers, however, will be a challenge for advocates of livable streets, congestion pricing and auto restrictions on Market Street.

Kit Hodge, Director of the Great Streets Project cautioned that reaching out and educating business owners about the findings should be done strategically.  "It's important to engage merchants at all points along any planning process so that they are heard and they get to hear these numbers first hand," she said. "Engaged merchants who care about their street can make a huge difference in the success of any street. They're on the front lines."

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Marketing Vice President Laura Milloy, wasn't convinced the study's results were significant and didn't indicate they would use the results to try to dispel any perception among their members that most shoppers drive. She also reiterated the Chamber's opposition to congestion pricing, assuming this study was meant to add fuel to that fire. 

"I think that we generally know that people come downtown by lots of different modes, but I don't think that [the numbers] tell the whole story - it needs to be about choice," she said. "We think that we're a Transit First city in a number of ways and these numbers support that, but if we want to continue to be a vibrant economy we need to not be punitive to any mode, like a tax in a congestion zone."

Milloy added that while the Chamber supports dynamic parking pricing, such as SFPark, they are concerned about restrictions on drivers that would make it less appealing for them to travel to San Francisco to shop. "We are competing with a lot of other shopping districts in areas and we are trying to have as many options as possible," she said. 

The TA's Bent countered the Chamber's argument by pointing to the 71 percent of survey respondents in Stonestown, Walnut Creek and Marin that said they didn't go to downtown San Francisco to shop because of distance from home, versus 9 percent who said they didn't go because of parking availability and 9 percent because of the price of parking. "When we talked to people in neighborhoods and suburban centers, they said
the number one reason they didn't go downtown was the distance, not the
lack of parking."

She also dismissed the idea that San Francisco needs to compete with the vast parking lots in suburban malls. "I don't know that we'll ever be able to provide enough parking as the other shopping malls do, so we need to be sure the other modes are competitive," added Bent. "We need better pedestrian amenities, better bicycling facilities, efficient transit. The things that attract people to the downtown, to any dense urban
environment, are the variety of shops, the variety of activities, and
the walkability."

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