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."

  • Pretty soon there won’t be many malls in suburban areas, anyway.

  • Can we PLEASE reprint this report, and make sure every single elected official reads this?

    I’ve read for years that the #1 thing that drives shoppers to neighborhoods is walkability and a diversity of stores so people can get a lot done at once.

    A small city surrounded by water can’t compete with Hillsdale Mall for parking – never has, never will. Ironically the Hillsdale Mall developer spent money to keep San Mateo County out of BART because he was so fearful shoppers would board BART to the City instead of driving to his stupid mall.

    Talk about subsidies!

  • “Get those facts out of my face. We need more parking!”

  • CBrinkman

    “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.”

    Wow, the Chamber is doing a disservice to their members. Don’t let them know who thier customers really are – keep them in the dark and shovel nonsense about more parking.

  • Wow, this is great news, but while I’m surprised, I’m not shocked. I confess to being a reluctant shopper. I find it unpleasant even in the best of circumstances and have never understood how it can be a form of recreation for some people. But when I can’t get something in my neighborhood, for the past six months or so, I’ve been going downtown rather than to Stonestown or Colma. I used to drive to Stonestown (15 – 20 minutes) but I find I can access stores in the Powell/Market area via Muni in about 20 minutes as well. (Going home is slower because of the wait for a connecting bus.) I try never to drive to the Fifth and Mission Garage because it is a) expensive and b) so congested that the whole process of driving, parking and walking can take 25 – 40 minutes on a busy Saturday. In general I would rather ride my bike than take Muni–is there secure bike parking (lockers or visually supervised) in the Powell/Market area?

    I hear Stonestown Mall is losing stores and emptying out. My teenage daughter says I’m a bad mom because I won’t take her to Target in Colma, but, luckily, she’s old enough now she can take Muni to Westfield Mall on her own!

  • Toronto did a study similar to this a few years back, but it was focused on a much smaller neighborhood. While I never drive to shop anywhere, some people definitely do. I think the study needs to branch outside of holiday shopping times, and to expand to more than 3 survey points. When the average price is $240 per person, you know something is wrong.

  • Pat

    I know that it’s anecdotal evidence and not data, but personally the low quality of transit service and overcrowded lines along Market and the high speeds of auto traffic going down the wide streets actually prevent me from going downtown on transit a lot. I don’t see the results of this study as static. If design focus were taken off of car traffic in the area it would make the Westfield area less scary-as-fuck and far, far more transit and walking people would go far more frequently. Wide streets with high speeds just makes the area scary and ugly, and I would rather go to Haight to deal with the homeless people and their pitbulls than go downtown.

  • Dave

    can someone help me with the math?

    The quote says car drivers travelled an average of 4 times per month and spent $88 each time, so how does this add up to $259? (I get 4*88=$352)

    Is there some other component of the study it is not mentioning?

  • Maybe 93 dollars of that was spent on their car 🙂

  • Pat

    It may be that 4 times per month was a rounded number in the description but not rounded in the equation. This still would not get 259 though so who knows.

  • We need to persistently get this data out. You think the survey result speak for itself? But it is so contradictory to many people’s perception that they will just dismiss it as an inconsequential study and held on to their own believe. We need to rebunk their believe again and again and again with easy to digest chart and number. I’m a live long transit rider. Frankly this is news even to me.

  • SFHope


    You daughter can always go to the Target at San Bruno/Tanforan. It’s right outside the BART station there.


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