85 Percent of People on Polk Street Arrive Without a Car

How people get to Polk street, according to a new SFMTA survey. Driving only accounts for about 15 percent.

Updated 4:36 p.m.

If San Franciscans were to believe the hyperbole and fearmongering spread by merchants leading the “Save Polk Street Coalition,” removing even a small proportion of car parking along the corridor to make the street safer and more inviting will kill businesses. But new survey data from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency shows that only about 15 percent of people get to Polk Street using an automobile, while the rest either come by foot, bike, or transit. Drivers also reported spending the least amount of money per week compared to those who came by other modes.

The data is one more piece of evidence dispelling the myth that on commercial streets like Polk, business depends on drivers.

A parklet in front of Crepe House on Polk Street at Washington. It's more clear than ever that customers don't need to drive to do business on Polk Street. Photo: Bryan Goebel

The findings reaffirm those of a study on Columbus Avenue in 2008, conducted by the SF County Transportation Authority, which found that only 14 percent of people on that street arrived by car. Merchants who have fiercely opposed the SFMTA’s proposals to add improvements like parklets or protected bike lanes — which have generally been found to boost business on similar walkable streets — have dismissed such studies by claiming that Polk is different, and that the statistics “aren’t real.”

Other surveys have found that merchants tend to wildly overestimate how many of their customers drive. It remains to be seen whether this new data will help convince Polk Street merchants that is making the street safer and more attractive will be worth removing a fraction of the parking on the corridor.

“Business people are innately conservative,” said Bert Hill, a sustainable transportation advocate who chairs the SF Bicycle Advisory Committee and ran for election to the BART Board in 2010. “Their whole livelihood depends on there being sufficient customers, so they’re inherently nervous about [the improvements], in spite of the fact that communities that have made the change, like Valencia, like Market Street, are generally doing much better.”

“Particularly as a neighborhood densifies, as Polk Street is heading in the direction of, they will have more customers. But they hate to gamble on that,” he added.

Update: According to the SFMTA survey report [PDF], agency staff surveyed 410 people on Polk at six locations between Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on a Saturday. Respondents were asked which mode of transport they used to arrive on Polk that day, and which mode they typically used. In terms of modes typically used, 6.1 percent of respondents came by bike, 15.6 percent by car, 49 percent by foot (though 68 percent walked that day), and 19 percent by transit. The survey also found that “people who drive to Polk likely spend less cumulatively than other visitors.”

Crash statistics alone, however, make the need for safety improvements clear. Police data shows that between 2006 and 2011, 53 pedestrians and 69 bicycle riders were injured by drivers on Polk. That’s an average of about two people per month. “This, in my mind, is the reason that we need to do something on Polk Street,” said SFMTA transportation planner Antonio Piccagli.

As Neal Patel of the SF Bicycle Coalition wrote in a blog post this week, “If once a month, someone walking or biking on a street in your neighborhood was hit by an automobile or truck driver, would you support making it safer?”

Bike advocates have also pointed out that the number of people bicycling — and potentially shopping — on Polk is expected to increase with protected bikeways, since the street will feel safe enough for a broader segment of San Franciscans to ride. When bike lanes were installed on Valencia Street and car traffic was calmed with a road diet in 1999, it resulted in a revitalization of the street, despite merchants’ fears that the project would kill business. In the first year, bicycling on Valencia increased 144 percent, the SFMTA found. Polk’s existing bike lanes were installed in a similar project in 2000, and 10 months later, bicycling on the street had increased by as much 41 percent [PDF].

Today, businesses on and near Valencia have added nine parklets, typically replacing two parking spaces each. Parklets are catching on on Polk, too.

“Consider how the safety improvements to Market Street, Cesar Chavez Street, or Fell Street have enabled you to ride a bike safely in San Francisco, and how the growth of a safe bike network across the city has encouraged you and the people you know to ride a bike in San Francisco,” Patel wrote. “These elements that improve safety and livability require physical space on a street, and currently, Polk Street does not provide much of it for people biking and walking.”

An updated SFMTA count of parking along the project's 20-block corridor of Polk.
As we’ve reported, the amount of parking that might be removed under the SFMTA’s proposals for Polk is only a tiny portion of the parking supply. The SFMTA has actually refined its parking counts, and now reports a total of 5,100 parking spaces within a block of the project corridor — 800 more than previously known. That means the portion represented by Polk’s 320 on-street parking spaces is just 6 percent, down from the original estimate of 7 percent. When looking at on-street parking spaces only, the parking on Polk still represents just 15 percent.

Since none of the safety improvements proposed by the SFMTA would remove more than half the on-street parking on Polk itself, no more than 3 percent of the corridor’s parking supply would be touched.

But with SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin promising to “go back to the drawing board” and present new options that preserve more parking, Patel worries that the new proposals may come at the expense of safety. “If the SFMTA felt confident their design proposals are the best way to improve safety and the streetscape on Polk Street, what does a new design driven by preserving most or all on-street parking mean for safety on Polk Street?”

Update: The SFMTA said it plans to hold two open house community meetings to field public input in late April at the First Congregational Church Fellowship Hall at 1300 Polk St (at Bush):

  • Saturday, April 27th from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Tuesday, April 30th from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
  • Last fall, when my son was setting up his new apartment, he bought a bed and mattress at Sleep Train on Van Ness. My husband and I rode up Polk Street to get there, met him at the store, and helped him pick it out. He had it delivered (included in the price!) (The bed wasn’t going to fit in our Prius even if we’d driven there.)

    All the rest of his furniture he bought on line from Ikea, had it delivered, and assembled it himself. He buys a remarkable number of things I would go to Bed Bath and Beyond or Cole Hardware for from Amazon. Hello merchants, you’re losing the under 30 crowd to on-line entirely.

    The only way to combat this is to create a shopping experience that is better than on-line–more pleasant, more personable, more tactile, more creative, more community. All businesses have to constantly reinvent themselves to adapt to changing market forces. A neighborhood shopping district, if done well, can offer stimulation, entertainment and real-life connections in addition to shopping. This is its inherent competitive advantage. This is actually its only means of survival.

    The under-30 crowd is not driving. If it is miserable or dangerous for them to walk/bike to a neighborhood store, they will definitely shop on line. If there are tiny, crowded little sidewalks and no place to park their bikes at the neighborhood store, they will likely shop on line. If the overall shopping experience offers nothing better the average strip mall, Amazon is just way more convenient.

  • david vartanoff

    So, here we have a vibrant commercial street with significant arrivals by transit and you want to move the bus to the “urban freeway” that is Van Ness? No, a local bus on the street where the small shops are is useful. Last I rode the 19 was not empty, came along sooner, and moved faster than the Van Ness routes.

  • It may be that removing the 19 is an issue for another day 5-10 years from now. But read Jarrett Walker’s post below on the Mission/Valencia transit dilemma, which closely parallels Van Ness/Polk. If, as is planned, Van Ness becomes a even bigger transit corridor in which buses run far more frequently and quickly all day, the 19 line will lose riders. The 19 currently runs every 15 minutes, and if the lines on Van Ness is going every 5 minutes, people are going to walk that one block over to Van Ness rather than wait for the 19. This happened on Valencia, when people would walk to Mission for more lines and better frequency.


  • Richard Mlynarik

    Is this like the case of Valencia St, whose service made little sense as service one block away on Mission grew? Discuss.

    What growth of service on Mission Street? What the hell are you smoking?

    Eliminating the 26 was nothing other than a service cut. Nothing to discuss.

    But don’t worry about any of this: the Central Subway will fix everything.

  • This says more about you than about Tuggey’s

  • Many commenters here have suggested a great idea to help move forward on this: SFBC, Walk SF, and SF Transit Riders Union should organize a campaign to get their members to visit Polk Street merchants and tell the owner or manager they arrived on foot, by bike, or via transit and would be even more likely to do so if the street were more bike/ped/transit friendly.

    As Bert Hill pointed out, merchants are inherently conservative – they fear any change could negatively affect their business, even when study after study have debunked the parking = prosperity myth. Like all people, merchants are more convinced by a real human being (their own customers in this case) supporting some proposal than by data and statistics.

  • Yes, in the year 2009 when the 26 was retired, the 49 and 14 service stayed the same. But the 14L expanded.

    From Muni’s website: “The 14L Mission Limited will have increased frequency and expanded hours of operation from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekends.”


  • Guest

    Also in 2009: “The 14X Mission Express will have more service during
    peak periods.”

  • Sprague

    Reckless driving (such as speeding) and inattentive driving is too commonplace on San Francisco streets teeming with pedestrians. A public safety campaign to promote safer speeds and less aggressive driving, as well as if the police were to increase their stopping, educating, and citing of unsafe drivers would be welcome. Of course, physical changes to the streetscape (road diets, bulbouts, elevated crosswalks, protected bikeways, etc.) are also needed. Thank you, Nathan, for pointing out the dangers that kids face in their commutes to and from school in our car addicted culture.

  • M.

    Other remedies include timed lights and countdown timers at crosswalks. That’s on the table, too. It’s a given that with more safe cyclists the bike jockeys will slow down and stop at lights.

  • M.

    So, one front is approaching the merchants. Another is being seen and heard by city officials and the media. We don’t exist until we unite and participate. Folks for Polk is working on negotiating points to pave the way 😉 toward the best solution possible in more concensual, less heated process.

    We’re gathering your great ideas and will sift them at a our PARTY ahead of the next SFMTA presentations (27 and 30 April).

    Get an invitation by signing the petition:

  • M.

    quite so. one great result of properly priced parking is that people choose against driving if they can also walk.

  • M.

    Another point is that more housing blocks are being built in the polk/market area. most either have no parking or have way fewer parking spots than units. That means more people walking and on bikes…

  • mikesonn

    Those three groups should combine forces for a city wide campaign. Every member should be given a dozen or so little cards to leave at stores or pins to wear when shopping that state “I arrived by walking/Muni/biking”. It shouldn’t just been when a project comes up in a certain neighborhood, it needs to be a city wide campaign every day of the year.

  • Henry

    Interesting idea. Come by SFTRU’s Transit Action Committee meeting tomorrow night at 7pm at Church Street Cafe, Church & 15th.

  • Anonymous

    Sign this please, Polk Street visitors. I did.

  • M.

    It could be argued that shop owners maybe risk-takers by definition and it’s the smart-risk takers who are most successful. Many I spoke to, including the staff, understood right away how their businesses could boom after the street changes; called it ‘a no-brainer.’

  • M.

    Thank you v’smistress. I generally don’t sign petitions, but this one’s close to home for all of us and will help us be visible. As one City official recently said, ‘As Polk St. goes, so will go the City.’

  • NoeValleyJim

    And tell the business owner that if there is no bicycle lane installed, that you will boycott the district instead.

  • grw06

    This study’s result is about what I’d expect. 75% arrive by foot or transit and 5% by bike. We should not make changes that make it better for bikers if the changes hurt those who arrive by foot or transit since 75% > 5%. 5% should not be driving this process of major changes. But, I agree, that the merchants are overstating the need for parking. The walkers should be driving this process.

  • I rode my bike along most of Polk Street yesterday (Market to Green Street, both ways.) Bought something at City Discount kitchen store. Of course few come by bike to shop or eat out on Polk street. Riding a bike on Polk Street right now (except maybe north of Broadway) is a miserable experience! As difficult as the bike lanes may sometimes be on Market, Valencia, and 17th streets, they are far, far better to ride on than Polk Street. I sat in front of La Boulange for two hours watching traffic. I saw very few women riding bikes. Mostly it was all guys. With bike lanes, the amount of people arriving by bicycle on Polk Street will easily triple.

    Merchants and locals are not all who matter in this issue. Bicyclists need this route to get to the northern third of the city. This is the only street that works for bicyclists for a mile in either direction. Bicyclists are not asking for this because they randomly want to make neighborhood residents and merchants’ lives miserable. This street is essential.

  • bourbon

    Or we could decide to not pander to the merchants as this project shouldn’t be tailored to maximize their profits anyway. The safety and comfort of all users should be the main concern.

  • bourbon

    Shopping is not the solution to all problems.

  • Bourbon, bicyclists either have to show en masse in the community meetings or en masse on Polk Street. Do one or the other, whichever suits you best. Actually, if you could organize it, hundreds of people biking (very lawfully) up and down Polk Street for days at a time would also be quite effective. But expecting the city to do the right thing in the face of hundreds of screaming residents without a comparable show of interest from bicyclists is not realistic.

  • bourbon

    I agree that they should show interest, but there are a myriad of ways to do that that don’t involve shopping. You and other commenters have already mentioned some.

  • grw06

    I’ve seen this comment several times on this site – how riding on Polk is miserable, horrible, dangerous, etc. – honestly, if you feel that way – riding on a flat wide street with pretty slow traffic, maybe you ought not to be biking. The City is not a park, it’s never going to be good enough for you if Polk street now, to you, is so miserable to bike on.

  • mikesonn

    You’ve seen this comment several times because it is true. And using a bicycle to commute is just as serious as walking, transit, or private auto. To reduce it to something that should be done in a park (though I’m sure you also think the new GGP lanes are worthless as well) is demeaning and dismissive. Actually, The City isn’t Walnut Creek so stop thinking there should be ample free parking in front of every store you wish you to visit.

  • Anonymous

    at this point you’re just trolling, but biking is real transportation thats cheap, fast, healthy, and space efficient. It’s endorsed by the city’s Transit first policy, as well as Supervisor passed resolution to increase biking in the city to 20% of trips by 2020. That biking is important to the health and economy of our city has been well established, at least in rhetoric, by SF leaders, politicians, and community members. The challenge now is HOW (not why) we should change our streets so that it’s safe and comfortable enough for people to use to walk and bike to get where they need to go and not just for exercise/recreation.

    I would also point out, that cars dominate most of the parks in this city so it’s not as if there are many safe havens for cyclists and streets are public space for public use, not just to store or use private auto mobiles that pose a high danger for our community.

    If Polk is such a safe street, why are there collisions between car drivers and pedestrians/bikes an average of twice a month? Is that safe enough?

  • On Polk right now cars cannot pass bicyclists giving them three feet of room while bicyclists also ride outside the door zone of parked cars. Cars have to wait until there is a gap in oncoming traffic to pass safely. Many car drivers are patient and only pass bicyclists when it is safe. Some are not and come *very* close to bicyclists. This is extremely unpleasant to anyone without nerves of steel. In addition, bicycling so close to cars means close exposure to the noise and toxic exhaust of cars. If you’ve ever bicycled in a bicycle-friendly city you will know that cities can be dense, urban, exciting places that are also pleasant for bicyclists. That, in fact, making streets safe and pleasant for bicyclists ends up improves the livability of these cities for everyone concerned.

    To say that if Polk Street is not good enough for me to bike on now, it will never be good enough for me to bike on is like saying if I don’t drink polluted water now, there’s no use making it cleaner, it will never be clean enough for me. It makes no logical sense.

    Why do you think bicyclists are asking for bike lanes? Because we want to destroy neighborhoods and put everyone out of business? No, because giving bicycles their own travel space makes bicycling a markedly more pleasant experience and actually makes neighborhoods more livable. Right now a substantial part of the population of San Francisco is denied the ability to bicycle because they are unwilling to bicycle in competition with cars. So they drive, creating pollution, congestion, and endless competition to find space for their behemoth on wheels in a dense city that has nowhere near enough room for every adult to take 80 square feet with them wherever they go.

    In particular, women won’t bicycle in large numbers without separated bicycle infrastructure. Cities with an interconnected grid of bicycle infrastructure have mode shares of 15 – 40%, with half of all bicyclists women. These cities achieved this only after the lanes/paths were put in. Forcing people to bike with cars keeps people from biking, pure and simple. It especially keeps women from biking.

    Bicycling is cheaper transportation than any option besides walking. Bicycling is healthier transportation than any option besides walking. Bicycling is four times as fast as walking, and very often faster than public transportation. Because every public transportation trip is subsidized, as are all car trips, every trip made by bike saves taxpayers (of which I am one) money. Not having bicycle infrastructure denies low income people their least expensive, most convenient transportation option. It prevents anyone not young, strong and fearless from a mode of transportation that will lengthen both their lives and their years of healthy living. It causes all of us to breathe more polluted air, increasing the asthma, lung cancer and cardiac disease among us. And it actively discriminates against women. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal for women to bike for transportation. In the US we just make it completely miserable and then say, see, women won’t bike.

    So yes, keeping Polk Street just as it is is a great way to lock people into car-ownership poverty. It’s a great way to deny women the convenience and freedom of biking. It’s a great way to keep people sick and unhealthy and have skyrocketing national health care costs. It’s a great way to force people to continue to emit carbon and destabilize the climate for all future generations. It’s a great way to hinder San Francisco from adapting to the declining net energy reality facing the world. And last but not least, it’s a fantastic way for baby boomers to continue to demand that their convenience and consumption patterns come first, regardless of desires and well-being of the less car-addicted generations that follow them.

  • Anonymous

    Polk Street, as currently configured with excessive automobile parking, is so narrow and congested that it is–statistically–unusually dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. Safety is the very reason we are pressing for adequate infrastructure on Polk.

    San Francisco is not a suburban parking lot. If you cannot abide ceding adequate space on our shared roadways to keep bicyclists relatively safe and buses running relatively smoothly, then stop driving around the city–or move to the sprawl.

  • M.

    Not everyone wants to/can afford to/or is legally able to live their lives in a car. We all pay A LOT of money for our thoroughfares and they should be engineered to be safe. We can have a few corridors that offer safety for non-car options.

  • M.

    In our campaign for safer bike routes, it’s worth recalling the huge resistance against building access for the handicapped, including the ‘certainty’ that it would kill business.
    Now, fit-outs for the handicapped are a given; they don’t prevent development, and they benefit many others, e.g. folks in strollers. And, as our population ages, we’ll rely on them even more.
    As social changes continue (increased oil etc. costs; urbanization; values) we will also rely on bike routes more and more, as well. We just have to stay the course…

  • Ryan Brady

    I’d be surprised if many cyclists on Polk ignore the stop lights. I would fully expect to get run over if I did that, and I take that rt often (at least 3x per week).

  • Ryan Brady

    I have no doubt that commerce will increase on Polk street if they adopt these plans. I suspect, however, that existing businesses will be replaced by more bike-friendly establishments. Lots of restaurants and cafes.

  • Anonymous

    Please publish a list of the merchants in the so-called “Save Polk Street Coalition.” Anyone on that list will immediately be eliminated from my destination list. I ride Polk Street 4 times a week, and dine+shop frequently there.

  • M.

    as long as it’s not them, their kid, their grandma, their partner…We need to hear from people of ALL types:

  • M.

    Effectively, we are all subsidizing small, often marginal, businesses. I’ve come to believe their greatest concern is not their patrons but rather their rents. I won’t use the G word.
    So, not only are we all subsidizing their choice of location, we’re also paying the very high costs of collisions, including ambulance and police call-outs and repair and maintenance of high volume roads. Most of all, huge health care costs from exhaust particulates in air and water, and the very real health effects from insufficient exercise.

  • M.
  • Ger Nijman, NL

    Sorry for not knowing the USA Monopoly Play Board; anyway, in the Netherlands most of the really expensive streets are pedestrian only. The cheapest streets, however, are Main Street and Market Square in “Our Village” (think of Nowhereville) where there’s plenty of parking space.

  • designing hong kong

    we had the same worries in hk – once implemented, property owners won. Shop keepers saw rents going up, and the retail mix shifted to higher end stores … http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1954460

  • I suggest printing out cards with that graph on them, and leaving stacks of them in windows.

  • M.

    grw06, clearly you’ve never cycled in a place where your main cardio effect doesn’t come from the adrenalin pumping out from fear. The more hazardous our bike routes, the more likely only daredevils will be out there.

  • M.
  • M.

    We’ve had terrific responses to our Preferred Polk Places list both from you and ‘our’ merchants. Reward the brave Polk St. merchants willing to work with the SFMTA. Submit your picks to: folks[at]folksforpolk.org or message us http://www.facebook/folksforpolk

  • Alice Hlidkova

    This is a great report! I am working with the City of Pittsburgh City Planning Department and I am trying to collect transportation data on the famous Strip District – loading/unloading data. Any recommendations on best practices/ methodology?


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