The Business Case for Car-Free Streets
At first, the empty streets of the pandemic city were a strange sign of a messy world. But when dozens of cities have converted some of them into pedestrian-friendly corridors with limited vehicle access, they have become something else: an example of how easily urban space can be reused for mobility and play, and how quickly human activity can rebound when cars are removed.
Now local authorities are debating whether to maintain these temporary facilities – known as ‘safe streets’, ‘slow streets’, ‘open streets’ and ‘stay healthy streets’, among other labels -) in room for the long haul. A survey of 43 member cities of the National Association of Urban Transport Officials found that 22 plan to make Covid-era traffic changes permanent, while another 16 plan to do so. End of April, New York City has passed a bill making its Open Streets program – the largest in the United States – permanent, and California is considering legislation that would streamline that process.
But pedestrian-friendly street redevelopments often meet resistance from business owners, who fear losing revenue due to inconvenient drivers. New data analysis by Yelp adds new insight into what is really going on in local commerce when vehicle traffic is excluded.
Analysts on the listing platform examined restaurants in Boston’s Little Italy, San Francisco’s Mission District, Chicago Central Loop’s West Fulton Market, downtown Boise’s 8th Street, and San Fernando. Burbank Boulevard, all of which had slow streets programs that blocked vehicle access in 2020. They measured the difference in consumer interest share between the sample of restaurants in each slow street area and all of the restaurants. of each respective city, comparing the start of the pandemic (using March 15, 2020 as a proxy), when these programs were not yet in place, to the different time periods when the programs were underway. (The graph below shows this difference.) Restaurants in car-free areas have garnered more consumer interest (based on the number of views, photos posted, and user reviews on Yelp lists) when their streets were strictly reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, they noted.
“We want communities to understand where there are great places to do business and that businesses actually benefit from those benefits,” said Justin Norman, vice president of data science at Yelp. “More generally, as local governments and policymakers craft policies that promulgate safer streets, we hope this information will add value.”
For example, Valencia Street in San Francisco was sectionally closed to vehicular traffic four evenings a week between July and December 2020. As a share of all restaurants in San Francisco, restaurants in Valencia saw 18% more traffic. consumer interest on the car-free days compared to the start of the pandemic. This safe street initiative – which has since been slightly modified and extended – also appeared to boost general consumer interest in the region: even on days when the street remained open to vehicles, restaurants in Valencia still saw an increase in 17% of their share in the city. the interests of consumers.
There are caveats. Yelp only looked at restaurant activity, not other types of businesses. And its users are younger, more educated, and better off than the US population, which means that its metrics don’t reflect all consumer activity. It’s also hard to say for sure that the street closures themselves have whetted consumers’ appetites: other factors unique to the Covid era, such as the availability of outdoor seating, may also have boosted business, said Jenny Liu, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State. University that studies transport economics.
Yet the idea that making pedestrians and cyclists comfortable is also good for business is consistent with a body of pre-pandemic research. Last April, Liu released a First of its kind national study on the economic impacts of improving bicycle and pedestrian streets along 14 corridors in 6 US cities. Contrary to fears often heard by traders that replacing vehicle parking will dry up customer traffic, Liu has seen positive (and in some cases non-existent) effects on sales and employment for neighboring businesses, with benefits. individuals for restaurants.
“This infrastructure is an upgrade in terms of travel for bikers and walkers, and I think it helps revitalize a neighborhood,” Liu said.
Yelp’s analysis also echoes statistics from a very popular Open Street in New York City. Car-free Vanderbilt Avenue restaurants in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood reported an average of 54% more customer visits after the program’s first month, according to the Prospect Heights District Development Council.
Yet, in at least one city, leaders have concluded that too much business can seemingly be a bad thing. Preoccupied by With restaurant staff overwhelmed by growing demand, council members in Breckinridge, Colo. Voted against reinstating its pedestrian-only main street last summer, even though 86% of residents and 83% of businesses said they supported him.
Car-free streets initiatives were not without other problems in 2020: some communities pushed back road barriers as unfair or disconnected from local needs. In New York and San Francisco car bans have been blamed for increased traffic on nearby arteries, although evidence of such an effect is scarce.
Liu says similar traffic restriction programs can and have increased the number of people willing to cycle or walk.
“It’s about making the user more comfortable and safer in the context of everything they do,” she said. “The more you can improve on that, the more you can get people to come forward and participate.”