Monday, January 22, 2018

Retail Value in Walkability

Nur is an Associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates
Franklin Street/ NY -14 (Watkins Glen, NY). Photo: LOA

On a recent site visit to various towns in upstate New York, we experienced main commercial streets that, like many others around the country, also function as state highways. In one downtown we visited located directly on the NY-14 highway, or Franklin Street, sees an average of 11,000-13,000 vehicles passing thru daily. Although the moderate traffic count might appear to be a positive trait for retailers by increasing its visibility to potential driver customers, local business owners we spoke with expressed a very different opinion.

According to local merchants, without mid-block crossings and flashing pedestrian crossing lights, the street can be very hazardous to cross (once customers get out of their cars of course). Worse still, we found out from an anchor merchant that the state thoroughfare was also used as a shortcut for large vehicles and delivery trucks getting from downstate to upstate cities like Rochester.

Watkins Glen State Park visitors walking on NY-14. Photo: LOA
Unfortunately for downtown retailers, this unfriendly and uncomfortable pedestrian environment reduces customer dwell time and the chances of repeat visitors. Aside from residents living in upper story apartments on Main Street or in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to Main Street (i.e. captive customer base), it is less likely that a visitor who has experienced the hostile environment of walking up and down your commercial street will return for another visit. This is only compounded by the fact that the retail offerings are essentially halved when customers are unable to cross the street to get to other stores easily.

A poor pedestrian environment negatively impacts cross-shopping opportunities. A shopper walking on the eastern side of the street will find it difficult to cross west given the hostile street, even if he or she can see an interesting sign or merchandise in the display across the way. Without mandatory stop points and strong law enforcement, large vehicles passing thru frequently during the day are unlikely to make time for pedestrians crossing. In fact, on our site visit in Watkins Glen, we observed first-hand several pedestrians waiting longer than five minutes to cross near Franklin Street because vehicles turning were not yielding to pedestrians. The same goes for Main Street in Mount Morris, NY.

Although commercial districts and Main Streets located on state thoroughfares rely quite heavily on vehicle traffic to convert into paying customers, these shoppers who eventually get out of their vehicles to peruse storefronts become pedestrians themselves. Therefore, creating a friendly and comfortable walkable environment on Main Street is paramount to increasing dwell times of customers and store sales downtown.

The retail value of creating a more walkable downtown

Source: Bent & Shiga 2008
A survey conducted in San Francisco, an incredibly walkable city, found that those who walked to downtown San Francisco were spending more in a month than those driving downtown. Sure, walkers spent less per visit compared to those arriving by private vehicle (I mean, think about how much weight you can reasonably carry on your own versus in a car!). However, when accounting for the number of times per month they visited downtown, walkers came out to be the bigger spenders overall in a month. For retailers, this means making your downtown walkable and comfortable for more pedestrians will likely improve foot traffic and sales. In fact, a Brookings Institute study and a State of Place study conducted in metropolitan Washington and Houston respectively further support this, having found that each increase in level of ‘walkability’ translates to an 80% increase in retail sales.

How to create a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment downtown

NY-408 in Nunda, NY. Photo: LOA
Of course, transforming state or federal highways that your commercial districts may be located on is no easy feat. Often, state and federal objectives of moving vehicular traffic quickly and efficiently are at odds with the community vision for a walkable and vibrant downtown environment. In order to create the desired environment, close coordination with state and federal department of transportation representatives will be critical from start to finish.  Starting with smaller streetscape improvements (i.e. benches, sidewalk lights, and re-painting crosswalks) will be key to exploring bigger options such as building road medians at key intersections, bulb outs, and installing new crosswalk lights (perhaps, with leading pedestrian intervals).

Finally, be aware that one of the greatest battles to be fought with state or federal DOTs will be adjusting posted speed limits. In many downtowns and main streets, the 25mph speed limit has become a common traffic calming action to take to increase comfort levels for pedestrian shoppers. Lowering posted speed limits may prove to be a worthy battle to fight as a 2015 survey of shoppers by Schneider found that posted speed limits had a significantly negative association to walking within a shopping district. The lower the posted speed limit, the more survey respondents walked within the shopping districts, leading to longer dwell times.