The Business Case for Car-Free Streets

Cecilia Nysing

At first, the empty city streets of the pandemic were an eerie sign of a world in disorder. But when dozens of cities converted some of them to pedestrian-friendly corridors with restricted vehicle access, they became something else: an example of how readily urban space can be repurposed for mobility and play, and how quickly human activity can surge back when cars are removed. 

Now local officials are weighing whether to keep these temporary installations — known variously as “safe streets,” “slow streets,” “open streets,” and “stay healthy streets,” among other labels — in place for the long haul. A survey of 43 member cities of the National Association of City Transportation Officials found that 22 were planning on making Covid-era traffic changes permanent, while 16 more were considering it. At the end of April, New York City passed a bill making its Open Streets program — the most extensive in the U.S. — permanent, and California is mulling legislation that would streamline that process.

But pedestrian-friendly street redesigns often face resistance from business owners, who fear that they’ll lose revenue from inconvenienced drivers. A new data analysis by Yelp adds some fresh insights into what really happens to local commerce when vehicle traffic is kept out.

Analysts at the listing platform looked at restaurants in Boston’s Little Italy, San Francisco’s Mission District, Chicago Central Loop’s West Fulton Market, downtown Boise’s 8th Street and Burbank’s San Fernando Boulevard, all of which had slow streets programs that blocked vehicle access in 2020. They measured the difference in the share of consumer interest between the sample of restaurants in each slow street zone and all restaurants across each respective city, comparing the start of the pandemic (using March 15, 2020 as a proxy), when these programs weren’t yet in place, to the various time periods when the programs were in swing. (The chart below shows that difference.) Eateries in car-free areas saw more consumer interest (based on the amount of views, posted photos and user reviews on Yelp listings) when their streets were strictly limited to pedestrians and cyclists, they found. 

“We want communities to understand where there are great places to do business and actually have businesses receive those benefits,” said Justin Norman, Yelp’s vice president of data science. “More broadly, as local governments and policymakers carve out policies that enact safer streets, we hope this information adds value to that.” 

Fewer Cars, More Business?

Car-free zones saw boost in share of consumer activity compared to the rest of the city during Covid-19

Data: Yelp

For example, San Francisco’s Valencia Street was closed in sections to car traffic four nights a week between July to December 2020. As a share of all restaurants across San Francisco, eateries on Valencia saw 18% more consumer interest on car-free days compared to the start of the pandemic. That safe street initiative — which has since been slightly altered and extended — also seemed to bolster overall consumer interest in the area: Even on the days when the street remained open to vehicles, Valencia restaurants still saw an 17% increase in their share of citywide consumer interest. 

There are caveats. Yelp only looked at restaurant activity, not other kinds of businesses. And its users skew younger, more highly educated, and more affluent than the U.S. population, which means its metrics are not a reflection of all consumer activity. It’s also hard to say for sure that street closures themselves whetted consumer appetites: Other factors unique to the Covid era, such as the availability of outdoor seating, might have also driven business, said Jenny Liu, an urban studies and planning professor at Portland State University who studies transportation economics.

Still, the idea that putting pedestrians and cyclists at ease is also good for business is consistent with a body of research that predates the pandemic. Last April, Liu published a first-of-its-kind national study of the economic impacts of cycling and pedestrian street improvements along 14 corridors in 6 U.S. cities. Counter to oft-heard fears by shop owners that replacing vehicle parking will dry up customer traffic, Liu found positive (and in some cases nonexistent) effects on both sales and employment for adjoining businesses, with particular benefits for restaurants.

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