Seattle Case Study: Economic Impacts of Bike Facilities

By KYLE ROWE

Although we may be one of the top cities for bicycling in the nation, planning for bicycles is no simple task in Seattle; political barriers, physical limitations, and competing modes make squeezing bicycle facilities onto arterial streets seem like we are tearing down a bridge. One of the barriers that bicycle planners face is the neighborhood business community, who has repeatedly made their voice heard that they oppose bicycle facilities on their retail streets, such as NE 65th Street.

A lack of data and understanding about the impacts that bicycle facilities have on retail streets has allowed this political barrier and general misunderstanding to persist much longer than necessary. During the public comment period for the Bicycle Master Plan, numerous businesses wrote to the city in opposition to the new facilities planned on their streets. Rightfully so, these businesses are concerned about customers’ access to their storefront. With little data to show, planners are at a loss when trying to show that the proposed changes to the right-of-way will not hurt businesses.

I have attempted to bridge that gap in knowledge by utilizing taxable retail sales data (provided by the Washington State Department of Revenue) to study what occurred in neighborhood business districts when bicycle facilities were added.

In late 2010, the Seattle Department of Transportation completed a road diet on Greenwood Ave N, which included installing bicycle lanes from N 85th St. to N 105th St. The business district in Greenwood is centered around the intersection of Greenwood and 85th, and extends both north and south a few blocks. Taxable retail sales data was gathered from the Greenwood business district, starting in the fourth quarter of 2009 and extending to the fourth quarter of 2012 – the most recent dataset available. To account for variables beyond the street improvements, two comparison datasets were gathered in the same timeframe to act as controls. The first neighborhood comparison was the business district centered at 15th Ave NW and NW 85th St and the second comparison dataset was all businesses in NW Seattle.

The results of this analysis are in the graph below, with the bicycle lane signifying the construction of the road diet. Greenwood performed very similarly to the neighborhood-wide control, while differing slightly from the neighborhood comparison.

Greenwood Ave N

Greenwood Ave N

The second bicycle project studied was the climbing lane installed on NE 65th St, from NE Ravenna Blvd to 1st Ave NE. Although this project only installed a climbing lane for the hilly portion and shared lane markings elsewhere, the real impact in question is the twelve parking spots removed adjacent to the business district at NE 65th and Latona Ave NE. Again, two separate datasets were gathered to provide constants. The neighborhood comparison was the business district referred to as Tangletown – at Keystone Pl. N and N 56th St and the neighborhood-wide data included all businesses in NW Seattle.

NE 65th St

NE 65th St

The results of this analysis are in the graph above, again with the bicycle lane signifying the construction of the project and the removal of the parking. Leading up to the construction and just afterwards NE 65th St performed very similar to both controls, however two quarters after the project was finished NE 65th St experienced a 350% increase in sales index, followed by another jump to 400% sales index the following quarter.

Looking at the data, one conclusion can clearly be made, these bicycle projects did not have a negative impact on the business districts in both case studies. This conclusion can be made because in both case studies the business district at the project site performed similarly or better than the controls. You may be thinking, “why can’t we conclude that NE 65th St benefited from the bicycle facility?” This is where retail sales data presents a barrier in analyzing street improvements.

Even though the business district at 65th & Latona experienced a 400% increase in sales index after the project was finished, we cannot assume that this economic success was solely because of bicyclists. One could argue that the economic success likely wasn’t the product of motorists since their access was theoretically reduced, but without mode-split data before and after the project no conclusions can be made to assume which mode was most responsible for the economic change.

The methodology limitation outline above could be overcome by utilizing intercept surveys in conjunction with retail sales data analysis.  Utilizing a survey-based methodology, like the recent East Village Shoppers Study in New York and the Polk Street Study in San Francisco, gives researchers a better understanding of how people are accessing the business district, but relies on highly subjective economic data.

Future studies should utilize both methods in conjunction to gain an understanding of how mode-splits change during the same timeframe that taxable retail sales data is collected. Doing this will allow for more accurate conclusions to be made and facilitate understanding and better communication between the bicycle planning and business communities.

The full report can be viewed here.

Comments

  1. mic says

    A kudo, two nit-pics, and a broader thought:
    Thanks for the guest article Kyle – I love your writing style which is well organized, easy to follow and well documented. Too often writers jump to a conclusion, then fill in some blanks with data to support their thesis, ending up with a mess to unravel for the reader.
    A couple of nit pics would be the titles in the graph don’t match the narrative in the text, I found myself trying to figure our which line on the graph belonged to which neighborhood. The other dealt with the one conclusion that cyclists did not have an impact the loss of parking, then the next paragraph essentially contradicted that conclusions based on lack of mode data. Now I’m not sure what point you’re making, except that I found the article fascinating trying to make my own conclusions from the data presented.
    And finally, my question.
    The biggest reason I hear for not eliminating street parking along retail streets come from the store owners claiming it will ruin them. As ROW between the sidewalks belong to all of us, it makes so much sense to remove the clutter of doors flying open in the face of cyclists and buses, and getting stuck behind the guy that is severely challenged on parallel parking – requiring multiple tries. Bus, HOV, BAT, bike and anything else that uses that ROW to greater benefit seems like a no brainer to me, over parking someones car there for a couple of hours.
    Can anyone gather the data from the Dept of Revenue to create their own studies, or must formal requests be made. Also, do you know of any good studies that disprove the shop owners claims of doom and gloom when they lost their private (city paid) parking spot?

    • Kyle says

      Hey Mic,

      Thanks for you comments, great points and I agree with your mindset around the use of right-of-way. However, altering the right-of-way in front of a business is always going to be a touchy subject since the businesses rely on it for customer-access to their storefront. If we want our city to be a vibrant and enjoyable place to live, both commuter’s needs and business’s needs should be important to us. What I wanted to touch on was the fact that times are changing and on-street parking may not be the most prosperous use of right-of-way anymore. Since small business owners may not be reading the Transit Blog daily and keeping up with Commute Seattle’s data, they might be more responsive to the data that their own sales receipts produces.

      Yes, according to the RCW taxable retail sales data is public as long as it is diffused to the level that identifying an individual business’s sales tax reports is protected. The Department of Revenue was extremely helpful with my data requests.

      And to your last question, studies have tried to disprove the shop owners concern around right-of-way changes, but from my memory none of them had very compelling findings. One study that comes to mind is the Bloor Street study in Toronto, which looked parking utilization, businesses perceived impact, and merchant’s thoughts about access before the bike facility was installed. I haven’t seen any comparison to post-project economics or survey results, so its hard to disprove/confirm any of the initial findings. Report can be found here – http://www.cleanairpartnership.org/files/BikeLanes_ParkingandBusiness_Year1Report_Feb2009_Final.pdf

  2. Ryan Carson says

    Was the fire that destroyed the Taproot Theater controlled for in your analysis of Greenwood? Seems like that might throw the data off a bit.

    • Ryan Carson says

      I misspoke. The theater was not destroyed by the fire, but two nearby business were. The fire occurred on 10/22/2009, so the study would reflect a period when those businesses were reopening. I’m not certain how this would affect the data.

  3. RossB says

    Excellent report. I never understood the complaint about street parking. Generally speaking, folks are complaining about one street. Basically, other than the construction (which is temporary) this is no big deal. Your data seems to support this. Keep in mind that unlike a lot of folks on this blog, I drive a lot. When I shop, I rarely worry about, or pay for parking. If there is no spot available in front, then I go around the corner. With the exception of really high density neighborhoods (downtown, U-District) parking in this town is easy. I think it is rare that someone will decide to go somewhere else just because of the parking. In other words, if I want to buy a lamp, then I’ll drive to the lamp store and find parking one way or another.

    One possible exception is for people who like to spend the day shopping. Maybe buy some clothes, stop at a cafe, etc. The thing is, if these folks want a mall experience, they will drive to the mall. If they want an urban experience, they will stick to the city. For every customer who throws up his (or her) hands and says “I won’t go there anymore, I hate parking there” there are three who say, “let’s head over there and hang out”. It probably depends on the type of retail, of course. If you are a specialty destination store (e. g. lamp store) then maybe you want parking so your customers can get in and out in a hurry. If you are a cafe, or a little boutique, or a bar, you want as much pedestrian and bicycle traffic as you can get.

    • phil says

      I agree Ross. When I drive, I tend to look for parking on the side streets first. The other night when I went up to CH for dinner, I looked in my usual places, but found that though they are good in the daytime, they are occupied in the evening (duh). I was really surprised to find a spot near the restaurant on Broadway.

      Great job, Kyle. Looking forward to more posts from you in the future.

      • Charles B says

        When I have to drive somewhere, I prefer pay lots or back streets to on street parking if I can find it. Parking in front of the place you want to shop/eat at is nice, but generally its more expensive per minute and more difficult to use as the streets are more crowded and drivers can often be impatient as you are executing a parallel park maneuver.

        Having bicycle tracks/lanes instead of parking would seem to both speed things up for drivers and bring more people to storefronts (and not block the storefront with parked cars).

        This really seems like a win-win to me… but I guess its going to take time to change minds in this city.

  4. Katie says

    The City of Portland actually has businesses calling and requesting that on-street parking be replaced with bicycle corrals because they are more economically beneficial. Businesses actually call and complain because this isn’t happening fast enough. For real. And it’s not just Portland, Mecca of Cycling that is doing this. There are also examples worth noting in Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Balitmore and beyond.

    For more examples of the economic benefits of providing bicycle facilities, see Elly Blue’s series of articles for Grist on the economics of bicycling:

    http://grist.org/biking/2011-04-11-the-economic-case-for-on-street-bike-parking/

  5. says

    I just spoke with Kate Hansen of Ageing Fancies, an antique store that’s been at the heart of this district on NE 65th for a long time. She says this doesn’t jibe with her understanding of the neighborhood at all, with two restaurants in the area going under in the last two years.

    Admittedly, Hansen’s antique shop probably isn’t a hugely pedestrian- or bike-friendly type of retail and probably has a relatively older clientele. And (maybe as a result) she thinks the loss of nearby on-street parking has significantly cut her business. But she seems closely plugged into nearby businesses and if there were a 450% increase in sales within a couple blocks, you’d think she would at least have a theory about it.

    I’m not sure where the error could have come from in Kyle’s data, and I know Kyle was conscientious about trying to prevent errors, but without further knowledge I strongly suspect there’s some sort of incongruence between the 2011 and 2012 numbers.

  6. says

    Nice graphs. You might consider putting the year before the quarter. Putting Qnyy is confusing because the most significant digit keeps rolling around. I generally roll with FYnnQn.

    -danny

  7. Sam Hill says

    I always like these little wonk fests served up by STB and its accolytes. The proponents of the transit bike agenda always assume this intelletual pose, spew a bunch of sanctimonious crap with their opinings, and then follow up with commentary that there is some presumption that how they live is both the obvious choice and that anyone else who is not living that way is some kind of outlier, clueless person that is barely deserving of personhood.

    A debatable “study” – but nice effort and would be more persuasive if it was actually something peer reviewed and not lodged in a space that has a clear agenda and set of objectives it is trying to bring about in Seattle – the Seattle that news flash, is not just peopled by the child haters, working class haters, non-knowledge worker haters, car haters, or “other types of people-that-are-not-like-us” haters – that seem to dominate the second coming mentality of the purveyors producing the “transit and bicycle revelation gospel” demagogue blog.

  8. says

    I was excited to see this. Unfortunately, after interviewing two business owners in the two-block, eight-business district covered by this study on Monday and today, I’m all but certain there’s a flaw in this data.

    “I would be shocked if that was rooted in truth,” Patrick Wilson, the manager of the bar on this corner, told me on the phone just now. “The business across the street from us was a self-dog washing place and a drunk driver plowed into it. … A bakery/coffee shop went in there but
    that bakery coffee shop recently closed due to, you guessed it, lack of revenue. Mona’s, the bar next to us, has been steadily in decline since 2010.”

    Wilson, who seemed to be a youngish man himself, said he likes the bike lane but doesn’t think it draws much commerce by itself.

    His assessment was basically identical to that of Kate Hansen, who runs the antique shop across the street, except that she thinks the loss of auto parking just outside hurt her business slightly. (Grain of salt in both cases, I’d say.)

    This was an undergraduate senior project that was well-intentioned but never ground-truthed — the author never interviewed any of the local business owners to ask whether it seemed plausible that retail revenue o their block quadrupled without any substantial new development. It seems much more likely to me that this jump is due to a change in the way the retail data was being recorded, reported or coded by the state.

    I don’t think this is a safe study for bike advocates to be touting, especially with a high-profile separated lane proposal just down the street.

  9. Ryan says

    Oh, I wish I could see the raw data. There has to be something that causes a four-fold increase. It has to be a change in the area polled or something. Not even a new business opening could account for that (it would seem), unless it was a really huge business. I was thinking maybe the data was normalized with QFC in there and then adjusted for QFCs departure, but the dates don’t correspond right (and I’m not sure if that would have been in the area to begin with).

    In any case, it doesn’t surprise me that much that the bike mods don’t affect business much.

  10. Bob says

    ” a 350% increase in sales index, followed by another jump to 400% sales index the following quarter.”

    You mean a 250% increase, or an increase _to_ 350%, not a 350% index.

    That said, when you saw that massive spike, didn’t you think “hey, that looks weird, I should delve into that?”

    • Bob says

      Looking at the area, I wonder if that Zoka Coffee either built a new building or, perhaps, all of Zoka’s revenue is now being grouped into that area, vs. a smaller portion previously.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Seattle Transit Blog, Kyle Rowe has a genuinely fascinating analysis that seems to show marked economic improvement in neighborhood business districts that have installed bicycle infrastru…. To my mind, we don’t yet have near enough data to draw firm conclusions, but Rowe’s […]

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