- Free Consultations / No Fees Until We Win
- (213) 927-3700
Personal Injury Firm
Among the many things that the COVID-19 pandemic changed in our lives, one of the most apparent – and immediate— was how it impacted our streets and how we used them. As streets emptied out, many cities across the country converted some of them to pedestrian-friendly corridors with restricted access to cars and other vehicles. As City Lab wrote in a recent article, these changes were “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.”
As cities have begun to go back to so-called normally, legislators are considering whether these temporary programs across the country known variously as “safe streets,” “slow streets,” “open streets,” and “stay healthy streets,” should be permanent.
A survey of 43 member cities of the National Association of City Transportation Officials reportedly found that 22 were planning on making Covid-era traffic changes permanent, while 16 more were considering it. California is currently considering legislation that would streamline that process. The Los Angeles City Council is considering a recommendation that would take the first steps to make the City’s Al Fresco a permanent program. Moreover, the City Council in Santa Monica approved weekend closures of part of Main Street this upcoming summer, in a move that some have called prioritizing pedestrians over cars.
However, pedestrian-friendly street redesigns often face resistance from business owners who fear that they’ll lose revenue from inconvenienced drivers. But now, new data analysis conducted by Yelp offered interesting insights into what really happens to local commerce when vehicle traffic is kept out.
The analysts at Yelp looked at restaurants in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and downtown Boise, 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 in Mar.2020 as a proxy when these programs weren’t yet in place, to the various time periods when the programs were in swing. Based on the amount of views, posted photos and user reviews on Yelp listings, eateries in car-free areas saw more consumer interest when their streets were strictly limited to pedestrians and cyclists, the analysts found.
In San Francisco’s Valencia Street, which closed in sections to car traffic four nights a week between July to Dec. 2020, restaurants in the area saw 18% more consumer interest on car-free days compared to the start of the pandemic. That safe street initiative 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 a 17% increase in their share of citywide consumer interest.
It must be noted that Yelp’s users skew younger, more highly educated, and more affluent than the U.S. population, which means that its metrics are not a reflection of all consumer activity.
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. Jenny Liu, an urban studies and planning professor at Portland State University who studies transportation economics, published a first-of-its-kind national study of the economic impacts of cycling and pedestrian street improvements along 14 corridors in six U.S. cities. Liu, in fact, found positive (and in some cases nonexistent) effects on both sales and employment for adjoining businesses, with particular benefits for restaurants, going against oft-heard fears by shop owners that replacing vehicle parking will dry up customer traffic.
“This infrastructure is an upgrade in terms of travel for bikers and walkers, and I think that contributes to revitalizing a district,” Liu said.