Pedestrians or drivers: who is more important in retail environments?

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By David Fitzpatrick

According to several studies conducted on retail spending behaviour, customers arriving at street retail areas as pedestrians often spend more per week than drivers. In a recent article, we showed the results of one such study:

Research conducted by Transport for London illustrates transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians spend more per week on retail than car customers because they visit retail destinations and town centres more often. Similar findings have been seen in studies conducted in North America.
Although these figures are great for illustrating why pedestrian access should be taken seriously, there is an important qualifier that needs to be added. We know that drivers, on average, have higher per capita incomes than non-drivers. If this is the case, then why do pedestrians keep outranking drivers in spending in these studies? This discrepancy is a result of the geographic dispersion of retail spending, a factor which varies by mode of travel. By this I mean that households with access to vehicles will travel further to shop, spending money in more targeted clusters over a broader geographic region. Those on foot, however, tend to spend money closer to home due to their higher friction of distance. This variable is referred to as “distance decay”, or the probability that an individual will travel for a certain purpose by increasing distance. For more on this, check out: Access to Destinations: How Close is Close Enough? Estimating Accurate Distance Decay Functions for Multiple Modes and Different Purposes.
In planning retail and mixed use environments, it is important that we accommodate for all modes of travel. Studies have shown that there is a tendency among retailers to overestimate the volume of customers arriving by vehicle, and underestimate the numbers arriving by other modes. Combined with the significant infrastructure costs required to accommodate cars, this perception has historically led to strategically poor investments in road improvements and municipally subsidized parking garages.
On the flip side, urban planners often do not appreciate just how important vehicle drivers are to retailers. I am often told that parking isn’t necessary on good retail streets, or that vehicle traffic should be removed outright in favour of pedestrianization. Robert Gibbs, a recognized urban retail specialist, has written about the failed experiment of pedestrian malls across North America, highlighting that approximately 90% of attempts have been subsequently removed. Customer surveys show that even the most successful of retail streets still rely on vehicle drivers for sales, with examples including; 10% of customers in Toronto’s Annex and 21% in Bloor West Village53% of customers at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market15% of customer’s at San Francisco’s Polk Street, and 20% of customers in downtown Vancouver. The recent addition of bike lanes into downtown Vancouver has been associated with a loss in sales of 4% to 10% among adjacent businesses, a decline described in this consultant study as “moderate based on industry standards and, in general, insufficient to create persistent vacancies". I find this statement inconsistent with the realities of running a small business where that last 5% of sales can make all the difference in profitability.
At the end of the day, it is not about which customer segment is more important, so much as it is figuring out how to attract sufficient spending inflow in the most cost effective way possible. I believe that there is a very strong case to make for giving pedestrian movement more investment and focus than is typically the case in standard  planning and development practice across North America.  Parking is expensive, a relatively inefficient use of land resources, and can negatively impact the customer’s shopping experience. At the same time, be weary of anyone who claims that retail does not require vehicle access to thrive and offers seemingly simplistic solutions to a very complex issue.

David Fitzpatrick is a registered urban planner and currently manages special projects within the Chief Planner's Office at the City of Toronto. David has a passion for urban retail development, and has consulted on over a hundred projects around the world ranging from downtown revitalization strategies to new super-regional centres. On, he combines his interests in urban planning and retail development, writing about how the intersection of these two fields can lead to positive outcomes for both people and cities. In addition to his professional work, David is the Chair of SALEA, a charity he founded with a friend in Tanzania to support legal aid in East Africa. LinkedIn Profile