Economic benefits of sustainable streets

Courtesy of Atlantic Cities, it’s explained how New York City’s Department of Transportation has done some pretty detailed analysis of the economic impacts of many of the changes they’ve been making to the layout of streets over the past few years.

Using tax data from the New York City Department of Finance, the DOT analyzed the impact of street re-design and transportation enhancements on retail businesses. Laid out in “The Economic Benefits of Sustainable Streets” [PDF], the data show encouraging results in seven test cases taken from three of the city’s boroughs, representing a wide range of neighborhood types.

The DOT compared sites where a variety of improvements had been implemented by the DOT to spots nearby and with the borough as a whole.

Overall, the numbers revealed broad economic benefits for the streets that had been changed. One example was Columbus Avenue, a busy shopping boulevard on the city’s affluent Upper West Side. There, the DOT had built a protected bike lane and pedestrian safety islands while narrowing travel lanes for motor vehicles. According to the tax data, revenue was up 20 percent over the baseline in the second year after bike lanes were implemented in the area.

In the comparison area immediately to the south without bike lanes, revenue was up 9 percent. The results are particularly interesting because a handful of vocal shopkeepers in the affected area had reported sales were down, leading to media reports that the lanes were bad for business.

This wasn’t just an isolated case either:

Another test case was the Hub, a congested and chaotic intersection in a working-class neighborhood of the South Bronx, where several subway and bus lines come together. DOT’s main improvements here were changing traffic patterns and improving transit connections, along with better pedestrian signals, crosswalks and shade trees.

Retail sales were up 50 percent by the end of the study period, compared with 18 percent in the borough as a whole, “all while area injuries were reduced and vehicle travel times and volumes were maintained.”

And even where parking was removed to improve bus reliability and travel times, there was also an improvement of economic activity:

On Fordham Road in the Bronx, where the implementation of a “Select Bus Service” express route and dedicated bus lane raised concerns among local merchants about lost parking spaces, sales increased 71 percent over the baseline, far better than the numbers for all but one of the comparison areas.

The DOT report acknowledges that it’s difficult to tease out all the different factors that contribute to a street’s economic health. In at least one of the test areas, a beautified Vanderbilt Avenue, overall gentrification – with all of its collateral damage to less affluent residents and business owners — was doubtless a contributor to a steep rise in sales numbers. But the NYC DOT’s data-driven approach is as valuable when it comes to money as it is when it comes to safety.

Business owners in a tough economy are often wary of any kind of change, especially when it reduces parking or changes their customers’ travel patterns in any way. Numbers like these provide yet another powerful rational argument for street design that puts people above cars.

This last point is key (and perhaps some business owners are starting to realise the value of high quality pedestrian environments). Changes to street layout that puts people above cars provides a valuable economic return – over and above what is often expected by business owners and the organisations that often represent them.

We’ve seen the same change happen in Auckland, with the introduction of a shared space in Fort Street leading to massive increases in sales and economic performance of the area. Conversely, High Street seems to be in terminal decline because retailers there have hung onto their pitiful on-street parking and the terribly narrow footpaths it creates, fighting attempts at creating a shared space.

Transforming New York’s Streets – lessons for Auckland?

Here’s a great video of New York City transport commission Janette Sadik-Khan, talking about the transformation of many streets within New York City over the past few years to be much friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists:

Perhaps the best suggestion she highlights are the benefits from changing streets quickly, cheaply and in a way that can be reversible if it doesn’t work. While Auckland’s shared spaces are fantastic, they take an awfully long time to implement and are pretty expensive. It would be great to see some quick improvements using paint, moveable chairs and other reversible approaches.

For a start, how about closing off the section of Queen Street between Wellesley and Victoria to anything but buses – narrow the street down to half its current width and then cover the pedestrianised half with paint, moveable furniture and a few umbrellas for shade? It’d be great for the upcoming summer.

And a question I keep asking myself, who’s going to be Auckland’s Janette Sadik-Khan?

What would New York do?

“One of our greatest innovations is our ability to move quickly. The normal capital construction program takes about five years. But we’ve been able to transform city streets virtually overnight. You can literally paint the city you want to see. You can do it with two traffic cones, a can of paint, and stone planters.” JSK BusinessWeek.

Related to the evolving #pieceofcake project, this is a bit of an inspirational detour. Over the holidays I did some research on the work that New York City has done over the last few years under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership. Spearheading the initiative is the  highly quotable Tranportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.

“It’s not only a safety project, it’s not only a livability project, it’s an economic development project”- JSK 

Regular readers are likley familiar with the ambitious work that has been conducted to return the streets back to the people including re-purposing street right-of-way for plazas, adding separated bike facilities and sponsoring “open streets” events like – Summer Streets. For every Madison Square and Broadway Street there has been about a dozen less complicated interventions designed to re-allocate pubic space for both better mobility and public realm improvements. These programs are developed from a highly organised system where city staff are engaged to develop innovative designs and implement them outside the traditional planning/construction delivery time frames.

Particularly inspiring is the use of inexpensive materials to test designs and to create as Randy Wade, Group Director, NYCDOC Pedestrian Projects  calls, “ a 3D environmental impact report” one that can be evaluated and tweaked on site, or even dismantled if necesarry. As part of the program the City has developed a toolbox of materials used to re-gain public space including textured paint, ‘flexible delineators’, salvaged granite blocks, planter boxes, and my favourite- bell bollards used in combination with raised concrete islands to further protect pedestrians from vehicles. The City often enlists local sponsors (i.e. business groups) to maintain the spaces.

Here are some examples of projects that may be relevant to Auckland. Note the simple materials and solutions- many of which were installed overnight.

Street Before (Source: NYCDOT)

Water + Whitehall Streets Before (Source: NYCDOT)

Street After (Source: NYCDOT)

Water + Whitehgall Street After (Source: NYCDOT)

Street Before (Source: NYCDOT)

Schermerhorn Street Before (Source: NYCDOT)

Street After (Source: NYCDOT)

Schermerhorn Street After (Source: NYCDOT)


Union Square Street Before (Source: NYCDOT)

Street After (Source: NYCDOT)

Union Square Street After (Source: NYCDOT)

For the bean counters here is a comprehensive report on the mobility efficiencies, safety and economic benefits of these projects (PDF).

Here are a couple of intersections in Auckland that have been identified in the #pieceofcake project thus far. How hard would it be to reclaim some of this space for better use? What would they do in New York?

Victoria Street before

Victoria Street before


K Rd / Queen St Before

K Rd / Queen St Before