Sorry I'm Late, Walking Was a Nightmare
Why do we let drivers monopolize all the complaining?
Here's an idea: Call a business and ask if you can walk to it. I’m serious!
When we were wrapping up the recording for the most recent “Politics of Everything,” about dangerous American street design, inadequate vehicle regulation, and soaring traffic fatalities — probably one of our best shows yet, please do listen — my co-host Laura half-jokingly said that our conclusion should be that our only hope to reduce driving fatalities is to push for a massive rise in traffic congestion, because it was hard to imagine that the U.S. could or would implement the tested and proven traffic safety measures we talked about with Jason from “Not Just Bikes,” There Are No Accidents author Jessie Singer, and Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn.
And, honestly, this is a reasonable conclusion! The problem with the typical Call to Action is that it is often some variation on “call someone fairly powerless and ask them to make their boss care about something that has no upside for them.” Up until he was term-limited out of office, for example, my erstwhile city council member genuinely did not care about my thoughts, or anyone else’s thoughts, on street safety improvements. So, obviously, in order to fix all of our various problems we will need a revolution, but in the meantime, I do think there is actually someone you could call who might help make this moderately better. It’s not your Member of Congress. It’s your local Small Business Owner.
Here’s a really remarkable finding from a study in Berlin: “researchers surveyed around 2,000 customers and 145 retailers on Kottbusser Damm (Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district) and Hermannstraße (Neukölln district). The vast majority of shoppers — 93 per cent — had not travelled to their destination by car. 91 per cent of the revenue generated by these businesses came out of the wallets of customers who walked, cycled or used public transport to reach them. Customers that drive to the shops accounted for just 9 per cent of sales.”
That is not the remarkable bit. This is Berlin, after all, and we all know Western Europe is the home of enlightened transit policy and rational density. Of course all the shoppers walked or took transit there! No, here’s the remarkable bit: Even in Berlin, business owners assumed vastly more of their customers drove to their stores than actually did. In this study, “retailers estimated that 22 per cent of their customers used this mode of transport, when in fact it was only 7 per cent.”
The study also showed that “traders who drive to their business estimated much higher customer car use (29%) than traders that use other modes of transport (between 10% and 19%).” For me, the funniest finding was this one: “Traders were also found to overestimate the distance that customers travel to visit their businesses. In fact, over half (51%) of the shoppers surveyed lived less than 1 kilometer from the shopping street. In contrast, traders estimated that just 13% of customers live within this range.” Berlin retailers, it turns out, are not immune to Small Business Owner Brain, which leads dry cleaners and deli owners to imagine that some huge portion of their normal customer base literally commutes miles to patronize them.
This sort of thinking is incredibly evident any time any American city attempts to boost any non-car mode of transit. A vast majority of retailers polled in one Bronx neighborhood believed more parking (a geometric impossibility in much of this city) would attract more customers; their actual customers walk to these businesses in overwhelming numbers. New York Times articles on Manhattan’s 14th Street busway quoted owners and managers of utterly anonymous liquor stores and pizza slice joints worrying about the deleterious effect of dedicated bus infrastructure on their businesses.
Much of this attitude is simply because business owners and managers in big cities are more likely to drive to their businesses than customers are, making them highly attuned to how easy or difficult it is to park nearby, cheaply or for free. But it’s also probably because they hear more from people who drive than they do from walkers, even when drivers make up only a tiny fraction of their customer base.
When a complete madman gets in his car and drives several miles to a completely non-famous slice joint on 14th Street, he might walk in and complain about how hard it was to park in one of the densest areas of the entire continent that is also a major local transit hub. If I walked into that place back when I worked off Union Square, it would not occur to me to have any reason to mention to anyone how I got there. (It sure was easy walking here from across the street, where I work, in one of the large commercial buildings that the vast majority of your customer base commute to, on the subway, every weekday.)
This dynamic holds even in much more car-dependent places than New York or Berlin. In a piece for Bloomberg last year, David Zipper reported on a 2012 study in Portland, Oregon, that measured only 43% of bar patrons arriving by car. “To dispel misperceptions about how their customers arrive,” Zipper suggests, “local officials can collect travel survey data.” But why wait for your city to do that, especially if your city doesn’t care about reducing auto dependency?
Local business owners seem to hear constantly from people asking if there is parking, or how hard it is to park. They hear people in their establishments complaining about how difficult parking was. It would not make much sense for a New Yorker to ask if it is possible to walk to almost any business, but there are plenty of places in the United States where that is an important and valid question. It’s just that walking is so depreciated as a mode of transportation — it is so difficult in so many towns and suburbs and regions — it occurs to no one to call up a bar and ask if it’s possible. If no one walks in your area, no one is arriving at a restaurant or convenience store and announcing how difficult it was to walk there.
There is no real walking lobby. Biking and mass transit have many vocal advocates, but I think walking, an activity fundamental to human mental and physical health, needs more evangelists. To make America walkable will require a sea change in our land use and development practices (i.e., the aforementioned revolution). Until then, why not call up the only people our elected officials actually listen to, our Small Business Owners, and ask if you can walk to their businesses?