A few years ago I was working in a small waterfront community (name and places have been omitted to protect the innocent). To the north lay a large body of water (not many shoppers there!). To the south were certainly lots of people, but most were poised to travel away from the water and towards the malls that have located in more central locations. That said, the town had great bones. Main Street had a charming, pedestrian friendly feel. What’s more, walkable neighborhoods surrounded downtown. These homes, for the most part, had been well maintained and still evoked a feeling of small town living, where parents might send their kids downtown for ice cream with a few dollars in hand. This was the kind of place that many people might want to live.
Why you need to know about location theory
When thinking about access, it is important to understand fundamental economic theory, specifically “location theory”. Location theory states that businesses choose locations that will maximize profit. This theory is the basis of retail site selection as well. Being located in a place that is accessible and appealing to customers is critical to the bottom line. It is why Dunkin Donuts prefers the “inbound” side of the street – people buy coffee in the morning on the way to work. Or restaurants prefer to be on the “outbound” side of the street – people buy food on the way home from work. We also know that customers, especially in this day and age when time is a commodity, prefer to cross-shop, accomplishing a few shopping errands during a single visit. This is why retailers also prefer malls and shopping centers. These are often places designed for the time strapped shopper in mind. The concentration of stores draws more customers than a single store will on its own. (And on an aside, it is also why on-line shopping is so popular. What is more convenient than making a purchase from your home computer or smart phone? But I digress….)
Today I’m only going to tackle pedestrian and bike access….
When considering how accessible your downtown is, take stock of the following:
- Does your district offer safe passage for those biking to the district? And are the lanes safe for cyclists of all ages? In New York for instance, only children under 12 are allowed to ride on sidewalks. As a mother of a 6 year old – I would be thrilled if I could craft an afternoon of bike riding with my son, stopping to eat here or there. But the bike lanes in my neighborhood are shared with the road – not ideal for a little boy still learning to steer properly. So instead we leave our bikes at home, or load them into a car and leave the neighborhood.
- Are there sufficient locations to secure a bike when you reach your destination? If people have concerns about where they are going to lock up their bikes, it could deter their decision to visit your district. Consider that a single parking spot can support 10+ bike parking spaces. Wouldn’t businesses prefer ten shoppers over one who arrive by car?
- Is your downtown environment riddled with gaps in the pedestrian environment? Did you know that even 50 feet of a “poor” environment can keep people from walking past? In 2006 I was working at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and as part of a rezoning along 125thStreet – which at that time was seeing lots of taking up ground floor retail space – creating dead zones in the evening. What we found was that even these minor breaks in continuity affected people’s perceptions and how far the were willing to walk. So take stock if your district. Is there a vacant lot that needs to be activated? A bank that shuts down at 5 pm? Retail that closes and pulls down roll down gates? All of these things make an environment less appealing to pedestrians. So the businesses located on the other side of that gap, whatever it is, will see fewer customers as a result.
- Is the five-minute walk shed from your downtown comfortable to walk? Is it safe to walk? Is there proper lighting? Is there shade to protect pedestrians during hot days? I am working in a community right now with a great opportunity to connection a waterfront marina – with lots of visitors to downtown. The problem? A creek and bridge that are uncomfortable to cross lies between the marina and downtown. While most locals think the distance of ¼ mile is easy to walk, on a hot or even warm day, the is brutal. The sidewalk is narrow and unprotected from car traffic. Improving the bridge crossing for pedestrians, or even building a pedestrian only bridge across the river – not an insignificant undertaking – is necessary to seam these two assets together.
Admittedly, every community is just a little bit different. Transportation habits and mores differ by location. Weather, land use patterns, income and demographics play a role in determining what these habits are in different places. While this mean that these principles should be tinkered with and customized for every place, at the end of the day a successful downtown will be easily accessible to as many people using as many forms of transportation as possible. The next time you look at your downtown – try looking at it from this new perspective.