Parking is essential to retail, right? Especially in off-center commercial corridors with a reputation for attracting tourists and folks coming back to "the old neighborhood," right? Philadelphia's iconic Italian Market is on its way to establishing a business improvement district, giving the district the capacity to make some collective decisions. Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's transformative former Transportation Commissioner under Michael Bloomberg says that measuring the street for transportation, economic, and social impacts of design changes is critical to good decision-making. I thought I'd test the thesis of the importance of parking and car access by doing some simple counts on a busy Saturday. What I found was pretty surprising.
9th Street in the Italian Market. Its center is dedicated to thru-traffic and parking, though pedestrians regularly meander
A little background, first. If a BID is created by property owners, the Italian Market will be able to levy a small tax to provide additional services. The broad goal is to spruce the street up so that hours of activity can be stretched, and business types can be diversified. That makes a lot of sense. and lest anybody worry that more regular trash cleanup would scrub the market of its charm, the Market's business manager, Michelle Gambino, reassures us they're "hoping that the look will continue to be Old World, but just upscale." Of course, in addition to cleaning up, next on the priority list is wayfinding signage to parking which, today, can be difficult to find.
9th Street's sidewalks buzz with activity
If "Old World" is the aspiration, and a parking strategy is in the mix, one must ask... would this be the right time to test eliminating cars from 9th Street during market hours? One side of the argument goes that a car-free Italian Market would provide a more pleasant experience, giving visitors more reason to come, and even more reason to stay. The other, which reverberates across many a business district, argues that while that would be nice, vehicular access (and more importantly parking and its convenience) is the life blood of retailers, and that without it shops would shutter their doors for lack of customers.
The world's great public Markets, like Mercato di Ballaro in Palermo, Sicily or Albert Cuyp in Amsterdam, operate perfectly without cars or parking. These places are as appealing as they are, in part because of the vendors and the architecture, but equally because of the intimate, low-stress human environment made possible by being car-free. Even the Philadelphia's Italian Market re
cognizes the benefits of going car-free for its annual Festival
Mercato di Ballaro (credit: http://civitavecchia.portmobility.it/)
Albert Cuyp, Amsterdam (credit: moneywehave.com)
Italian Market Festival, Philadelphia (credit: visitphilly)
The trouble with festivals is that while they're big money-makers (making it obviously worthwhile to keep cars out), they also require a good amount of money and effort to put on, rendering them rare events, and not occurrences of ordinary life. They can also be a little loud and stressful, and not necessarily something you'd want every weekend. Philadelphia's
movement, is working to simplify and promote a process for more casual (and hopefully regular) street closures. If you ask me, the Italian Market is a no-brainer for weekend OpenStreets events.
Measuring the Street
But what about the cars and parking the support business? I was in the Market last weekend, and thought I'd conduct a simple count on 9th Street between Christian and Carpenter Streets - the same block as DiBruno Brothers, Gleaners Cafe, and Talluto's Pasta, and more... not to mention lots of street vendors. The count was conducted between 11am and noon on 9 July 2016 Here's what I found:
174 cars entered the block. Of that:
- 128 cars passed through (74%)
- 20 cars made local moves to/from local streets (11%)
- 26 cars parked on 9th Street (15%) - there were about 19 spaces available, about half of which never turned over
- Zero deliveries
2 SEPTA buses (capable of carrying +/- 100 passengers)
16 Segways (two tours)
Countless pedestrians (
First of all, 174 cars in an hour is a very low number, no matter which way you slice it, especially since this is nearly during the peak of market activity (which probably would have been an hour later). While this count was not conducted for the whole length of the Italian Market corridor, Christian-Carpenter is a central block, which I assume to be fairly representative of the rest.
First, cars passing through (apart from whether they are going to or have previously stopped) have no economic benefit to the market (we can leave the question of the broader economic importance of being able to drive through the market for another time... but in short, thru-trips can be flexible and find other routes with little adverse impact, especially in such small numbers). That means that vehicular access directly accommodated only twenty arrivals. The questions, of course are:
Would those 26 cars find an alternative if 9th Street were closed to cars? Would the increased appeal of a car-free street generate at least 26 cars worth of visitors?
I am inclined to believe that this is an incredibly easy difference to make up. Though pedestrians were not counted, a simple visual scan would tell anybody that 20 cars of people are already a miniscule fraction of the total visiting the market, and probably not critical to its success.
What to Do Next?
I've just scratched the surface here, but the incredibly low traffic/parking numbers during the Market's busiest period suggest that there's great opportunity here. Here are the things I recommend the Italian Market Business Association or the future Business Improvement District do next:
- Conduct traffic/parking counts for the broader Italian Market corridor
- Conduct pedestrian counts
- Conduct intercept surveys with visitors, asking where they're coming from, how they arrived, if they parked on 9th Street, and if they'd like to see 9th Street experiment with being closed to cars
- Conduct interviews with a broad range of shop owners, learning about their perceptions about their clientele
- Be prepared to inform folks of the realities about how people actually get to the Market
- Ask yourself what's more important: providing a low-stress walking environment, or providing convenient access to a select few by permitting parking
- Develop a plan for maximizing access to the Italian Market through transit, bicycling, and walking... and identify alternative parking locations.
- Test the idea of closing the Market to cars with very simple infrastructure one weekend - traffic cones, potted plants, or even beach chairs will do just fine.
A Model For the Future
My sense is that, ulimately, the right course of action will be to set up removable bollards that let the Market be closed to traffic, first for events, then most certainly weekends, and then maybe expanding even beyond that. New Orleans, a kindred spirit to Philadelphia in many ways, has perfected this approach in the French Quarter. There, they close their streets to traffic every day at about 10am, letting deliveries be made in the morning, and turning the streets over to pedestrians and bicyclists thereafter. I'll close this post with a couple images from New Orleans, which highlight the potential that the Italian Market has to uncover.
Royal Street, New Orleans. Closure to cars provides a wonderful, attractive pedestrian environment
Orleans Street, New Orleans. Residential Streets maintain car/parking access
Royal Street, New Orleans. This handsome, removable bollard makes flexible car-free streets possible.