Summer Streets – Success or Dud?

The question of how successful New York’s Summer Streets was this weekend is hard to answer, and different sources give different accounts. It seems that many businesses think it was a disaster, while most pro-bicycle organizations think it was a great success.

The impact on businesses seems to depend on the type of business you run.

Mark Barbosa, manager of Manhattan Cabinetry near East 30th Street, said his sales dipped 50 to 60 percent compared to a typical Saturday.

Barbosa said most of his customers arrive by car, and while they swarmed in once vehicular traffic was permitted after 1 p.m., the rush did not compensate for the morning lull.

Food places, on the other hand, were thrilled by the spike in revenues from hungry cyclists and pedestrians.

A Subway sandwich shop down the block reported a 10 percent increase in sales, and a Guy & Gallard eatery a block away raked in an extra $500, compared to average Saturday sales.

But the overall impact of this is unclear – if food stores make substantially less than other stores, their 10% increase could be a drop in a huge bucket of economic loss compared to other businesses.

The problem is New York didn’t seem to have a very concrete way to gauge the success of this event.

How will the city assess whether the program works? Officials haven’t been all that clear on that point.
Or is this success?
Please tell me that before we embarked on this great social experiment, we had someone sit down and figure out what “success” means.

Please tell me that “success” is defined a little more concretely than “people having fun”.

Please tell me that “success” is measured more accurately than through Mayor Bloomberg walking a block or two down the street and using his anecdotal experience to determine if he likes what he sees. I’m probably wrong – he probably also asked his buddies at Transportation Alternatives what they thought of it. I’m sure their answer was completely thorough and unbiased.

At the very least, the city should have had some plan to measure the increase or decrease in business revenues along the route and count the number of participants. That measurement effort would cost a total of about $100K tops, and it would be well worth it.

It may be great that a few thousand people were “happy,” but it’s also great if you don’t kill the businesses that make these neighborhoods so “livable” in the first place. Determining if Summer Streets will cause 25 businesses that pay $4,000 in taxes to shut down would be worth the $100K investment in metrics collection. It seems wise to know if you’re helping or hurting things.

If the New York Times is correct and there was really no plan to measure the “success” in units of measure beyond hopes and dreams, this is complete and unforgivable irresponsibility.

I looked at a lot of pictures today. (Gothamist.com has a pretty good selection – some show empty streets, some show crowded streets) In the vast majority of them, I saw no more people on the streets than I would probably have seen on an average Saturday on the sidewalks. The only difference was that people were wandering aimlessly in the streets this weekend. Hooray.

Predictably, idiotic commentary from places like Cap’ n Transit shames anyone who dares ask for something as simple as a measure of success to help determine if it would be smart for us to do this every week.

After I got home, I realized how annoyed I was by the headline and focus of Sewell Chan’s City Room post, Will Car-Free ‘Summer Streets’ Work?. Of course this is a large sum of money spent on police and planning, and a potential disruption for businesses along the route. But still, that Chan must be a hit at parties:

“Hey Sewell, guess what? Next Saturday I’m having a few friends over for some beers and conversation. What do you say?”

“I don’t know, Bob. Do you think it’ll work?”

Seriously, what kind of a question is that? Of course thousands of people came out and had a lot of fun. Does that count as “working”?

Here’s my favorite part:

Chan must just be really used to the NYC press rut where, when confronted with a new livable streets initiative, the reporter’s first response is to stick a mike in a car window, and their second is to interview a shopkeeper about lost business.

Well, when we replace tens of thousands of people in cars who are buying things with “thousands” of people on foot who aren’t buying things – we’re undermining the very fabric that your livable city is built on. Journalists are right, and in my opinion obligated, to report on these issues and question the choices of elected officials.

The verdict on Summer Streets is still out, but New Yorkers ought to be demanding to know the criteria being used to decide it.