The Future of Polk Street: The Facts

It’s no secret that there a lot of people who feel passionately about the future of Polk Street. Though that passion has in some cases taken a turn for the ugly, we like to look at it as a clear sign that many people have something fundamental in common: we all care deeply about the future of Polk. And we also share something else: a strong desire to see Polk to continue to grow and thrive as a vibrant commercial corridor.

What will it take to support the immediate and long-term health of this diverse, unique retail street? A very vocal group of merchants are saying that parking is the one and only key to the success of their businesses. But a new study by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA) says otherwise.

The MTA recently released results from their comprehensive Polk Street Transportation and Purchasing Intercept Survey. According to the survey results, the majority of respondents who typically drive to Polk Street visit the area once a week or less. Respondents who live in the area (about 56% of the respondents) were recorded visiting Polk Street seven days per week, and the majority of respondents that bicycle, ride transit, or walk to Polk Street visit more than once a week. But who brings the most money to the businesses? Although average spending on a typical trip was roughly similar regardless of transportation mode, when trip frequency is taken into account, respondents who drive to Polk Street spend the least per week compared to respondents using other modes of transportation. Respondents who walk spent the most per week, followed by transit and bicycle.

These findings are consistent with similar recent studies of other San Francisco commercial corridors, including Columbus Avenue. The fact that Polk Street retailers are thriving on local, regular customers is not surprising given the low car ownership rates of the neighborhoods. The SFMTA’s San Francisco Transportation Fact Sheet shows that 79.5% of households in San Francisco own at least one vehicle. But the San Francisco Planning Department’s San Francisco Neighborhoods Socio-Economic Profiles (using data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2005-2009) reveals that all of the neighborhoods surrounding Polk Street (including the Marina, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, Nob Hill, Western Addition, and Downtown-Civic Center) have a lower rate of vehicle ownership (compared to the citywide rate), with the exception of the Marina District (81.6%).

There are a lot of people with passionate feelings about the future of Polk Street. We count ourselves among the many people who are eager to see Polk business thrive, now and even more in the future. So we applaud the City for injecting some cool-headed, rigorous analysis into the discussion about how to prepare Polk for the future, in the midst of great passions. The question at this point shouldn’t be whether Polk Street can thrive through even more walking, biking and transit-based customers, but rather, how can we help the merchants get even more from this incredible customer base? Polk is uniquely well poised to thrive as a place to do business today and in the future if everyone who is passionate about Polk can cool down and focus on the right questions.

Speak up for the future of Polk: Attend the SFMTA meetings on Saturday, April 27th from 10 am to 1 pm and/or Tuesday, April 30th from 5pm-8:30 pm in support for safe biking and walking on Polk Street by submitting your RSVP here.

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