Measuring The Street: Cars in the Italian Market

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 recognizes 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 #OpenStreetsPHL 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

31 Bicycles
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.


East Market Street Requires a ReDesign

When Jan Gehl was in Philadelphia in February to accept the 2016 Edmund N. Bacon Prize, he took a walk down Market Street with PlanPhilly's Ashley Hahn. There's many a gem in her recap of their walking conversation, but overall, Gehl concludes that while there are glimmers of "vitality and variety" in Old City,  the core of East Market Street is a loveless experience. In many ways the street is designed to keep people (especially in their cars) moving, instead of basking in the pleasant urbanity of it all. 

Ashley asked me to write a companion piece to her conversation with Gehl, about the challenges and opportunities facing East Market Street. This post originally appeared in PlanPhilly.  Supplemental graphics and text (captions and italics) are intended to lend further clarity and depth to the issues presented in the original text. 


(Accidental) Success for OpenStreets PHL

Open Streets, the national effort to open up streets to pedestrians, is gaining steam.  Millennials love it; it makes children happy, and it even seems to give old folks an extra spring in their step.  But what about entrepreneurs and mom+pop retailers trying to make a buck? Might such restriction of vehicular traffic and parking dissuade their customers, squeeze their margins, and be more of a headache than it's worth? We got a chance to find out, and the results were really exciting.


Transect Talk: Trails and Parkland

Philadelphia has a beautiful history and network of parks and trails.  After a long hike a little while ago, it dawned on me that parks and trails, just like buildings and streets, range from urban to rural, and that "getting it right" in those various contexts makes a huge difference.  In other words, beaux-arts fountains in the woods make about as little sense as building a raised ranch with a picket fence next to City Hall.  I'm going to use this post to show how a great long hike through Philadelphia parkland exposes you to a nearly perfect transition through the trail transect.


Halloween: another reason row houses are totally awesome

Halloween might be the holiday made best by walkable urban places.  Christmas and its caroling has its charms and may give All Hallows Eve a run for its money, but who can argue the awesomeness of trick-or-treating with a new door to knock on every 15-to-100 feet? I can't imagine being a kid in the exurbs.  Being driven around to each and every daily activity is bad enough, but imagine needing to be driven house to house for trick-or-treating? Fortunately, the town I grew up in was an inner ring suburb well built for halloween.  Even so, I've been blown away by the spooky atmosphere created in my Philadelphia neighborhood. People really go all out, and the proximity to the sidewalk of each Halloween-costumed house really heightens the experience.


SEPTA Expansion: First, How Did We Get Here?

Back in last September, SEPTA was facing the very real prospect of drastic cuts in service because of decades of deferred maintenance resulting from a funding structure that gives it far less juice than other comparable systems.  I called it the unnecessary doomsday scenario, but boy, what a doomsday scenario it would have been.


When a Bike Lane is More than a Bike Lane

This post originally appeared as a Helen Ubinas column in the Philadelphia Daily News.  Supplemental italicized text and graphics in this post are intended to lend some color commentary and further clarity to the issues presented in Helen's original text. 


Think tank’s urban jobs agenda misguided: cities must be empowered, not wards of the state

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Hartford Business Journal by your correspondent and David Panagore.

The Connecticut Policy Institute (CPI), founded by Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, issued a series of white papers earlier this year about economic development.
With the election for the state's top spot heating up and Foley running neck and neck with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, it's a good time to assess some of the economic development initiatives and thinking from the contender's camp.


Make Transit a Downtown Priority and Get the Details Right

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Hartford Courant.  Supplemental italicized text and graphics in this post are intended to lend further clarity to the issues presented in the original text. Your correspondent previously served as the City's Complete Streets Coordinator and has been involved in several of the projects discussed.


Acres of parking in the shadow of tens of
thousands of jobs and the State Capitol
As recent research at the University of Connecticut indicates, too much surface parking is bad for downtowns. Citing Hartford as an example, the study finds that large swaths of blacktop drive down the value of surrounding property, making development less likely, which in turn begets more parking. In spite of being the highest concentration of jobs in the entire State, the conclusion of this unfortunate spiral is a place with plenty of parking but not much to do after you park.

A big part of the solution is improved transit, and with fewer than 10 percent of downtown Hartford employees currently using transit, there’s room for improvement.


Economic Development - How Philadelphia Snagged Comcast without Giving Away the Farm

Comcast Innovation and Technology Center - This is the year's big real estate development news in Philadelphia. 

Comcast and Liberty Property Trust announced the plan to construct a $1.2B skyscraper at 19th and Arch in Center City, designed by Lord Norman Foster.  There will be much discussion of the design and the economic impact of such a development, but there's another important story here - Philadelphia has just caught a big - no, gigantic - fish without wading into the sordid waters of corporate relocation/retention incentive one-upsmanship, which so many cities and states seem unable to resist.  But this development is neither an accident, nor to the credit of the will if a single administration or development official; rather, it's the product of at least three decades of strategic choices and turning the tide in the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection).