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Where Covid’s Car-Free Streets Boosted Business - CityLab

Yelp data shows greater consumer interest at restaurants on pedestrian-friendly “slow streets" that limited vehicle traffic during the pandemic.

At first, the empty city streets of the pandemic were an eerie sign of a world in disorder. But when dozens of cities converted some of them to pedestrian-friendly corridors with restricted vehicle access, they became something else: an example of how readily urban space can be repurposed for mobility and play, and how quickly human activity can surge back when cars are removed.


Now local officials are weighing whether to keep these temporary installations — known variously as “safe streets,” “slow streets,” “open streets,” and “stay healthy streets,” among other labels — in place for the long haul. A survey of 43 member cities of the National Association of City Transportation Officials found that 22 were planning on making Covid-era traffic changes permanent, while 16 more were considering it. At the end of April, New York City passed a bill making its Open Streets program — the most extensive in the U.S. — permanent, and California is mulling legislation that would streamline that process.

But pedestrian-friendly street redesigns often face resistance from business owners, who fear that they’ll lose revenue from inconvenienced drivers. A new data analysis by Yelp adds some fresh insights into what really happens to local commerce when vehicle traffic is kept out.

Analysts at the listing platform looked at restaurants in Boston’s Little Italy, San Francisco’s Mission District, Chicago Central Loop’s West Fulton Market, downtown Boise’s 8th Street and Burbank’s San Fernando Boulevard, all of which had slow streets programs that blocked vehicle access in 2020. They measured the difference in the share of consumer interest between the sample of restaurants in each slow street zone and all restaurants across each respective city, comparing the start of the pandemic (using March 15, 2020 as a proxy), when these programs weren’t yet in place, to the various time periods when the programs were in swing. (The chart below shows that difference.) Eateries in car-free areas saw more consumer interest (based on the amount of views, posted photos and user reviews on Yelp listings) when their streets were strictly limited to pedestrians and cyclists, they found.


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