Transportation Behaviors Are in Flux. Here’s How Retailers Can Make that Upheaval a Strategic Advantage.

By December 21, 2022 February 1st, 2023 7 Comments
Washington D.C. pedestrian heat map

Where and how people work, live, and move around has shifted over the last few years in ways that few could have anticipated — and we’re nowhere near a new equilibrium yet.

For retailers with brick-and-mortar locations, this upheaval poses a unique challenge as they try to spin up thriving local businesses.

Robust traffic data can turn that challenge into an opportunity, helping sophisticated real estate decision makers get an information edge.

They need to know the relative popularity of a given neighborhood, street, and even corner; how people are traveling there, whether by car or by foot; if they’re stopping there or passing through; and the traveler attributes of those in the vicinity.

To understand how nuanced this information can be, StreetLight analyzed Washington D.C., a mid-sized city that has seen major changes in work from home culture, which has rejiggered travel patterns citywide.

Using StreetLight Advanced Traffic Countsnationwide vehicle and pedestrian datasets, we used ArcGIS integration to map the change in vehicle and pedestrian activity between 2019 and 2021. This gives a macrolevel view of how citywide travel activity has changed on an annualized basis.

DC Entire City

In the gif above, the colored lines represent relative vehicle activity. Click on the gif to enlarge. 

D.C. Pedestrian Activity

In the gif above, the colored lines represent relative pedestrian activity. Click on the gif to enlarge.  

What jumps out when looking at these two visualizations is the dramatic drop off in walking activity. While vehicle traffic has changed throughout the city, it does not show nearly the same citywide depression as pedestrian traffic. As we look at retail vacancy rates in key neighborhoods in the city in our report, we see how impactful pedestrian activity is on these numbers. 

Moving from the high-level view to a zoomed-in analysis, we studied key neighborhood streets to see seasonal changes between January through April 2019 and January through April 2022.  

By going deep on these granular views of time period and activity, site selection specialists can access deep information on relative travel patterns to inform decisions on where to locate their businesses.   

On Georgetown’s M St NW, where retail vacancies are just beginning to inch down, according to a report from Dochter & Alexander Retail Advisors, we see a relatively similar recovery between pedestrian and vehicle activity. Overall, vehicle volumes are down about 17% in the time period, while pedestrian volumes are down about 21% 

M Street Georgetown

The gif shows how vehicle activity on Georgetown’s M St. NW has changed.

In D.C.’s Central Business District, though, we see a much bigger discrepancy between walking and driving recovery. 

Pedestrian activity on streets in the downtown area are significantly depressed compared to pre-pandemic levels.  

Of the seven roads studied, six see pedestrian activity still less than halfway to prepandemic levels. 

DC Downtown

This gif shows how pedestrian activity has changed on select downtown streets.

The patterns are very different in terms of vehicle travel, however. Some of these roads have reached near parity with prepandemic vehicle volumes.

But the makeup of that travel has shifted.

The trips are now much more heavily weighted to passthrough traffic, suggesting that those traveling into the area by vehicle are heading elsewhere and thus likely not benefiting local businesses. This reality is further reflected in retail vacancy data, which, as of summer 2022, were still rising compared to spring 2021.

StreetLight’s report How Transportation Impacts Retail takes a closer look at changes in vehicle and pedestrian traffic in three neighborhoods in Washington D.C. See detailed analyses of the relative return of neighborhood travel on retail corridors in Capitol Hill, Georgetown, and the Central Business District, and how those patterns correlate with retail vacancy rates. Access the report here.