Open Streets Succeeded During COVID in Maryland and Tampa. Here’s How We Know.
By Nikita Jakkam, Sangyun Kang. Edited by Maya Crowden
When cities across the globe decided to prohibit indoor dining, many wondered how many restaurants and eateries would survive. As of September 15th, the National Restaurant Association has found that one in six establishments in the US closed permanently or long term.
Before the pandemic, a number of cities had embraced the “open streets” movement in past years. Many cities new to the “open streets” movement took the initiative to extend bike lanes and turn parking spaces into outdoor dining, giving consumers a safer space to dine and during this crisis.
Our team at Basil Labs wanted to understand how consumers felt about these street closures, focusing on Bethesda, Maryland, and Tampa, Florida. Unlike other street closures analyses, such as the Inrix study featured in The Washington Post, we did not focus on quantitative metrics regarding the amount of use that closed streets received but rather the perceptions and sentiments that consumers held during their time at the closed street(s).
Using BasilCX, our in-house engine that aggregates and transforms online, geolocated reviews, and social media posts into concise analytics through AI — we took a look at roughly 660,000 data points for 374 businesses in Bethesda, Maryland, and 1,147 businesses in Tampa, Florida, which were in our sample.
In order to compare retail businesses along open streets in Bethesda and Tampa to businesses on surrounding streets, we drew up rough geo-boundaries to group businesses into those that were along or near open streets and those that were not. We also separated the data between January 1st, 2020 to May 5th, 2020 (just before summer) and May 6th, 2020, to September 1st, 2020 (summer).
Our analysis focuses on the change in average sentiment of consumers rather than the net number of mentions of each perception. If we had focused on the net number of mentions, there would have been a lack of analytical nuance in visualizing the drop in the net number of perceptions since fewer consumers ventured out this summer than in the past.
We found that businesses along the open streets in Tampa, Florida, differed considerably from their neighbors in regards to “spending time as a couple.” Average sentiment not only rose +0.35 on a -1 to 1 scale of negative to positive consumer sentiment from before summer to summer but also scored 0.10 higher than businesses on surrounding streets for the same topic.
We also found that businesses along the open streets program in Bethesda, Maryland, improved their “outdoor seating” sentiment by +0.12 from before summer to summer in 2020. Additionally, these businesses scored a full 0.25 higher than surrounding streets regarding “outdoor seating.”
Regardless of the type of street or stage of the pandemic, we found that both Bethesda and Tampa retail businesses stand out for the scenic-ness of the surrounding areas. Some of the topics we typically track, such as “staff” or “efficiency of service,” showed negligible differences between businesses located along open and regular streets. However, we found that across other topics, such as “outdoor seating,” “couples or spouse,” “family and friends,” and “pets,” businesses along the open streets generally performed as well as or better than their non-open street counterparts.
Static Perceptions of Parking
One topic we were very interested in tracking that did not show interesting findings was “parking.” Despite “parking” being a key topic in open streets programs, we found that patrons of retail locations on Bethesda and Tampa open streets did not discuss parking in a significantly different way pre-COVID versus during COVID in terms of sentiment or frequency.
Tampa showed a slight drop of -4.08% of mentions of “parking” during the summer, while Bethesda saw a slight rise of +2.43% of mentions of “parking” during the summer. Other topics fluctuate more in terms of mentions, such as mentions of “scenic-ness” among Tampa’s open streets businesses, which saw a rise +12.78% in mentions during the summer.
In other words, at least for the customers actually stepping into businesses in and around the open streets programs in both Bethesda and Tampa, parking was not a key concern as some in the media were making it out to be and was, in fact, a relatively static topic when compared to the others mentioned before.
Making Open Streets Permanent
When our team went into this project, we were expecting some significant differences in consumer sentiment of open streets projects before and after COVID-19 began having a major impact in the US. Generally speaking, some of the biggest changes we see in temporal data like this occur before and after significant construction or renovations; we expected COVID-19 to match that intensity of consumer sentiment change.
Instead, we found consumer perceptions holding steady, with only a few, particularly “spending time as a couple” in Tampa and “outdoor seating” in Bethesda standing out during the 2020 summer.
So why are these street closures a success? Because we’re in the middle of economic and health crises and consumer perceptions are holding steady, with growth in community-fostering topics like “spending time as a couple.” Not only that, but they seem to be registering a level of normalcy as well. Unlike our research this summer into malls across America or other retail, cleanliness has not been the dominant topic we’ve seen during COVID-19. Instead, our data suggests that open streets and open-air dining keeps consumers’ minds away from safety and cleanliness.
That being said, the net number of data points shrank across the board. Businesses, even those within the bounds of the open streets programs, were not spared.
While cities and businesses cannot directly manage the spending ability of locals and visitors, they can create welcoming and safe areas where people want to come and spend time with friends and loved ones. When thinking about the efficacy of open streets, consider that our study found that consumer perceptions were remarkably similar to pre-COVID times and early stages of the pandemic. Although the net number of perceptions decreased as fewer consumers ventured out, the atmospheres that both the Bethesda and Tampa open streets programs successfully created are the foundational building blocks to vibrant neighborhoods and corridors. Keep at it @Bethesda and @Tampa!