Main street’s modal split

Annie Hillis of the West Wellington BIA (WWBIA) sent me the following data. They conducted a four-day survey in June, asking 830 people found along their typical older-city main street how they came to the street, their post code, and their shopping habits. The WWBIA main street runs roughly from Bayswater westwards along Somerset & West Wellington to Island Park.

The modal split numbers surprised me. 

Forty six percent of those found along the street got there by walking; 26% by car; 13% by bike; twelve percent by bus (numbers throughout this story are rounded off).

Only 26% by car? That’s pretty low. And it seems it’s always traffic and car parking issues that people focus on whenever there is a city study, infill project, proposed high rise condo, or cycling or sidewalk improvement.

Granted, West Wellie has an extensive hinterland of houses and some major apartment buildings on both sides of it, so it is in the centre of its market zone.

In contrast, the Preston BIA (“Little Italy”) lacks a hinterland on its west (cut off by the OTrain cut). There is lots of vacant land to the north, and south, due to our civic fathers’ foresight in “slum clearance” without the “urban renewal” that was supposed to follow along.

Many of the merchants along Preston have a regional and ethnic focus, drawing all over the central urban area for clientelle. I don’t know of any merchants who actually live in the neighborhood anymore, so they end up with a “windshield mentality” whereby they judge things by the way they live and move, which is behind the wheel of a car.

Chinatown actually has a hinterland to the south; and a truncated one to the north (the LeBreton Flats area was cleared in the early 60’s; 600 homes were built in the early 80’s; and now some apartments are being built albeit not yet contiguous with the existing neighborhood. But its merchants by and large are also focussed on a narrow market segment. They also cling to the notion they are a regional draw, which is less true every year; they haven’t yet switched gears to serving the local market (yes, there are some dependent on a very local area draw, but they tend to be newer businesses, smaller ones, not yet calling the shots the way the established Asian businesspeople do). The lesson from West Wellie might be that more goods and services aimed at the adjacent neighborhood would be viable. And that infill projects and intensification would be good for business.

So, back to the 46% who walked to West Wellie. About 78% of them lived close to the street, in the same post code. Not surprising, as distance grew between the shopping street and residence they were more likely to use bike and bus. A surprising  6% of the walkers lived quite far away from the street, many in Gatineau. I suspect they didn’t walk from home, more likely they walked from work at Tunney’s Pasture or other employers in the area.

Fifty three percent of the cyclists (who, recall, comprise 13% of the people surveyed) also lived within the KIY post code, showing once again how bikes are convenient for quick shopping and main street business. West Wellie makes a big deal of how it welcomes cyclists; I don’t sense the same welcome in some other neighborhoods.

Motorists made up 26% of the found ins along the street. Of them, 16% resided in the K1Y post code zone; 25% resided in nearby zones; 32% in other Ottawa zones; and almost 7% from Gatineau.

In general, those who walked and biked came more frequently to the area; 70% of walkers spent money weekly; 62% of bikers spent money weekly. This is in contrast to motorists, only 36% of whom visited and spent money regularly.  In fact, 38% of motorists were infrequent shoppers in the area (less than once a week), whereas only 10% of walkers and 11% of cyclists were infrequent shoppers.

Who shops, what they spend, how often they spend, and what mode of transport they use, makes for a fun data set. But the data is also dependent on the current make up of the surrounding neighborhood. There is still an abundance of low-income households in the area, who maybe don’t have a car. So it would be risky to extrapolate the current modal breakout to newcomers in the area, who may be of a more affluent character. Are people walking by choice, or by necessity?

It would be of interest to canvas residents of some of the new, upscale infill developments (eg St George’s Court) or condos to see if their behaviour is “normalized” after they have been in the ‘hood for a year or two. Just how important is walkability to their decision to live where they do; and do they exercise that desire or not?

I’d love to see similar survey data collected on a regular basis for all the traditional main streets, perhaps every second or third year. I’m sure shopping centres collect that sort of data even more often to ‘prove’ their value to tenants. It’s time for the City and BIA’s to document and track changes to their market area on a regular cycle. Only with facts can we manage growth and change.

9 thoughts on “Main street’s modal split

  1. Eric,

    Fascinating nubers, and thanks for the analysis. I will certainly be using this.



  2. I’m a newish resident (almost at my Hintonburg birthday–formerly of Centretown) and I find my patterns are more or less the same here as they were there: Anything within maybe 10 blocks I’ll walk to (in this case Bayswater to Parkdale), past that I’ll bike. If I’m getting groceries or anything with some bulk, I’ll also bike even if it’s closer because I have a trusty basket that makes carrying things easier.

  3. Thanks for your interest in our survey, Eric. We plan to repeat it annually. If anyone wants a copy, please get in touch ( One correction: the BIA is called Wellington West (not West Wellie). It covers the entire stretch of Wellington Street West, and encompasses the neighbourhoods of Hintonburg and Wellington Village. Thanks.

  4. Previously I managed the Karma Grocery Co-op in the Annex in Toronto. We surveyed our members on many topics every year. One set of questions was on modal transport. The Karma Co-op is an interesting store with many members who pride themselves on using active transportation. 40% of members biked to the store and 40% drove a car. What was interesting from the Karma Co-op member surveys was that on average cyclists spent more money per trip at the store then car drivers. My analysis of this statistic was that cyclists are more purposeful shoppers. They are less likely to bike all over the city to shop, they go to one store or a collection of a few stores close together near there home or place of work to shop. Car drivers can more easily buy a few things from here and there all over the city, effectively having a larger radius of where they go. In then end whether you drive or bike everyone needs to eat and will spend a similiar amount of money depending on their income. I live in Hintonburg and live car free (with two young kids!) and we only buy our groceries from shops in the Wellington West BIA because of the convenience of accommodating a car free lifestyle. We do not even go to the Superstore as it is out of our radius of travel.

  5. This is fascinating. I’m really curious what the Bank Street numbers would be. With few exceptions I don’t see anything on Bank (between Catherine and Wellington) that would have people flocking from the suburbs to visit. There are also very few parking spots on Bank Street itself. I suspect the walking and cycling numbers would be even higher. So it strikes me as odd that the Bank Street BIA has always opposed cycling infrastructure.

    1. I agree. Bank is a local shopping street, not a “destination” street for the region (the way Elgin is, where people meet up). I find the bank street bia ____ to be comically out of touch.

  6. I would have to question how the survey is done. If you just approach people walking along the sidewalk about how they got there, you will be biased towards people who spend more time on the sidewalk. I suspect that people who walk to the street will spend more time walking along the street than people who drive to the closest parking spot and then pop into the store they want to shop in. But perhaps the survey was done in a different way, I suppose they could have had the cashiers of a random sample of businesses ask their customers how they got there.

  7. Interesting article. The only Preston Street business owner who I know that lives in the area is the owner of Pub Italia. He lives a block away from me on Beech. As a new resident (moved from Centretown and my first choice was Hintonburg but couldn’t find a suitable house) I find there is little retail of use to local residents south of the Queensway. It’s all restaurants and bars and with two little kids we see a lot less of the inside of those than we used to. That’s why I’m so supportive of the condo people. I’m hoping they bring some decent retail into the area. The day to day stuff like groceries, liquor, a chain drugstore, diners, a dollar store, fast food: all of which Hintonburg/West Wellie (almost) has. The type of retail has a lot to do with it I think.

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