The secret lives of Seattle's neighborhood shoppers

Who uses Seattle's neighborhood main streets, how do they get there, what do they find, and what do they miss there? The city gets some hard answers, from Admiral, Othello, Columbia City, Ballard, and Fremont.

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A scene at Ballard's popular Sunday farmers market.

Who uses Seattle's neighborhood main streets, how do they get there, what do they find, and what do they miss there? The city gets some hard answers, from Admiral, Othello, Columbia City, Ballard, and Fremont.

Greenpeacers and other cause-flogging canvassers aren’t the only pests who carry clipboards and hail strangers on the sidewalk. If you got accosted in any of six chosen business districts around the city last October, you know the accosters weren’t after your signature, contact info, and money. That’s when two city departments and various neighborhood business associations teamed up to try to get data on questions that are usually matters of speculation, but which are of vital interest to shopkeepers, business boosters, and transportation planners alike.

The results, released in February, may assist all of them in their efforts. They also afford the rest of us some interesting comparisons between how people live, play, and get around in urban districts as farflung and different as Ballard and Othello Junction.

The effort in question is a $30,000 intercept survey instigated and paid for by the city’s Department of Transportation, which in the words of its mobility programs manager, Christina Van Valdenburgh, “wanted for the first time to gather empirical data on how people were traveling to neighborhood business districts,” as part of its Walk Bike Ride initiative. But the SDOT planners didn’t want to be the big bad bureaucrats from downtown stopping people on the street. So they approached the city’s Office of Economic Development (OED), to see if it could enlist neighborhood chambers of commerce and other business groups in the effort, on the view that, as Andrés Mantilla, the OED staffer who coordinated the project, puts it, “people would be more accepting if it’s a local thing" and the local groups would welcome that data too.

Mantilla’s department didn’t just abet the effort, it co-opted it, seizing the chance to catch a free ride and gather the sort of data OED had craved for its own business-district revitalization and promotion efforts (code name “Only in Seattle”). The two departments hired the local office of the survey firm EMC Research, designed a two-page questionnaire, and identified six “representative” districts with enough transit and revitalization efforts to satisfy both their needs: Othello and Columbia City along the light rail line in Southeast Seattle, Ballard and Fremont in the near north end, Admiral in West Seattle, and Capitol Hill (Broadway, not Pike/Pine, which hardly needs revitalization).

The interviewers fanned out in pairs over a three-week period to strategic street corners designated by the neighborhood groups. To minimize selection bias (i.e., targeting the cutest or friendliest-looking shoppers) the interviewers were instructed to accost every fifth passerby, except when foot traffic was especially slow and they could snag everyone passing. They screened out those going to or from work.

That yielded a little over 200 responses each in Fremont, Othello, Columbia City, and Admiral, and about 300 in Ballard and on Capitol Hill. Another 102 people queried in the mainly Vietnamese business district at Othello declined to answer the questionnaire “due to general language barriers,” even though the researchers offered them a version translated into Vietnamese. “That was a lesson learned,” says Van Valkenburgh. Translations aren’t enough: “We needed a native speaker to greet them, explain what the survey was, and help them take it.” Who knows how much the loss of those respondents skewed the results?

There are other kinks in the methodology, such as one portmanteau choice offered as a "top reason for visiting" a particular district: "Walk around/sightsee/visit friends or family." That's a particularly popular choice at Othello, though it's hardly a prime spot to sightsee or flâner. Perhaps families that have scattered to the suburbs get together at the restaurants there? It sure looks that way at Othello's King Plaza, but the questionnaire doesn't get at that because those very different reasons aren't broken out.

Such kinks could be corrected if, as Van Valkenburgh hopes, this trial leads to further surveying — perhaps a new batch of neighborhoods each year. These initial results have already turned up some striking differences between the patrons of the various districts. Admiral is the most hyperlocal of the business districts, with 60 percent of those queried there describing themselves as local residents, followed closely by Othello. Fremont by contrast is a magnet for hipsters from everywhere else: Only 25 percent of passersby there were residents. Ninety-two percent of Capitol Hill residents queried, 91 percent of Admiral residents, and 89 percent of Ballardites said they shopped primarily in their own neighborhoods. Only 67 percent of Columbia City and 59 percent of Othello residents said so — further evidence of the gaps in retail resources in Southeast Seattle, a combination of disinvestment and a brush-off from many national chains.

The Ballardites (followed by their Fremont neighbors) were the most car-dependent among the six groups: 28 percent had driven or been driven to their business districts. Capitol Hill residents were the least dependent; only 7 percent came by car, while 14 percent took the bus and 67 percent walked. Most Othello and Admiral residents also walked to their shops. A striking 10 percent at Othello and 18 percent at Columbia City took light rail, even though the latter’s station is several blocks from its business district. A full 34 percent of nonresidents shopping at Othello took the train. Sound Transit should take heart — and lament that it didn’t build the station it originally promised for the Graham Street shopping junction, midway between Othello and Columbia City, which would likewise draw high rail traffic.

“What stood out in the survey was the number of people who walk, bike, or use transit — far greater numbers than we would have expected,” says SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan. “Most residents walk or take transit to their neighborhood districts” — even in Ballard and Fremont, where 67 percent walked or took the bus on the days they were interviewed. What also struck the transportation managers was how few people listed “parking” among the additional amenities they’d like to see in their business districts. Nine Ballard shoppers did — but 23 wanted more transit. Parking didn’t even show on the other five neighborhoods’ wishlists. The McGinn administration may use this data to rebut neighborhood pleas for park-and-ride lots at the South End light rail stations, in particular Othello — even though the issues attending on park-and-hide rail commuters are rather different.

For those people who identified themselves as residents of the respective districts, grocery shopping was the prime attraction at Othello, Fremont, Capitol Hill, and, overwhelmingly, Admiral. It came second after restaurants in Ballard (whose supermarkets lie on the periphery of its central business district) and scarcely showed at Columbia City, which has a meat shop but no supermarket save the little PCC store a mile away. Restaurants, coffee and snacks, and “socializing/drinks/happy hour” were residents’ top three reasons for doing business in Columbia City. These placed nearly as high among Fremont residents’ priorities.

The most intriguing, though least statistically significant, responses concerned amenities that patrons wished their business districts had. Trader Joe’s — by name — placed fifth on Admiral’s and Columbia City’s wish lists. Admiral residents also want a skate park. Folks on Broadway, a strip rich in local, often quirky shops, want “more independent or small business/fewer chains.” And “Mexican/Tex-Mex/Latino” restaurants ranked second on Fremont’s and third on Admiral’s wish lists. As it happens, Rainier Beach, Brighton, Columbia City, Othello Junction, South Park, and several other undersung South Seattle business districts all have family-owned, very local Mexican restaurants and, in many cases, groceries. Fremont scenesters, you know where to go.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.