Wednesday, July 27, 2005


For local communities one of the most salient issues surrounding a proposed Wal-Mart is traffic. These people may have no ideological problem with the retailer but they become quite distressed when their already congested local roads are asked to accommodate the influx engendered by 200,000+ sq. ft. supercenters.

It is first important to examine exactly how many vehicle trips a Wal-Mart supercenter actually generates. According to the Institute of Traffic Engineers, a 200,000 sq. ft. discount center on average results in 76,232 car trips per week (with the high end of the range being 92,806).

Yet this astoundingly high number may in fact be much too conservative considering that the Institute’s traffic estimates for “regular sized” discount stores are actually higher than for the larger supercenters. This paradox became quite important when Wal-Mart wanted to build in Pasco County, FL:

If you build a regular Wal-Mart, the traffic experts say the store will draw 850 car trips during the busiest evening hour.

If you build a Wal-Mart Supercenter - which includes the regular store plus a full-service grocery store, hair salon, vision center and tire and lube express - those same experts say the store will draw only 750 car trips that hour.

If you think those numbers don't add up, you're not the only one.

County-hired engineers have been sparring for months with Wal-Mart engineers over the best way to estimate how many shoppers will visit the proposed supercenters in Holiday, Bayonet Point and Land O'Lakes.

Wal-Mart's engineers want to stick with the industry standard - the Institute of Transportation Engineers' Trip Generation Handbook - which estimates a lower traffic count for superstores than regular discount stores. The averages are based on traffic studies of other Wal-Marts, most of them paid for by the retail giant.

But the county's consultant, Tindale-Oliver and Associates, argues those numbers are "not logical."

After all, the supercenter is about a third larger than a regular store, "with a broader range of goods that would appeal to a larger sector of the shopping public," Tindale-Oliver wrote in a March 31 memo about the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Holiday.

Wal-Mart's consultant, Kimley-Horn and Associates, argues that supercenters draw fewer shoppers per hour because they are open around the clock. They also say the supercenter data, which is more recent, is more reliable than the regular discount store data.

The county's consultant wasn't convinced.
This Florida case reinforces the need for an independent traffic analysis when Wal-Mart decides it wants to site in an area. As we’ve said previously, the sole job of a developer–hired consultant is to minimize the project’s impact so that it will face less resistance. According to these liars-for-hire, traffic never is a problem and can always be mitigated with better timed traffic signals, left hand turn lanes and improved off ramps.

Residents opposed to a Wal-Mart in the Tri-Lakes area of Colorado saw this whitewashing in action. By approaching an independent engineer the anti-Wal-Mart coalition was able to deconstruct the study:

The Developer's traffic study shows that the Wal-Mart retail center including lots 2 and 3 would generate a total of about 11,936 vehicle trips per day.

The traffic study estimates that 34% of these trips would be by passers-by, that is, by people who are on their way to another destination via Baptist. An experienced traffic engineer we consulted feels that since Wal-Mart is considered a "destination store", 20 to 25% is a more realistic factor.

Another questionable assumption is that the satellite businesses would be "general retail." It is far more likely that the businesses that lease lots 2 and 3 would be a fast food restaurant, convenience store, drive-through bank or gas station. This more realistic assumption would generate two to four times the traffic assumed in the Developer's traffic study.

Using the conservative 25% passer-by figure (rather than the unrealistic 34%) and doubling the assumed trips generated by lots 2 and 3, the projection for the proposed Wal-Mart is 10,968 new trips per day not 7,598 as shown in the latest traffic study. View the details of this calculation of Wal-Mart Trips. For comparison, the traffic study shows 9,500 trips per day as the current load on Baptist Road. If this Wal-Mart proposal is approved, traffic would more than double to over 20,000 trips per day.
A similar situation occurred in Gresham, Oregon where the developer’s traffic study estimated:

The complex will generate 290 new trips during weekday morning peak hours, 635 new trips during weekday afternoon peak hours and 1,010 new trips during Saturday peak hours, according to an estimate that Kittelson & Associates gave to Gresham city planners in late March.
Wal-Mart’s traffic analysts assured that they could mitigate this impact:

Wal-Mart's traffic analysts said the retailer could make changes to local roads to prevent serious traffic jams and safety problems; it plans to spend about $2 million in fixes and in traffic fees.
However, according to a traffic consultant hired by GreshamFirst, a group opposed to Wal-Mart coming to their community:

Some of Wal-Mart's proposed fixes, such as better timing of traffic lights, may not solve jams or safety problems, Nys wrote. Others may prove unsafe, Nys wrote, such as allowing drivers to turn left from Powell on a flashing yellow arrow if they don't see oncoming traffic.

Still other changes are the responsibility of other developers, and Wal-Mart shouldn't assume that they will be built, Nys wrote. In some cases, Wal-Mart's traffic consultants didn't provide enough correct information for the city to make a decision, he wrote.
GreshamFirst Board Member Javon Gilmore responded to the new revelations about the proposed development, saying that:

The congestion it could create makes it a bad fit for an area the city has designated as a transit corridor and commercial area for residents' day-to-day needs, Gilmore wrote. The store could hurt police and fire department response times, partly because of congestion and partly because of the store's needs on issues such as shoplifting, Gilmore wrote.
Another Oregon case demonstrates the difference between Wal-Mart’s analyses and reality. The following is from an article entitled “Study: Wal-Mart Will Clog Streets:”

A third traffic study has confirmed earlier findings of the Oregon Department of Transportation that the proposed Central Point Wal-Mart could clog streets and cause traffic backups onto Interstate 5.

On the opening day of the proposed 207,000-square-foot Supercenter, traffic volumes would either exceed or come close to exceeding roadway capacity, predicts JRH Engineering of Eugene.

"It’s either just failing or it’s just passing," said JRH President Jim Hanks.

Both the JRH and ODOT studies conflict with the findings of Kittelson and Associates of Portland, a company hired by Wal-Mart to determine the potential effects of a Supercenter on traffic.
Wal-Mart has also clogged streets in Maine where:

At lunch- time on Sunday, the line of vehicles snaking down the northern end of Upper Main Street reaches 40 cars deep.

Honking starts as drivers wait to make the left turn into Waterville Commons to get to the Wal-Mart Supercenter. Jostling for space ensues as some drivers try to cut in line.

Tempers and traffic safety are wearing thin as the queue of cars grows outside the retail giant's new outlet.

"It's terrible," said Larry Dickey, a Waterville man who was visiting the new Wal-Mart for the first time Sunday. "It took me 15 minutes to get from McDonald's (on Upper Main Street) to here. It needs another lane, I would say."

Since Wal-Mart opened its new Supercenter on Wednesday, Upper Main Street has seen a surge in traffic jams. Vehicle lines at lunchtime and after office hours reach as far as a half-mile down the thoroughfare.
Developers have also downplayed traffic impacts in town like Wallace, Idaho and Columbia, Missouri where a developer-sponsored study had the audacity to claim:

“Building a Wal-Mart Supercenter on a larger site on Columbia’s west side would improve traffic flow.”
These examples are not the only instances of Wal-Mart’s traffic impact causing communities to worry and, in some cases, reject the store:

In Newport News the Planning Commission rejected Wal-Mart’s application due to traffic concerns and the development’s proximity to a residential neighborhood.

The same occurred in Asheville, Buckeye, and Windsor, where the 4,200 new daily car trips generated by Wal-Mart would directly threaten schools close by.

All of this is important to New York City, especially to the outer borough neighborhoods that Wal-Mart is looking to enter into. It will be important to conduct an independent traffic analyses and for various NYC neighboorhoods to then use this data to decide whether it wants Wal-Mart as a neighbor.