Tourists spend $195 a day in downtown Seattle – that’s twice as much as local visitors

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2016 Westlake Holiday Tree Lighting

This piece was originally published in The Seattle Times on Dec. 22, 2017.

Among the striking findings of a new survey of downtown visitors: Just 8 percent of respondents drove themselves.

Next time you visit Pike Place Market and pass the selfie-snapping hordes in front of the “original” Starbucks — locals know it’s not really the coffee giant’s first location — instead of rolling your eyes, consider this:

According to a new survey, tourists spend on average $195 per day during their visit to downtown Seattle.

 In comparison, day-trip visitors from around the region leave downtown minus $84, while folks who live or work downtown spend just $25 in a typical day.
These figures come from the Downtown Seattle Visitor Intercept Survey, which was funded by the Seattle Department of Transportation and executed by Commute Seattle in partnership with the Downtown Seattle Association. A total of 768 people completed the survey, which was intended to find out who goes downtown, how they get there and what they do after they arrive.

An intercept survey is pretty much what it sounds like: Interviewers simply stop people on the street to ask them questions. The interviewers were stationed on six busy corners spread out around Seattle’s Central Business District. They worked different times of the day and on both weekdays and weekends. The survey was conducted between May 10th and June 4th.

Most of the people out and about in downtown Seattle don’t live there, according to the data. Only one out of five respondents said they are downtown residents. More than one-third said they were downtown because it’s their place of work.

 Visitors made up slightly more than half of respondents, and they were evenly split between people who live in the region and people from out of the area.

One of the striking findings of the survey is just how few people drive alone to get to downtown, no matter what their reason for going — a mere 8 percent. Nearly half of respondents took some form of public transit, and one-quarter got there by foot or on bicycle. One reason the pedestrian numbers are so high is that many out-of-town visitors stay in hotels, making downtown accessible by foot.

The survey data show that while people who drive downtown spend the most per person on average, their total numbers are so small that they’re easily outspent by transit users and pedestrians.

“The surprise is how critical pedestrian space is, and how critical public transit is, for the people who spend the most money,” said Jonathan Hopkins, the executive director of Commute Seattle.

Interestingly, nobody spends less in a typical day downtown than people who commute via personal vehicle — just $7.51, on average. That’s maybe a grande latte and doughnut, and then back in the car to go home. Downtown workers who take transit are much more likely to enjoy the neighborhood, going shopping or out to eat, or catching a movie. Their average spending downtown is more than triple that of the car commuters at $26.36.

“The transit customer in total spends more than anybody,” Hopkins said. “This is useful information for business owners to understand where their business is coming from.”

He also points out that growth in downtown visits is primarily going to come from transit, not cars, so it’s critical that we create inviting public spaces downtown for folks arriving by transit. While we have a nice new fleet of Metro buses and spiffy light-rail trains, the visitor experience can take a turn for the worse once they get on the street.

Hopkins notes that at light rail’s Westlake station, riders exit at a downtown intersection notorious for drug dealing and other crime.

“Imagine somebody getting off light rail at Third and Pine,” Hopkins said. “There’s some work to be done to make those spaces inviting.”

More than half of survey respondents said they were downtown primarily for one of three reasons: Work, shopping or sightseeing. But a long list of responses to that question were tallied, from nightclubbing to doctor’s visits to workout sessions at a gym.

Amusingly, when asked about their reason for being downtown, 1 percent of respondents — that’s about seven or eight people — said they were, well, not sure.