July 7, 2023

Lane Closed for Chicken: How a Chick-Fil-A Blocks a Travel Lane for 90% of the Day in Austin, TX

Darren Miller

Head of Deployments
After our study in Boston, we wanted to continue exploring the effects of food delivery activity. We quickly found another interesting spot to study and, once again, the results were fascinating. The following is a sequel to the Boylston Street, Boston series.

The wait is finally over! As a sequel to the Boston Boylston Street Blogs (Part 1 & Part 2), the next study on the Chick-Fil-A Effect has been contducted. This time, the setting is Austin, TX, a few blocks from Vade’s HQ. Those familiar with the downtown Austin area will likely know of the Chick-Fil-A in question, located on 6th Street between Congress Avenue and Colorado Street, which opened up in July 2021.

This particular franchise location has not received the same level of publicized scrutiny that the Boylston Street restaurant has, but the congestion has not gone unnoticed. Most recently, Reddit user u/voodoorage unleashed his voodoo rage in a post titled, “Chick-fil-a is taking over the sidewalk Downtown”, reproduced below.

u/voodoorage's take on Chick-Fil-A sidewalk usage

Reddit user u/DarthDPool left a reply chiming in with some first hand experience and brings up the problems with parking that delivery drivers face at this location, which I will get into shortly.

To my surprise, the City of Austin Transportation Public Works (AKA Austin Mobility), u/ATXTransportation, left a reply, making it clear that Chick-Fil-A is not immune to parking enforcement.

There are a number of other replies either not relevant or appropriate to be repeated here, but feel free to check them out for a laugh.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that this is not intended to disparage Chick-Fil-A. The problem is not Chick-Fil-A; the problem is the imbalance in the supply and demand of parking space, and Chick-Fil-A simply exposes the issue as it is such a popular restaurant. As a corporation, Chick-Fil-A generally cooperates with city rules and is actually quite innovative when it comes to mobility and delivery. This particular Chick-Fil-A is actively testing delivery robots (see aforementioned Reddit photo), which would be efficient, sustainable, and not require parking spaces. As for the company vehicle parked on the sidewalk — in my almost daily walks around downtown I have never seen the Chick-Fil-A vehicle parked on the sidewalk.

That being said, u/voodoorage is not wrong: cars with their hazard lights on are abundant outside of the Chick-Fil-A at all times of the day.

The layout of this section of 6th Street is as follows: there are three travel lanes and a metered curb parking lane located on the opposite side of the street from Chick-Fil-A, as well as three metered parking spots right outside the Chick-Fil-A in a cutout section of the curb (not a full lane).

The only parking spots outside of Chick-Fil-A, which are all non-time-limited, metered parking.
Lane and camera layout on this section of 6th Street

Unlike Boylston Street, there is no parking specifically designated for pickup outside of the Chick-Fil-A. Zooming out, there is very little parking for delivery drivers in general close to the Chick-Fil-A. The map below, provided by SpotAngels, shows the parking in the area, which is abundant on first glance, but the vast majority is non-time-limited metered parking, so turnover and, therefore, availability is likely low. The exception is two small sections of 15-min “customer service” parking that unfortunately are on the opposite side of the street from Chick-Fil-A.

Parking near the Chick-Fil-A. The blue segments represent non-time-limited, metered parking except where indicated.

This parking layout, as you may imagine given the restaurant’s popularity (especially in Texas, the state with the most Chick-Fil-As), is a recipe for yet another logjam. In the example below, 4 vehicles appear to be parked in the No Parking zone at the time the screenshot was taken, which is very typical during a non-Sunday day.

The story here is similar to that of the Boylston Street case. That is, a Chick-Fil-A opened up on a street that was not equipped for the parking demand that such a popular restaurant would create, and congestion inevitably occurred. Like the Boylston Street case, the situation in Austin will likely become worse and worse until it becomes a public safety concern and is covered by the media and city leaders have to address it. And, similarly, the problem has likely not been measured in depth before, so even if it is a known problem, it is difficult for city leaders to take action.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a known public safety hotspot already. I hung around the Chick-Fil-A for half an hour or so during a lunchtime rush recently to observe the area firsthand, and I happened to come across a parking enforcement officer, halfway through writing one of many tickets he would write there that day. I talked with the officer for a few minutes and learned that the Chick-Fil-A was allegedly intended to be a walk-in only restaurant (cannot confirm whether this is true), as the street is clearly not designed to handle food pickup activity. I also learned that enforcement came by this location regularly and would write as many as 10 tickets on a visit to “clear it out”. Those who parked in the travel lane besides the few curb parking spots would receive a $40 ticket for double parking, and those who parked in the travel lane against the curb would receive a slightly lesser $30 ticket for parking in a No Parking zone. However, despite the tickets, the officer told me with an air of frustration that delivery drivers (many of which were “repeat offenders”) would return and stack up in the travel lane as soon as the officers left.

He finished writing tickets for the vehicles illegally parked, then left. I stuck around for a few minutes and watched as, sure enough — in a matter of minutes — the travel lane once again piled up with vehicles, hazards blinking and clogging the street.

With my sights set on the new location to study, I got to work. With three perspectives, I was able to capture images of the full blockface in real-time using Vade’s wireless, cellular, and solar-powered cameras. We processed images that were captured from Tuesday, June 6th through Monday, June 12th to get data for all hours that Chick-Fil-A is open for a week. This particular Chick-Fil-A is open from 6:30 AM - 10:00 PM on Mon-Thurs, 6:30 AM - 12mid on Fri-Sat, and of course, is closed on Sundays. On Sundays, footage was captured from 6:30 AM - 10:00 PM, assuming that consumer behavior on Sunday would theoretically be closer to that of Mon-Wed than of Thurs-Sat, when the store hours run later.

The cameras were configured to take images every minute, at the top of the minute during these hours, amounting to about 20,000 images between the 3 cameras. All sessions were validated by a human-in-the-loop system to ensure high accuracy, and camera uptime was over 95% so there were few gaps in the data.

We processed the images for sessions in the curb parking zone and sessions (violations) in the travel lane nearest to the Chick-Fil-A. Our primary focus, given that this is a study on food pickup, was on the travel lane that seems to be used as if it is a food pickup zone. There were a few violation sessions in the second travel lane over from the curb during peak hours, but the overwhelming majority were in the first travel lane so we did not include the second travel lane.

As before with our study in Boston, we were shocked as the processing came to a close.

In one week there were 4,302 total sessions in the curb parking spaces and the travel lane, of which, 240 were in curb parking spaces and 4,062 were in the travel lane. Generally, there were spikes in session counts from 10 AM - noon and 6 PM - 8 PM, but still a consistent amount of sessions outside of those ranges.

Breaking down the sessions by lane type, the difference between parking behavior in the curb parking spaces versus the travel lane can be seen. The average parking session in the travel lane is much shorter than that of the curb parking lane, as would be expected since the curb parking spaces are non-time-limited. Many of the sessions in the curb parking lane were long term sessions lasting for several hours, which resulted in less turnover and fewer sessions.

As with Boylston Street in Boston, the numbers are vastly different on Sunday compared to other days of the week, revealing the Chick-Fil-A Effect. In this scenario, the effect is even more exaggerated as there is no other restaurant on this blockface of 6th Street that could be drawing food pickup activity on Sundays. In the travel lane, there were 6x-10x more sessions on non-Sunday days compared to Sunday. In the curb parking lane, there were more sessions on non-Sundays also, but the data is more sporadic for this lane and any trends cannot be directly attributed to Chick-Fil-A being open or not. For example, the curb parking session count on Tuesday was comparable to Sunday, but this is only because there were more long duration sessions (and therefore, less turnover) for whatever reason.

Zooming in to just food pickup-related sessions, we can look at the dwell time distribution in the travel lane, as this lane is effectively used as a food pickup lane. In previous studies, food pickup sessions were defined as passenger vehicle sessions lasting 1-15 mins, and based on the distribution below, that definition seems reasonable if not conservative.

Note: session durations are effectively “floored” to the integer minute value — that is, for example, a 119 second session is recorded as a 1 minute session, a 150 second session is recorded as 2 minutes, etc.

With this definition, we can look at the distribution of food pickup sessions by day and by hour.

As mentioned before, the spikes in parking sessions occur during typical meal times, although Thursday through Saturday are consistently busy throughout the day. Violations on Sunday were sparse as would be expected with Chick-Fil-A being closed.

The average hourly food pickup sessions by day shows that the larger quantity of sessions on Thurs-Sat is not simply due to Chick-Fil-A being open for 2 more hours on these days. This is supported by the previous table figure, which shows that the extra 2 hours that the restaurant is open on Thurs-Sat are actually busy. This figure is similar for Mon-Wed, although slightly higher on Monday, perhaps due to Chick-Fil-A fans missing their favorite fast food on Sunday.

But wait — this is a travel lane! How can a travel lane function if as many as 43 cars park in it each hour on average? It can’t. In fact, the travel lane is by definition useless for most of the day. By looking at the occupancy in the travel lane by passenger vehicles for every individual minute in the week, we can form a metric for analyzing congestion: percent time occupancy. The following pie charts show the percent of time that the travel lane is occupied by different quantities of vehicles on non-Sunday days and on Sunday.

Travel Lane Occupancy: All Vehicles Types, All Session Lengths

Based on the percent time chart, the travel lane is only clear for a whopping 9.7% of the day on non-Sundays versus 71.6% of the day on Sundays.

Travel Lane Occupancy: Passenger Vehicles Only, All Session Lengths

If we filter this down to just passenger vehicles (as opposed to commercial vehicles), shown above, the travel lane is only clear for 11.8% of the day on non-Sundays versus 71.6% on Sundays.

Note: the numbers are the same as the previous pie chart for Sunday here because there were no commercial vehicle sessions on Sunday to be filtered out.

Travel Lane Occupancy: Passenger Vehicles Only, Short (1-15 mins) Sessions Only

If we take this one step further and filter this down to just short sessions by passenger vehicles (assumed to be synonymous with food pickup sessions), which is really what the focus of this study is, the travel lane is still only clear for a 14.3% of the day versus 78.3% on Sundays. If Sunday is taken as a baseline, that means that Chick-Fil-A being open contributes 64% of the 78.3% of the day that the travel lane is blocked. In other words, Chick-Fil-A food pickup activity accounts for 82% of the the lane blockage by time on the average day.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Feel free to reach out to me directly via email for questions, comments, etc: darren[at]vade.ai

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