This op-ed was published by the Globe and Mail on January 28, 2018 as Here’s how to make sure Toronto’s King Street is king again.
By 2041, Toronto’s downtown population is expected to double, with its density growing vertically and intensively within a small footprint. Despite this astonishing growth, we cannot possibly double the number of cars on our already congested streets.
That’s why the city is making changes to get more people moving on transit, on bicycles, and on their feet. With recent pilot projects, like the successful Bloor Street bike lanes and the new King Street Transit Pilot, Torontonians are rethinking how streets should function.
While the city should be applauded for boldly implementing the King Street Transit Pilot, the timing could not have been worse. Its launch in mid-November came just as the holiday season was approaching – not the best time to test public patience with major outdoor transformations. Record-breaking low temperatures in December didn’t help either. In a perfect world, the King Street Transit Pilot would yield positive results overnight. But, of course, we don’t live in a perfect world. Big changes to our streets are messy and take time.
Toronto is no stranger to the street-redesign process. Think of Roncesvalles Avenue, a street that also went through difficult changes but is now a tremendously successful pedestrian destination. Between 2010 and 2011, parking was removed to make way for expanded pedestrian space, streetscape enhancements, and new TTC boarding platforms. Fortunately, King won’t have to undergo years of construction the way Roncesvalles did to reach completion.
Right now, many of the businesses on King Street are silently supporting the pilot and waiting for its second phase: An enhanced public realm. Over the next few months, the city plans to expand the pedestrian space on King into the curb lane, now freed of parked cars, and add patios and seating to attract foot traffic.
A city-sponsored design/build competition dubbed “Everyone is King” promises to bring new life to the street via murals, greenery, and 19 parklets (temporary spaces in the street that can accommodate street furniture, landscaping, outdoor cafés and other pedestrian amenities). Proposals from local businesses will be prioritized, offering them first dibs on spaces near their storefronts. This improved patio culture could be a great opportunity for restaurants and shops to thrive and attract visitors. They should embrace the opportunity.
What restaurateur or retailer wouldn’t want an enhanced public realm and patio space? A street designed for both strolling and transit will reinforce King Street’s place as a major downtown destination for shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Come spring, King is going to be king again.
Until then, there are a number of things that could be done to support the project’s success. The city should consider waiving patio licence fees for businesses within the pilot boundaries for the first year. For a relatively small cost, this gesture would demonstrate support for businesses that are struggling with change along the street, and reaffirm the city’s long-term commitment to the pilot project’s success.
We also need increased communication to counter the social-media-stoked fear that King is “closed to cars.” Every block of the street is open to vehicles. While 180 parking spots were removed from King, 90 new spots have been added on side streets, and about 8,000 spots are available within walking distance of the pilot area. Despite this, drivers remain confused about how to navigate the mandatory right turns and visitors are concerned about finding parking. Many people are avoiding the street altogether.
Those frequenting King Street by car, transit, or on foot who have expressed their frustrations in the media need clear information on how to access and navigate the new street design.
The public also needs to hear resoundingly that King Street is open for business. It is accessible for drivers, and for foodies, theatregoers, movie buffs and shoppers, too. A grassroots #KingEatsPilot initiative has grown on social media that invites hungry Torontonians to show their support for the pilot and for local businesses by lunching on King.
By working together as a city for success, we can overcome the divisive “cars vs. people” arguments that aren’t helping the city grow.