This op-ed appeared in the Toronto Star on February 20, 2018 as Sales data for King Street a positive signal of what’s to come.
The numbers are in. City of Toronto data released last week show that people are still shopping and eating on King Street. Sales data from credit and debit card transactions show retail and restaurant revenues consistent with seasonal spending over the past three years, and in line with city-wide trends overall.
These numbers may seem surprising, given the vocal complaints of some area business owners. But what truly makes this data remarkable is the fact that the King Street Transit Pilot Project itself is only half-way implemented.
The Pilot Project has two phases. Both are critical to its success. The first phase, implemented in November, was the transit redesign which prioritized streetcars in their own lane, restricted parking and turning for cars and created dedicated boarding zones.
For this phase, the measurable metrics for success include more reliable service and increased ridership. With 85 per cent of streetcars arriving within four minutes at some locations and a 16-per-cent increase in weekday ridership overall, this phase has been highly successful. Transit riders are vocally happy.
The second phase is all about place-making, and it won’t be in place until the spring. This is the “public realm” transformation, which includes planters, public art, and 19 new parklets in the curb lanes. The city has launched its “Everyone Is King” design competition, soliciting creative proposals to design and program these new public spaces.
Nearby businesses will be given priority to propose extra seating or patio space. The goal of this phase is to animate the street as a great place for people, and to support the economic vibrancy of the King Street corridor.
For this phase two, the measurable metrics for success include foot traffic and sales activity. Therefore, when we look at the new data, which shows no loss in customer spending and foot traffic in line with seasonal trends, we must keep in mind that these figures have been collected before phase two is even in place. In fact, most of the work hasn’t even started.
Even though the data indicates business as usual on King, the perception that activity has declined since the pilot began is not surprising. Without the bumper-to-bumper traffic that was once a signature of King Street, the road itself does feel a bit empty. But we should remember: traffic doesn’t shop, people shop.
Beginning in April, the new public spaces and streetscape improvements should attract more even more foot traffic, liven up the sidewalks, and bring the bustle we all miss. Business owners should look forward to more visitors and more spending this spring, along with access to prime new patio space.
In the meantime, as we continue to monitor the impacts and wait for the full roll-out of phase two, it’s also important to remember why it’s critical that the King Street Transit Pilot is a success for everyone – pedestrians, transit riders, residents, workers and business owners alike.
Earlier this year, Toronto’s subway system experienced crush loads, signaling a desperate need for more rapid transit options in the most congested parts of the system. Most of our civic leaders and transit riders agree that a downtown relief line subway should be prioritized. But even so, it will be a decade, maybe less if we hurry, before it’s up and running.
Freeing streetcars from mixed traffic and providing dedicated lanes, like on Spadina and St. Clair, is a quicker – and cheaper – option to move more people more reliably. Streetcars operating in dedicated right-of-ways can reduce travel times, improve service reliability, and improve safety for pedestrians.
With no east-west rapid transit line south of Bloor, King Street offers the best opportunity to move people through the core: a rapidly growing condo neighbourhood and the fastest growing employment centre in the country. The stakes are high and we all need to work together to support the project’s success, improve it, and perhaps expand it so longer stretches of the 504 line have a dedicated lane.
The King Pilot is just that: a pilot. It offers flexibility to test, monitor, and modify. With the first round of data this positive, it’s possible things will only get better.