I have been following the Hennepin Avenue South Reconstruction for a while now but the recent discussion about businesses along the corridor got me thinking. In a number of recent forums I’ve heard comments from businesses that imply that the redesign will negatively impact their income or even force them to close. Businesses have stated that most customers arrive by car and the loss of parking on the street would certainly mean decreases in revenue. Since I live nearby and enjoy the abundance of businesses I can walk to (I’ve also got an MBA and am sensitive to business concerns in general), I decided to do a little reading and research to understand more.
One of the examples that seems to come up in discussions of bike lanes and business in snowy North American cities is Bloor Street in Toronto. Bloor Street is a major east/west artery in Toronto that’s pretty flat and straight and was therefore identified for dedicated bike lanes as an East/West artery. Similar to Hennepin, this street also serves as a major shopping destination for mixed retail, restaurants and services. And again similarly to Hennepin, the city of Toronto proposed removing over a hundred on-street parking spaces along the business corridor to be replaced with a separated bike lane.
Owing to vocal opposition to making its pilot bike lanes permanent which would result in removal of over 100 parking spaces, Bloor Street has been studied on a few occasions. In addition to an original 2008 study, further analysis in 2016/2017 was conducted on the effects of the bike lane using post-reconstruction data. While detailed studies are great, I also reached out to David Simor who’s Director of The Centre for Active Transportation, an organization that was involved in conducting the studies. We had a one hour call where he shared his thoughts, experiences and some more context around the data. Both from this conversation and the studies themselves, I took a number of thoughts away regarding business and street redesigns that make me hopeful for the future.
While I wanted to jump right into the studies’ background and history, their methodology and more, David paused me to point something out before we began: he felt that we should acknowledge street safety. For him it’s valuable and important to talk about the economic activity of the corridor but Bloor Street was a dangerous street in Toronto for pedestrians, cyclists and even for motor vehicles. In acknowledging this fact, David felt that we should always center the underlying importance of safety of people using a street and that any economic activity concerns or other factors should be supplemental. He also added that other cold-weather cities have reorganized their streets prioritization in interesting ways when they view them from the human and not economic vantage point such as gender-equal plowing in Stockholm. Put simply, making streets better for people should be reason enough to move forward without having to prove anything else. I certainly appreciated this reminder as sometimes it does get lost in the discussion.
That important point aside, our conversation returned to the studies. In the original 2008 study canvassers asked people along Bloor Street how they got there, how they felt about the street and its safety as well as perception of the redesign. They additionally spoke to store managers to ask them how they believed customers arrived at businesses to compare to visitor data. As a result of the 2008 surveys on Bloor Street, the data show that store managers may have been overestimating the number of customers who arrived by car. Amongst those who live or work in the area two‐thirds walk, 14% cycle, another 14% take public transit, and only 5% drive. For those who do not live or work in the area, 54% take public transit, 20% walk, 16% drive, and 10% cycle. Interestingly only 30% of store managers in the survey estimated the driving percentage to be in the correct 0-10% category, meaning that a majority overestimated the percent of people on the corridor who arrive by car, a likely factor in their opposition to the bike lanes.
In 2016/2017, Toronto followed up with additional surveys to ask people in the corridor how they felt about the street, its safety and how they arrived at Bloor. Those results showed improvements from a perceived safety perspective which is important for people choosing to spend time somewhere:
Beyond just perception, the city of Toronto’s data showed that after the reconstruction, Bloor Street improved its safety for all users:
- the total number of conflicts between all road users decreased by 44%;
- the number of conflicts between motorized vehicles decreased by 71%;
- the number of bike/motorized vehicle conflicts decreased by 61%;
- the number of pedestrian/motorized vehicles conflicts decreased by 55%;
In addition to the improved safety (which, again, should be enough in itself), the number of people arriving by modes other than a car increased overall as people felt safer walking and biking along the corridor. Travel times for cars only increased marginally and the number of people who reported difficulty parking only increased from a tenth to only about a third of all drivers, still the minority.
Moving beyond the data on movement, what about actual economic activity? Many vocal businesses believed that the bike lanes would negatively impact their bottom line or force them to close, similar to what we’ve heard in recent Minneapolis forums on the topic. The City of Toronto went deep on the evaluation of economic activity in 2016 by obtaining credit card transactions from Moneris and completed a thorough analysis. The study confirmed that while bikers and pedestrians spend slightly less per trip than car drivers, they visit more often and as a result spend more money over time. This study also acknowledges that while retail spending citywide has somewhat declined in general as the economy shifts, areas with the bike lanes declined less than control study areas elsewhere in the city.
What about stores being forced to close because of the bike lanes? Vacancy rates have held stable on Bloor Street at 7% over time before and after the bike lanes, and actually went down from 10% to 7% on a nearby street (Danforth) where another bike lane was added. The number of businesses reporting over 100 customers on a Saturday grew on Bloor Street from 46% to 61% after the bike lanes were installed too. All in all, the bike lanes were correlated with increasing economic activity compared to other areas without them and may have even reduced the general decline of retail spending compared to other commercial streets in Toronto. While I won’t name them directly, I also see the names of many businesses who opposed the reconstruction in news articles at the time to still be open on the map when I looked, all these years later.
So, what did I make of this conversation and all the data? It gave me hope for the future in rebuilding a people-focused and climate-friendly Hennepin Avenue where people outside of cars are equally accommodated. Rather than fear for the future of businesses, the Bloor Street story tells me that economic activity along the corridor will actually be enhanced and that bike lanes could actually help slow declines in retail spending that we see in the market place generally. Rather than oppose the bike and bus lanes as harmful to business, I think Bloor Street shows us that businesses should be actively supporting this project as a net positive for their bottom lines. For Bloor Street and so many others (including others in Minneapolis), people-centered streets actually mean more customers who visit more often and stay longer. Businesses can’t afford to continue forward with infrastructure that does not help increase economic activity, make the street a more pleasant place to spend time and money, and a place that’s safer to be. And I, for one, look forward to spending more money in some great local shops as I more safely wander down the street.