On Friday, CBC Toronto ran a story on several King Street West businesses that have claimed that the new King Street Pilot have caused them to lose customers in December. The three business owners mentioned in the article were Laleh Larijani of Forno Cultura, a bakery on King east of Bathurst, and two Restaurant Row restaurateurs: Jesse Warfield, whose family owns the Gabby’s chain of restaurants, and Fred Luk, owner of Fred’s Not Here and The Red Tomato.
The King Street Pilot was launched by the City of Toronto on November 12, 2017. At many intersections between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets, cars and trucks are required to turn right off of King Street, prioritizing streetcar traffic. Most on-street parking spots were removed from King Street through this section, but designated areas allow for deliveries, passenger pick-ups and drop-offs, and access to local properties, including parking garages. Despite some [predictable] hyperbole from suburban politicians and reactionary journalists, cars are not in fact banned from any section of King Street. And there are many public and privately-owned garages adjacent to the pilot corridor for motorists to park at.
For transit riders, the King Street Pilot is working. In December, the TTC reported travel time reductions for the busy 504 King and 514 Cherry Streetcars of up to 24 percent. However, it still struggles to keep up with demand. The continuing delays in the new streetcar deliveries from Bombardier have not helped matters; and streetcars still often run overcrowded, leaving some passengers behind at streetcar stops. There are some necessary tweaks to be made: TTC schedules should take advantage of improved travel times, and transit signal priority is also necessary with the new far-side stop locations at intersections. Signal priority will help to ensure streetcars don’t have to stop at a red light at the near side of the intersection and again to load passengers at the far side.
But since it’s a year-long pilot project, these tweaks can be made.
Unfortunately the CBC article was weak in that it presented only the business owners’ complaints about the King Street Pilot, without hard data to back up the claims of lost business. Only one Toronto city councillor was quoted, John Campbell, who represents Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre. Ward 4 is an affluent, suburban part of the city that does not have any streetcar lines. Councillor Campbell, who also sits on the Toronto Transit Commission, would like to see street parking permitted during evenings and weekends:
“I would like to see people able to park here in the evening, park here on the weekends, because listen, when it’s –15 C people don’t want to walk a block-and-a-half to get to a restaurant. They want to park within 100 metres. I think that would bring more vibrancy back,” [Campbell] explained.
It’s worth pointing out that motorists will walk much further than 100 metres when parking at busy suburban malls like Sherway Gardens or Yorkdale; it’s also the distance from many GO Transit parking spots to the train platform. The walk between the front doors of the Royal Alexandra Theatre and Princess of Wales Theatre on King Street is nearly 200 metres.
Watering down the King Street Pilot would doom it to failure: as any King Street transit rider knows, traffic congestion didn’t suddenly disappear at 6:30 PM. It’s an unreasonable expectation to find ample parking 100 metres from many downtown businesses and institutions.
It’s worth noting that a suburban councillor has taken so much interest in watering down a downtown initiative championed by downtown councillors, and that as a member of the TTC board, Campbell wishes to reduce the benefit to many of the transit agency’s customers.
Fred Luk, profiled in the CBC article, has a long history of complaining to Toronto media, as pointed out by urbanist and writer Shawn Micallef on Twitter. In the last few years, Luk has complained about the increase in the minimum wage, higher energy costs, the effects of the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2010 G20 Summit, even the 1999 municipal indoor smoking ban. Yet Luk’s King Street restaurants persisted.
There are many factors that can influence the success of restaurant businesses. Obviously, the quality of food and service should be examined. It’s worth noting that Toronto is bearing with unseasonably cold temperatures, it’s the low season for tourism, and there aren’t any blockbuster musicals currently playing at the Royal Alex or Princess of Wales. Motorists still have to get used to the new arrangements and change their habits; it’s only been seven weeks so far. Once the weather improves, the curb lane in front of Restaurant Row can be used for wider sidewalks, even enlarged front patios.
The smart thing for a business owner concerned about a decline in patronage would be to use the free publicity to promote the restaurants, rather than complain about a loss of business. Businesses in the Entertainment District are largely driven by walk-up traffic; there’s a reason why menus are posted by the doors and in the summertime, you can’t walk past Restaurant Row without having a representative out front trying to get you to look at their menu.
Locating a restaurant on King Street West has lots of advantages: the proximity to thousands of residents, many nearby offices, hotels, entertainment and sports venues, and excellent transit access and ever increasing pedestrian activity. It is not realistic to expect ample street parking to be one those advantages.
If access to parking were the chief concern, it would be wise to set up in a suburban plaza somewhere else, like in John Campbell’s Etobicoke. Complaining about a major improvement to the travel times of thousands of commuters, without offering any incentives for potential customers to visit your restaurants isn’t productive. Instead, doom and gloom messaging may only damage business further, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.