King Street complainers need to remember why they’re on King Street

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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.

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5 Responses to King Street complainers need to remember why they’re on King Street

  1. Councillor Campbell, while representing a suburban Etobicoke ward yet speaking on issues pertaining to the interests of the downtown core, is reminiscent of midtown Councillor Josh Matlow’s recent trek up into Scarborough during a town hall with local councillor Neethan Shan and Mayor John Tory to educate residents about LRT. Do you see a similarity between the two scenarios, or is it false equivalency?

    • Hi Alan.

      I see some similarity between the two scenarios, but there are also differences as well. As I have said many times before, I am not in favour of the $3.35 Billion one-stop subway extension to Scarborough Centre. And I believe that Josh Matlow is correct in his arguments, if not in the way he sometimes presents them.

      But the costs to the city are far greater on a major capital transit project (Scarborough residents are split on the subway vs. LRT debate, even if most of their politicians are in favour) than a downtown streetcar initiative with lots of local support. It’s worth noting as well how often suburban politicians often interfere with local desires, such as the removal of bike lanes on Jarvis Street, or the decision to rebuild the Gardiner Expressway East “Hybrid” reconstruction.

      It’s a fair point, but I think the Scarborough Subway debate is more complicated, and has more implications city-wide.

  2. SB says:

    Is anyone doing an economic impact study that measures the savings / cost in terms of productivity from the reduction in commute times? This needs to be held up against what are irrelevant loses to some businesses.

  3. Jay says:

    I moved to Toronto in the late 90’s. Fred’s Not Here & the Red Tomato have been around almost as long. Offer valet service if it’s really such an issue.

  4. Derek says:

    Sales are also down because these restaurants fail to keep up with technology, not to mention new alternatives in the area. All the condo dwellers want to grab take-out through Ritual and go home and watch Netflix in the winter. Having a chance to live within walking distance of all three of these restaurants, not once have I noticed an advertisement from them. I struggle to understand how business could be down (ignoring cold weather) when the population in the area is one of the fastest growing in North America. The restaurants on King from Peter to Simcoe are viewed as tourist traps from those living in and around the entertainment district. It will only continue to become harder and harder for these restaurants if they continue to focus on non-local customers. I am looking forward to the next step no one is talking about, removing all cars from King, expanding the sidewalks and only allowing street cars. There was an Entertainment District Master Plan floating around a few years ago with something to that effect. More recent copies are not as bold, but I remain certain and hopeful that is the plan. How busy are these restaurants during Tiff when King has been shut down? 100 meters gives customers tons of options such as Gusto 101, Le Select, Pai, Marben, and Montecito. The King Street Pilot is a dream, ignoring the greater than 70% motorist non-compliance rate. Thank you for the original content Sean…keep up the good work.

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