I’ve been following the reconstruction of Avenue Hennepin Sud for a while now, but the recent discussion of businesses along the corridor got me thinking. In a number of recent forums, I’ve heard comments from businesses implying that the redesign will negatively impact their revenue or even force them to close. Businesses said most customers arrive by car and the loss of on-street parking would certainly lead to lower revenue. As I live nearby and appreciate the abundance of businesses I can walk to (I also have an MBA and am sensitive to business concerns in general) I decided to do some reading and research to learn more.
One example 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 thoroughfare in Toronto that is fairly flat and straight and has therefore been identified for dedicated bike lanes as an east/west thoroughfare. Similar to Hennepin, this street also serves as a major commercial destination for retail, restaurants, and services. And again, similar to Hennepin, the City of Toronto has proposed removing over a hundred on-street parking spaces along the commercial corridor and replacing them with a separate bike lane.
Due to vocal opposition to making its pilot cycle lanes permanent, which would result in the removal of over 100 parking spaces, Bloor Street has been investigated a few times. In addition to an original study from 2008, further analysis in 2016/2017 was conducted on the effects of the cycle path using post-reconstruction data. While the detailed studies are excellent, I also contacted David Simor, director of the Center for Active Transportation, an organization that helped carry out the studies. We had a one-hour call where he shared his thoughts, experiences, and a bit more context around the data. Both from this conversation and from the studies themselves, I took away a number of thoughts about businesses and street redevelopments that give me hope for the future.
While I wanted to jump right into the background and history of the studies, their methodology and more, David interrupted me to point out something before we started: he thought we should acknowledge street safety. For him it is 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 motorized vehicles. Recognizing this fact, David felt that we should always focus on the underlying importance of the safety of people using a street and that any concerns related to economic activity or other factors should be complementary. He also added that other cold cities have rearranged street prioritization in interesting ways when looking at it from a human, not an economic perspective, such as gender-egalitarian plowing in Stockholm. Simply put, making the streets better for people should be reason enough to move on without having to prove anything else. I certainly appreciated this reminder because it sometimes gets lost in the discussion.
That important point aside, our conversation came back to studies. In the original 2008 study, canvassers asked people along Bloor Street how they got there, what they thought of the street and its safety, and their perception of the redesign. They also spoke to store managers to ask how they thought customers were coming into businesses to compare to visitor data. Following the 2008 Bloor Street surveys, data shows that store managers may have overestimated the number of customers arriving by car. Of those who live or work in the area, two-thirds walk, 14% cycle, 14% take public transport and only 5% drive. For those who do not live or work in the area, 54% use public transport, 20% walk, 16% drive and 10% cycle. Interestingly, only 30% of store managers surveyed felt the driving percentage was in the correct category of 0-10%, meaning a majority overestimated the percentage of people in the hallway who arrive by car, a likely factor in their opposition to cycle lanes.
In 2016/2017, Toronto followed up with additional polls asking people in the hallway what they thought of the street, its safety and how they got to Bloor. These results showed improvements from a perceived safety perspective, which is important for people who choose to spend time somewhere:
Beyond simple perception, data from the City of Toronto showed that after reconstruction, Bloor Street has improved its safety for all users:
- the total number of conflicts between all road users decreased by 44%;
- the number of conflicts between motor vehicles decreased by 71%;
- the number of bicycle/motorized vehicle conflicts decreased by 61%;
- the number of pedestrian/vehicle conflicts decreased by 55%;
In addition to the improved safety (which, again, should stand on its own), the number of people arriving by modes other than car has increased overall, with people feeling safer on foot and cycling along the corridor. Car journey times increased only slightly and the number of people who said they had difficulty parking rose only from a tenth to only around a third of all drivers, still a minority.
Beyond travel data, what about real economic activity? Many voice companies thought bike lanes would negatively impact their bottom line or force them to close, as we heard in recent Minneapolis forums on the subject. The City of Toronto further assessed economic activity in 2016 by obtaining credit card transactions from Moneris and conducted in-depth analysis. The study confirmed that if cyclists and pedestrians pass slightly less per trip than motorists, they visit more often and therefore spend more money over time. This study also acknowledges that while retail spending across the city has declined somewhat in general as the economy evolves, areas with bike lanes have declined. less than control study areas elsewhere in the city.
What about stores forced to close because of cycle lanes? Vacancy rates have held steady on Bloor Street at 7% over time before and after the bike lanes, and have actually increased from 10% to 7% on a nearby street (Danforth) where another bike lane has been added. The number of businesses reporting more than 100 customers on a Saturday rose from 46% to 61% on Bloor Street after the bike lanes were installed. Overall, bike lanes were correlated with increased economic activity compared to other areas without them and may even have reduced the overall decline in retail spending compared to other commercial streets in Toronto. Although I don’t name them directly, I also see the names of many companies that opposed reconstruction in news articles at the time to still be open on the map when I looked, all these years more late.
So, what did I think of this conversation and all the data? It gave me hope for the future by rebuilding a people-oriented and climate-friendly Hennepin Avenue, where people outside of cars are also housed. Rather than worrying about the future of business, the Bloor Street story tells me that economic activity along the corridor will actually improve and that bike lanes could actually help slow down the drop in retail spending that we see in the market in general. Rather than objecting to dedicated bike and bus lanes as harmful to business, I think Bloor Street shows us that businesses should actively support this project as a net positive for their bottom line. For Bloor Street and so many others (including others in Minneapolis), people-centric streets actually mean more customers who visit more often and stay longer. Businesses cannot afford to continue with infrastructure that does not help increase economic activity, make the streets a better place to spend time and money, and a safer place. And for me, I look forward to spending more money at great local stores as I walk more safely down the street.