Taking Back the Streets: Most Businesses on Urban Streets Make Their Money From Pedestrians and Cyclists

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©. Toronto Centre for Active Transportation

TreeHugger has covered many studies showing the impact of bike lanes on retail, usually in response to store-owners’ complaints about the loss of street parking. Here is a new one out of Toronto that is particularly interesting. It analyzes Queen Street West in Parkdale, a still-slightly gritty stretch in a rapidly gentrifying part of town.

The study’s title, Bike Lanes, On-Street Parking and Business: A Study of Queen Street West in Toronto’s Parkdale Neighbourhood, tells you right away that it is about bikes: “this study sought to understand the transportation and spending habits of visitors to the study area and to examine the potential impact on local business if there were an introduction of bike lanes and subsequent reduction of parking spaces.” The study was prepared by the volunteers of Cycle Toronto’s Ward 14 Advocacy Group.

Queen Street West

Google Street View/Screen captureBut the results tell a bigger story that gives it relevance to urbanists well beyond Parkdale. A look at this Google street view will show you what we are looking at here: a 66 foot right of way shared by retail right up to the property line, sidewalks, on-street parking (this view is taken during rush hour when there is no parking) and tracks for the popular streetcar line. There is not a lot of room, and if bike lanes go in, something’s gotta give.

The summary of the findings include:

-72% of the visitors to the Study Area usually arrive by active transportation (by bicycle or walking). Only 4% report that driving is their usual mode of transportation.
choice of transportation

© Cycle Toronto
But what I find most interesting is the breakdown of that 72 percent- 53 percent of the visitors come on foot, and they do get their own dedicated space, but it is shared with the retailers who fill it with stuff, trees, newspaper boxes, parking meters. When you look at what is left for walking, it is almost nothing, barely enough for people to get by each other.

19 percent come by bike, and they get worse than nothing, they have to ride down a thin strip between the parked cars and the streetcar tracks, an absolute death zone where a poorly parked car or truck or a door opening forces cyclists into the tracks.

Only 4 percent of the people hitting the street come there by car, yet they get to store their metal boxes on close to 30 percent of the road allowance.

merchants view

© Cycle Toronto

Yet the merchants grossly overestimated the number of their customers who arrived by car. 42% of merchants estimated that more than 25% of their customers usually arrived by car. One in four say that over half of their customers do.

breakdown mode detail

© Cycle Toronto

Now at first I thought there might be actually some truth to this for a good percentage of the retailers; I used to buy carpet for clients at a Parkdale store, and always drove there. I would not be surprised at all to find that for some types of stores, a lot of their customers drove. But even among that group from outside Parkdale visiting establishments in Parkdale, only 9.1 percent drove.

hey big spender

© Cycle Toronto

And when you look at who spent the money, the locals arriving on foot or bike are by far the biggest spenders. So for me the question is, are the merchants willfully blind to what is going on around them, and about who their customers are? Or is it just that the cyclists are finding them anyway, so why not just keep things the way they are? In fact, that is what over half the merchants preferred.

I find it amazing that 96 percent of the traffic on this stretch of Queen Street comes by active transportation or transit, that 72 percent is active. It is troubling that 19 percent cycles and they get worse than nothing. But I find the fact that 53 percent are walking to be the real eye-opener.

crowded sidewalk

Lloyd Alter/ Bloor Street bike lane and sidewalk/CC BY 2.0

I took the photo above on another Toronto street to show a truck blocking the new bike lane, but also demonstrates how awful the pedestrian realm is, how little room there is for anyone to move on the sidewalks. It's time to take back the streets, but let's make sure that the pedestrians get a more proportionate piece of it too.

Study Details: Authors: Chan, M., Gapski, G., Hurley, K., Ibarra, E., Pin, L., Shupac, A. & Szabo, E. (November 2016). Bike Lanes, On-Street Parking and Business in Parkdale: A study of Queen Street West in Toronto’s Parkdale Neighbourhood. Toronto, Ontario.

Full disclosure: The author is a paying member of Cycle Toronto.