A bike advocate and a worried business owner face off over the Bloor Street bike lanes
Last summer, when the city installed bike lanes on the stretch of Bloor Street between Avenue Road and Shaw, everyone knew the change could be short-lived. The city’s plan was to study the lanes for a year and then decide whether to make them permanent. Now, with the bike lane decision officially on the city’s legislative agenda (it goes to committee today), permanence is looking likely: mayor John Tory is in favour. But not everybody is pleased with the status quo. City council is expected to vote on the issue at its November 8 meeting. In the meantime, we spoke to two people with very different views.
Barry Alper is the owner of Fresh, a chain of vegetarian restaurants, which has a location near Bloor and Spadina. He’s also the public face of the Annex Business Bike Alliance, an ad hoc group of area business owners who oppose the Bloor Street bike lanes in their current form.
Jared Kolb is the executive director of Cycle Toronto, an advocacy organization that has campaigned in favour of preserving and expanding the Bloor Street bike lanes.
How does each of you get around town? Are you primarily drivers or cyclists?
In the summertime, I try to use my bike as much as possible. If it’s raining, though, I’ll never use my bike. I’m not that confident on it. In the winter, I have a car that I use. I’m also a subway user.
My wife and I sold our car in the summer of 2014. We have been generally car-free since then. I primarily get around by bicycle, but certainly use transit, as well as car share and car rentals, to get around town. Certainly, I’ll ride most days through the year. I think the old Danish proverb stands, which is there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
Do both of you agree that there are positive aspects to bike lanes?
Absolutely. I’ve been an advocate for permanent bike lanes on Bloor Street, probably for 20 years now. I’ve always thought we need to provide safety for cyclists. That’s a given for Fresh, and for myself, and for most of the businesses on Bloor Street.
But you have some problems with the way these lanes were implemented. Please describe them.
For me, it’s about the design and how the design has impacted the neighbourhood. For one thing, the bike lane’s designers made parking spots in the middle of the road. For me, from a safety point of view, as a cyclist, I find that incredibly dangerous. At night, for some of the businesses that stay open late, it can be hazardous for customers to walk into the street. The design that has been brought to Bloor Street doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe there is a better way to design and operate these particular bike lanes.
I think the cycling community would agree that there are issues with the design of the bike lanes. Those are related to sight lines, and to the narrowness of certain parts of the street. The great benefit to the parking design on Bloor Street, where the lanes run alongside the passenger sides of the parked cars, is that the dooring risk is quite a bit lower, because in the majority of cases there isn’t a passenger there. That being said, we’re still seeing conflicts. The number-one way to address those, quite frankly, is to remove more of the parking on the street and to create a truly separate bicycle lane.
Barry, how would you feel about removing more parking from the strip?
I don’t think we need parking 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But also, I don’t believe that these bike lanes require 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There are times during the year where I don’t think you can expect people not to use their car when they’re going out for dinner with a whole bunch of people. It’s the Canadian winter.
I don’t think that Bloor Street needs to be a place where we can expect people to park conveniently in front of their destination. We shouldn’t be using precious road space for car storage when we can convert it to high quality facilities that really can protect cyclists and pedestrians to a much greater degree.
Barry, you’ve said these lanes have had a negative impact on sales for businesses on Bloor. Is that right? Has your restaurant suffered?
It’s not so much about my store. I’m okay. I’ve been in the Annex for 22 years. I have other stores in and around Toronto, so if someone can’t get to my Bloor Street location they can go to another location. I can afford the loss. But a lot of people who have independent businesses along the strip, their sales are down dramatically. That’s their only business. It’s a real struggle for them. Some of the convenience stores, some of the clothing stores, they’ve really seen a huge drop in business.
It could be a myriad of things causing their business to go down. It could be competition, it could be Amazon. I’ve heard higher house prices might be a reason. All that stuff feeds into it, but the truth is that their sales are down. Is it strictly because of bike lanes? I would never say that. But certainly, I would say the design of these bike lanes hasn’t increased the number of people stopping in the neighbourhood. It has probably increased the number of people going through the neighbourhood, but that’s not reflected in sales.
Jared, the position of Cycle Toronto has always been that bike lanes on Bloor would probably increase business, right?
First of all, I think we’re talking about a really small period of time. The city studied the bike lane’s performance between June 2016 and June 2017. That’s about 10 months of bike lane installation. It’s hard to pull out data from that amount of time.
There are a variety of businesses that have communicated to us that their sales are down. There’s been a variety that have communicated that their sales are up. What are we to do with this? These are data points. What we can do is try to study the situation. We have seen a reported growth in customers. In 2015, the number of merchants who reported 100 or more customers on a Saturday was 46 per cent. That grew to 62 per cent by 2017. So, we’re seeing a growth of customers. We’re also seeing customers say they prefer a street with the bike lanes, whereas merchants are saying they don’t like it as much as the customers do. Part of that could be that, whereas 90 per cent of people get to Bloor by walking, cycling or transit, 50 per cent of merchants get to Bloor by car.
Retail vacancy rates on Bloor have held consistent at 7 per cent. The city was able to obtain data from Moneris, the credit card processor, which indicates that retail transactions on the strip are up 4.45 per cent, overall. My heart certainly goes out to business owners who are seeing a reduction in sales. But one thing that I hope we can all agree on is that safety needs to be our number-one priority as a city. That’s something these bike lanes helped to deliver.
Moneris is really just about credit card transactions and not overall sales. You are telling these businesses that consumers are spending more on credit cards. That’s your increase in sales. It’s insulting to us. When we hear this information, we’re like, really? It’s frustrating. I accept that safety on the road is important. I accept that bike lanes should be permanent on Bloor Street. I accept that we should try to limit the tension between cars and bikes. But, please, just admit that this pilot, if we are going to call it a pilot, has had a negative impact on sales in the Annex. We need to find a way to improve sales for businesses in the Annex.
The Moneris numbers are one data point. I hear Barry on that. I don’t think that’s a reason to throw the data out. Business owners aren’t going to open up their books and demonstrate their profit margins. I think what the city has tried to do here is to grab a few approaches that point the way to what’s going on. Like I said, I don’t doubt that there are businesses that are up and businesses that are down. What the stats show is that over time, streets that have bike lanes see an increase in retail sales. I stand behind that. Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be winners and losers.
The bike lanes have attracted lots of cyclists to Bloor Street, but the city is saying that about 75 per cent of the increase is from people who are just rerouting from other nearby east-west routes. On average, per 24-hour period, there are about 371 more bike trips happening in the Bloor Street area now than would have been happening if the lanes hadn’t been installed. Is that enough of a difference for the lanes to be worthwhile?
The truth is, during this pilot period, if you add up Dupont, Harbord and Bloor Street and you compare year over year, cycling is up four per cent. I don’t know if that’s a critical mass. Maybe there’s a way of making Bloor Street good for motorists during certain periods of time, good for shops during certain periods of time, and good for cyclists during certain periods of time. After rush hour in the winter time, these bike lanes are not used as much as they are during the rest of the year. My location and locations across the street look like dead zones now.
I’ve never heard anybody say that cars add vitality to a street.
Cars have people in them. What I meant is cars pulling up, people getting out and going into businesses. That’s what I’m talking about.
If we look at the overall numbers of people who are riding on Bloor Street, the baseline being 3,000 or 3,200, by October that was boosted to 4,500, and by June it was at 5,000. Our partners did video counts at Bloor and Bathurst in September, and the range was between 6,200 and 6,700. We’re talking about a very short amount of time in which we’ve seen some really explosive growth in cycling on Bloor Street. I think that’s a huge success, especially when you consider we are talking about a 2.5 kilometre route. As for winter: safety is not seasonal. We need high-quality cycling facilities that are being plowed.
Barry, what do you think is going to happen to your business if nothing changes here?
I’m here for the long run. I’m not leaving because of bike lanes. I believe in my city. I believe in my neighbourhood. I believe I can make it better. Maybe the other people in the neighbourhood will have to close and leave. That’s sad.
I always thought that permanent bike lanes would exist on Bloor Street. I want to people to bike. But for me, what I see is there has been no effort to determine whether the current bike lanes can be designed and operated differently to improve cyclist safety and motorist flow. I think we need a compromise. It’s shocking to me that something like cycling, which we all grew up doing, which we all considered to be fun, has been turned into a war, where we have all these people being angry at each other. Being in the Annex now is not as much fun as it used to be. I just wish we could all come together and find a better solution that works for us and everyone else.
I think that if we are in a war, the casualties are only on one side—and that’s the pedestrians and the cyclists. I don’t like that approach. I think the street is actually better than it was before. I think we are seeing an amazing amount of activity. The vitality of the street is there. I think there’s a dead zone around the Mirvish Village area, where Honest Ed’s has closed, and on Markham street, no question. I think there are a lot of forces that local businesses are up against. Personally, I shop local and I really want to celebrate and support local businesses. But I also think that we have got to engineer our streets so that they are safe for pedestrians and safe for cyclists.