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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Matt Elliott: Don’t let business complaints derail transit improvements on King Street

The pilot project is working for transit riders and that's what matters most.

Streetcar travel times are 33 per cent more reliable on King Street than they were before the transit-priority pilot launched, according to city data. Average vehicle travel times on most streets around King, meanwhile, have changed by less than a minute.

Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press

Streetcar travel times are 33 per cent more reliable on King Street than they were before the transit-priority pilot launched, according to city data. Average vehicle travel times on most streets around King, meanwhile, have changed by less than a minute.

I got an email the other day from someone I’m working with on a project: “How quickly can you get to King and Spadina?” he asked.

It was one of those ridiculously cold days – walking or cycling would have been a bone-chilling mistake – but I knew I could count on the King streetcar to get me across town quickly.

“I’ll be there in 20 minutes,” I wrote back.

And I was.

That kind of reliability from the King car would have been unthinkable before the King Street transit pilot started in November, removing on-street parking and restricting vehicle movements. Back then, travel times were a terrible mystery. Getting from my place in Corktown to the Spadina area could have taken anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour.

The data suggests my experience is not an isolated one. According to city-collected statistics for November and December, streetcar travel times along King Street are faster and more reliable for everyone. Even better: peak ridership is up 25 per cent.

As a transit rider, I love what’s happening on King Street.

I feel like it’s important for me to say that because lately a lot of media stories about the pilot have been focusing less on the positive experiences of transit riders and more on the claims of local business owners who say the transit-first experiment has caused an apocalyptic drop in sales.

There is not yet independent data to confirm their claims. That will be coming soon, when the city releases data from payment processing company Moneris, comparing transaction activity along King with city-wide trends.

But even if that data does show some business decline, I won’t have any patience for calls to revert King Street back to its pre-pilot configuration. Nor will I accept any plan that calls for traffic restrictions to be time-limited — enforcing vehicle movements is hard enough as it is without adding further complexity to the rules.

The gain for transit riders is already too great to simply give up.

Instead, I’ll be looking to hear a rational explanation from the business community for why they think this change has impacted their sales.

It can’t be the loss of parking. Just 180 on-street parking spots were removed to make way for the pilot, hardly enough to make a serious dent in customer traffic. It’s not that cars have been banned altogether from King Street either, because they obviously haven’t been.

The only credible theory I’ve heard yet for why businesses might be suffering as a direct result of the transit pilot is the one that says confusion over the changes may have resulted in some people avoiding King Street altogether.

If that’s the case, that means the problem is messaging. And you don’t solve a messaging problem by making transit service worse for thousands of people. You solve a messaging problem with better messaging.

Mayor John Tory and staff at city hall have done their part — maybe to excess. Parking discounts are available at nearby lots. Warming centres and on-street art installations are coming. City-led campaigns to promote restaurants have been announced.  Some restaurant and business owners, on the other hand, have been complaining since week one.

Unlike the streetcar, their positive messaging about the new King Street has been slow to arrive.

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