KoreaTown small business owner Matt Lee looks out the window at the empty Bloor St. bike lanes and sighs as he calculates that his evening business has plummeted up to 60% since last summer.
Lee sees a real difference in customer traffic to his neighbourhood — just west of Bathurst St. — since the controversial 5.2 kilometre stretch of separated bike lanes were installed in August 2016.
Because the area lost 70% of on-street parking for the lanes, fewer people are patronizing the restaurants, and his dessert shop, he says.
“This year (there’s been) no traffic at all,” Lee said recently over cappuccino at his cute shop, Put a Cone on It.
“People used to have dinner and walk around the area...now there is no foot traffic,” the avid cyclist added.
Business from cyclists using the lanes, who city officials guaranteed would offset the loss of parking, has been non-existent, he says.
“We don’t see people (cyclists) stopping and buying things,” Lee says. “It’s more like a freeway.”
Doug Miller, who’s adjacent to Lee, said business at his long-time bookstore is down 45%. He’s been “cutting corners everywhere” and has had to borrow money to pay his rent.
“I told (Councillor) Joe Cressy...that Bloor St. is not wide enough to support bike lanes on either side,” he said.
Barry Alper, who has seen revenues at his popular Fresh restaurant at Bloor and Spadina Ave. decline 5% due to the bike lanes (while his other three locations are booming), said he’s expecting to hear later this month when the city releases its report on the pilot that this is a “home run” — that no one has suffered because of the bike lanes.
Other shop owners I spoke with on condition of anonymity — as they’ve been threatened by the cycling lobby with a boycott of their businesses if they speak out — agree on one thing: The fix was in from the start and the survey results will not reflect in the slightest what many Bloor St. business owners are really experiencing.
They say since the lanes were rammed into being by a group of ideologues, led by their local councillor, Cressy — with avid support from the chairman of the Bloor-Annex BIA Brian Burchell — they’ve been essentially sidelined.
I tried to reach both Cressy and Burchell several times last week but they did not respond to requests for comment.
Alper, also an avid cyclist who welcomed the lanes initially, said when he heard the questions that were being asked in the $68,000 economic impact study — led by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) — he realized it was not an economic impact study at all.
That’s because TCAT doesn’t ask any basic economic questions, as in whether sales are up or down at the businesses affected.
Lee feels the study is also biased because they did none of their surveys in the winter months, limiting all reviews and counts to peak cycling periods.
Both Lee and Alper ended up doing their own surveys of KoreaTown and Bloor-Annex business owners — finding business in both areas is down anywhere from 69% to 89% since the lanes came in.
Little wonder the study is biased considering TCAT is a cycling advocacy group that is part of the Clean Air Partnership, an environmental lobby group. Beth Savan, the UofT professor who helped with the survey’s design, is a principal investigator with the Toronto Cycling Think&Do Tank.
Asked why TCAT of all groups, city spokesman Bruce Hawkins said it was the BIAs that had already selected TCAT, adding that city economic development and transportation staff reviewed the survey questions.
Hawkins also noted it is not best practice to do traffic counts for either bicycles or vehicles in the winter.
TCAT’s director, Nancy Smith Lea whose bio says she’s been actively working to improve cycling conditions in Toronto since 1993, claimed Friday that their study looks “at multiple data sources to estimate economic impact” — comparing estimated customer counts, estimated spending and visit frequency prior to and after the installation of the bike lanes.
She went to great lengths to say they didn’t want to ask businesses about sales — without solid point-of-sale data to verify their responses — because it would be “insufficient.”
Asked about TCAT’s perceived bias, she echoed the party line noting that Toronto’s streets should be safer than they are now for pedestrians and cyclists and that the vitality of local business is “especially important” for cyclists who tend to visit local main-street businesses “more often.”
Councillor Stephen Holyday said the concerns he’s hearing match his own instincts that the bike lanes were going to be “very difficult for business owners in the area.”
“I hope more information like this comes to light,” he says. “It’s clear many people who have been ideologically driven don’t appreciate that people are hurting.”
Alper says it’s makes him sad to think there is no “compromise” on this.
“I feel sad that there’s no debate here...we’re the scorekeepers of the economic impact that’s being manipulated,” he says. “The real information is not getting out.”
THE FIX IS IN ON BLOOR
TCAT’s economic impact survey questions to merchants:
1. On average, how many customers do you serve per day?
2. How did you get to work today (walk/bike/transit/car/other)?
3. How do you usually get to work?
4. Has there been a change in how you get to work since the Bloor bike lanes were installed?
5. Where do you live?
6. From May to September how many days do you bike to work?
7. What percentage of your customers would you estimate come by bike/car/transit/on foot?
8. How safe do you feel riding a bike on Bloor St.?
Cost of TCAT “economic impact” survey:
- $45,605 from the city; $12,000 from the Metcalfe Foundation; $4,000 from the KoreaTown BIA; $6,500 from the Bloor Annex BIA
Sample results from Annex/KoreaTown businesses to their own economic impact surveys:
- Sales impact of the bike lanes — 69% decrease in Annex; 89% decrease in KoreaTown
- Impact on daytime customer traffic — 71% decrease in Annex; 89% decrease in KoreaTown
- Impact on evening customer traffic — 67% decrease in Annex; 66% decrease in KoreaTown
- Impact of changes made to street parking on business sales — 75% decrease in Annex; 89% decrease in KoreaTown
- Number of staff let go since installation of bike lanes — 13 in the Annex; 62 in KoreaTown