The Effect of Rapid Transit on Local Shopping

A few weeks ago, Stephen Rees Blog in Vancouver ran an interesting piece on the effect of the new Canada Line (the one connecting Vancouver Airport and Richmond to downtown) on local shopping neighbourhoods.  Since bus service on the former surface routes has been cut, merchants are concerned that they get less walk-in trade from bus passengers.

The comment thread following the article requires some knowledge of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods and geography, but includes a variety of viewpoints on this phenomenon.  One point comes right at the end of the thread in a comment about the reconstruction of Cambie Street, under which the Canada Line runs:

Cambie Street between 16th and King Ed was completely rebuilt at great tax payer expense. What an opportunity to create a “Great Street” and boost neighborhood identity!

Instead, the streetscape design is the worst possible for enhancing the Cambie Village experience. Six lanes of traffic without separating medians, with curb side parking taking up the outer two.

My favourite symbol of the lack of capacity shown in this area of design practice is the introduction of “park benches” on the sidewalks facing parked cars.

We hear a lot about urban design in Toronto and the improvements possible as an offshoot of the Transit City projects, and the Cambie experience should be a warning of what can happen.

Rees’ article talks about the problems of merchant pressure for parking taking precedence over transit, and this effect can be seen on St. Clair where parking was one of the car-oriented street functions that forced an uncomfortable design onto the street overall.

He makes an important point about transit, namely that it is part of a pedestrian experience:

Every transit trip is an interrupted walk. Transit stops and stations ought to be seen as key to retailing. Far too often in Greater Vancouver bus passengers are banished to remote, sterile areas like Phibbs Exchange, or the Ladner bus loop. Always this is forced by local merchants who have only contempt for what they see as the low income bus passenger, and who regard buses as noisy, smelly nuisances. Of course, transit’s selection of large diesel buses only confirms that view. We do have to learn from our experiences, and acknowledge our mistakes. Far too often, transit advocates are expected to be cheer leaders for a system which, sadly, often lets us down, and seems incapable of learning from its past mistakes. Let’s all learn from this when we design our next system change.

As one who is often expected to cheer for transit plans and hope that we will fix the design problems “later”, I can only say that the time for believing planners when they say “trust me” is long over.

16 thoughts on “The Effect of Rapid Transit on Local Shopping

  1. This effect is also what happened on Bloor Danforth when the street cars were replaced by the subway. People who are getting off a vehicle and walking a block or two home will stop and buy 4 L’s of milk or a loaf of bread. If they no longer are near that store they will wait until they DRIVE to the large grocery store. People who get off transit and walk by your store are the next best thing to a captive audience.

    I remember reading an article when TANDY Corporation (Radio Shack’s parent) opened a huge mall in downtown Fort Worth and provided rapid transit with ex Washington DC PCC’s free to the mall from its huge outlying parking lots. Some one asked the head of Tandy if this lot would be used during weekdays by people working in downtown offices who would benefit from the free ride and parking. His answer was sure they would but they have to walk through our mall twice a day every day and we will benefit from impulse purchases. Alas I think that the line is now gone.

    Steve: The only difference in 1966 would be that people would buy quarts of milk, not litres. A loaf of brae, however, is still a loaf of bread.


  2. All this makes me a little worried about the increased stop spacing on Eglinton. There are several shopping strips along the east and west sides of the route, and the longer walks from each stop could orphan some areas.

    On the other hand, the congestion on many parts of the route can be BRUTAL. I’ve been stuck on buses there for far too long.


  3. Looking at recent tram line designs in Toronto, Spadina is relatively successful in revitalizing the local community. Before the tram was built, taking that 77 Bus to Chinatown from Spadina Station was terrible. It took a long time to get there and the ride was harsh from all the braking.

    Now, more people visit Chinatown by using the Spadina trams than say the Dundas trams. Notice how the TTC has to put employees at the stop to permit rear door boarding on Spadina at Dundas. There are no shops closing as feared when the line was first built. If Transit City followed Spadina, it is actually quite desirable.

    On a side note, the trend is moving towards more concentrated forms of shopping. People have no touble walking five escalators at a shopping mall next to a metro station. However, the same people will not walk 300m from a station to a store. If you want to see this effect, just look at a Google map of some major Tokyo stations. Even at hubs like Ikebukro and Shinbashi. Outside of the station, there are huge towers of retail stores. 400m out, retail just falls off a cliff.


  4. Isn’t all of this a zero sum game? For every store losing a sale, there will be another store gaining a sale? Yes, it’s unfortunate if you happen to be the one losing the sale, but that’s no reason to not make improvements.

    Steve: The distinction is between commercial areas then encourage pedestrian access and those that are designed for or even require a car. Every time some pedestrian activity disappears, a street is a bit poorer because there are fewer people on it.


  5. How much would it help Yonge St. retail if the 97 Yonge was improved rather than ripping up Yonge/Bloor? Maybe a peak time Danforth bus too?

    Steve: The number of buses you would have to add to make a difference to Yonge Street (or Danforth) retail would be substantial. Don’t forget that the Bloor-Danforth streetcar services ran a one minute headway of two-car PCC trains.


  6. Benny Cheung says: “People have no touble walking five escalators at a shopping mall next to a metro station. However, the same people will not walk 300m from a station to a store.”

    Possibly Canada’s climate has a lot to do with that… people will always walk further inside compared with outside, not least because they feel that the inside is all one place. Also, almost all malls around the GTA occupy a land area less than 400m square – and those that don’t are generally deisigned along one long “corridor”. The other big advanatge to a mall is density – no spaces between shops, no set-back behind car parks. (Is it just me, or do the best non-mall shopping areas have shopfronts abutting the sidewalk, rather than being behind by a car park?)

    Transit hubs should always aim to be at places that are major destinations in their own right, such as downtown areas, shopping malls, or business parks. We don’t build transit systems so people can make transit journeys – we build them to people can get from one place to another (something some planners forget).

    Steve: Those “non mall” areas you talk of are the way shopping areas used to be built back when they were oriented to the sidewalk and pedestrians rather than to a strip of parking in front of the stores. Not only do the stores invite browsing through windows, they provide some shelter and the pedestrian walks are not stranded in a no-man’s land between the store parking and the roadway.


  7. Benny – disagree w/ the Spadina streetcar. The stop spacing is too close together and this slows down the streetcar by a large degree which allows people to argue that the streetcar is not faster than before the ROW and is the same speed as the Bathurst streetcar. I believe Chinatown would be just fine with maybe 3/4 less stops. Chinatown lends itself to walking.

    Agree with the concentrated shopping…. look at Bangkok, with Siam Centre, MBK and so many other major shopping centres at the nexus of two rapid transit lines. Although, if the street is designed right, it doesn’t have to be like that.

    Steve: There was a big fight about stops when the line was designed. The “in between” stops at Baldwin and Sullivan were added, as well as one north of the circle at Willcocks. All are well-used and, frankly, I think they contribute to the “neighbourhood” aspect of the route. The problem, by comparison with Bathust, is that there is much more passenger traffic and longer dwell times at the stops. This is a particular problem for boarding passengers who must all file past the operator’s farebox. This will only be fixed when we switch to all-door loading all the time at all stops.


  8. I work at Caledonia Road and Castlefield Avenue. Often I walk or take the 47B/C down to Eglinton and use whatever branch of the 32 shows up to access a number of local eateries along Eglinton as far as Bathurst Street. I can only do this on an hour lunch because the buses are frequent and make frequent stops (when they are on time and not skipping stops because they’re packed). When the line goes underground most of my lunch trips will cease partly because of the removed stops and wider headways. The awful screw-up of not having the new station at Caledonia instead of three blocks away at a plaza is actually the most significant impediment. The implications for my daily bus commute from and to Lansdowne station from a yet to be detailed diversion of the 47B/C buses mid-route for this offset station are not clear to me yet.


  9. How does one then explain why Yonge Street between Eglinton and York Mills remains a successful retail areas? When the Yonge subway was extended north of Eglinton, the trolleybus (and before that a streetcar) was replaced with a subway with 2km stop spacing and infrequent local bus service. Yet the retail there does just fine. On the other hand, Danforth east of Jones is unsuccessful, despite frequent stop spacing (while the western portion of Danforth and parts of Bloor West are very successful). It seems to me that the success of a retail area has little to do with whether transit is on the surface or underground, or the frequency of stops, and everything to do with how desirable the nearby area is (all the successful retail strips are in rich neighbourhoods).

    Steve: I think it is a combination of factors. A rich neighbourhood has a built in support for its retail base, and probably has many shops that don’t depend on impulse buys from people enroute to/from their bus/streetcar. A less well off neighbourhood needs all the business it can get.


  10. I thought that there were a number of good examples presented in the Designing Transit Cities Symposium that dealt with some of the topics here. This included the treatment of the corridor, as well as integrating various land uses, which sometimes include industrial uses in unconventional ways (I found the Paris examples of garages/carhouses to be absolutely brilliant). They also addressed the oft-neglected element of side street treatments for accessing transit trunk-line corridors (of whatever technology, although typically LRT).

    Sadly, despite the TTC and Metrolinx being promoters/sponsors of the event, the TTC and Metrolinx themselves are missing some of the valuable lessons to be learned. The opportunities are clearly there, but there is definitely inaction in seizing them. Eglinton is of particular concern.


  11. Let’s also not forget that society is changing – Toronto has evolved over the years. As such, the demand for one business may change over time. Better transit service is just one factor of many.


  12. Well we could look to the Bloor-Danforth line and if it was extended to Sherway Gardens there would be a lot more people going to that mall. This would be able to replace the sloppy bus connections there with all 3 of the routes that serve it comes every 15 minutes at best. While it can be fair to say that subways can take away demand from shopping strip areas because, it can also significantly boost demand for the stores that are located near the subway stops.


  13. I never cease to be amazed by people who ask why don’t they run buses whenever the subway or the GO train experiences problems. One train on the TTC or GO transit at crush load can carry 1800 people. That is 30 buses at 60 people per bus or 12 LFLRV’s at 150 people. To replace a 2min 30 second headway would require 720 buses per hour or 288 LFLRV’s. That is one bus every 5 seconds or a street car every 12.5. Where would you put them on the road? When the subway or GO are having trouble from the snow you can bet that the roads are not moving much better.

    Spadina is a street that seems to have benefited from the LRT service. If only the TTC could get off its ass and put proof of payment on Spadina instead of or along with Queen then I believe that we would see a great improvement on service. Whenever I travel on it I bet over 75% of the passengers have a pass or a transfer.

    I don’t know why the TTC or Toronto would want to extend the Bloor Subway out to Sherway unless they were going to try and follow the CPR into Mississauga. I bet Hazel is feeling left out what with two possible subway extensions into York and none into Hazelville. If the Bloor line were to be extended it would make a lot more sense to go under the road with the most riders on it instead of meandering all over the map to join up a bunch of private malls. If the malls are willing to provide space for a station on a line that is going to be built anyways then that is a win win for everybody. The mall gets a lot of patrons passing through and the transit company gets a station. Everyone benefits.


  14. The effect of transit on shopping can be seen, right now, in Toronto.

    Roncesvalles had streetcar track running up it until about 3 months ago, when it was torn up prior to the “let’s rebuild everything” project undertaken for sewers, water mains, transit, you name it.

    The track will be gone until next summer, and the street won’t be properly put back together until the fall.

    I live in the neighbourhood, and I have to say, the shopping and street life is noticeably more quiet.


  15. They do it all at once there? Here in Vancouver they dig up a street for six months for sewers. When that’s down they dig up the same street again for water mains. Then they have to do something else with the sewers so dig it up again. Then it’s hydro’s turn. Then there’s one more thing they have to do with the sewers so they dig it up one more time.

    Okay, I exaggerate. But not by much. And let’s not talk about digging up Cambie for the Canada Line.


  16. “Spadina is a street that seems to have benefited from the LRT service. If only the TTC could get off its ass and put proof of payment on Spadina instead of or along with Queen then I believe that we would see a great improvement on service. Whenever I travel on it I bet over 75% of the passengers have a pass or a transfer.”

    During summer weekends that have a system on Queen Quay where people don’t pay when they get on the streetcar, but pay at special collectors located in Union station.

    A similar system could be implemented on Spadina, northbound only starting from King to speed loading on the Spadina Streetcar. There would be some fare evasion, but that should be made up for with the money saved from speed increase.


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