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Can Main Street shops stop the traffic jam blues?

Going for a drive along a nearby street isn’t my usual idea of a good conversation starter or a way to get to know someone, but it was all for a good cause, so I gave it a try—and ended up seeing the internal workings of my main street for the first time.

My assignment was to drive home my idea of a new strategy for fighting traffic congestion in Toronto, a city which regularly wins every booby prize in the books for the worst traffic congestion in North America. I got to do this during an in-car interview with Tanner Zurkoski, who has to stay in his car all-month except for brief bathroom breaks.

A wannabe film maker, Tanner got a one-month gig with Evergreen, the city’s leading urban sustainability group, as a stunt man whose time in the car would dramatize how much life is taken out of us while we’re going nowhere fast in a traffic jam. The average daily work commute in Toronto and area takes 81 minutes, which Evergreen staff calculate as equivalent to a month’s worth of waking hours. (It’s worse than that actually, since it also takes over two months of salary for reasonably well-paid people to pay off the $9000 it costs to own and run a car for a year in Toronto – which adds up to a total of three months a year lost in the name of having the convenience of a car – but I digress.)

In July, a slow season for news, Tanner’s stunt commanded high media profile, so he turned his attention to solutions he could talk up while being interviewed by media and countless passers-by who started to recognize his well-tattooed car. He also plans to use his film-making skills to create something for the social media on what he learned.

I volunteered to be Tanner’s passenger on July 2, and take him on a tour of my daily walks to buy food in my ‘hood, known as The Beaches. The area is one of the places that defines Toronto as a city of urban villages, and one mark of village stature is the streetscape of grocery stores, restaurants and cafes which allows locals and tourists to easily, pleasurably and affordably reach a variety of food destinations. Food and beverage shops have a steady flow of business all day, thanks to the moms of new kids who meet at coffee shops for a social break, surrounded by a phalanx of baby carriages with babies in them, and to the many freelancers in the area, who show up for coffee or lunch when they’re about to go stir crazy from working alone in their basement, and to the many seniors in the area, out for their constitutionals on a pleasant day, confident that the street is a safe place to be.

If everyone lived in a walkable food-friendly neighborhood like this, I hoped to persuade Tanner, we could cut a major swath out of the total number of car trips – because a full fifth of car trips are to buy food. By mainstreeting and pedestrianizing food shopping – which is to say, by localizing and personalizing the food retail system -- we could reduce global warming and extend car life while cutting down traffic jams and road rage.

Relieving congestion this way is easier than many would imagine, I believe, because traffic usually flows smoothly until it gets too busy – 2000 cars per hour in the case of expressways. So anything that brings traffic levels on freeways below 2000 cars per hour – such as measures to reduce car trips to either buy food or to get to work at a food business -- can keep gridlock at bay.

I meet Tanner at the end of his first week of non-stop car-sitting. As someone who’s suffered back pain much of my adult life, I see past his ear-to-ear grin and curly hair, and catch that familiar-looking sore back grimace. I crack a lame joke about how evolution poorly prepared us for life in the 21st century – sitting on our butts driving to places where we will sit to eat and sit to work at computer screens, a form of chronic bodily stress as harmful in its own way as the stoop work of agriculture or the heavy lifting of blue collar construction.

This wear and tear on bodily and psychological health of prolonged sitting is not calculated when standard estimates are made of the costs of a car-centered transit system and society. Nor are environmental costs included in the usual estimates of lost productivity due to traffic jams – estimated to cost about $6 billion a year in the Toronto area, according to both Metrolinx, a transit planning authority, and Toronto Board of Trade.

Hold onto that $6 billion estimate of wasted money, because a quick tour of the main street will show how some subtle and inexpensive planning interventions could get rid of a very costly problem that’s also driving us crazy.

I ask Tanner to stop pretty quickly, just two blocks away on Queen Street East, a streetscape I introduce to him as having won an award from TV Ontario for best small-town main street in the province.

Though it runs through one of North America’s largest metropolises, Queen East is a working example of what feels like a small-town main street that can also model a big city solution to a less-driven food system, fully capable of reducing overall car trips by as much as 20 per cent.
We park in front of a global behemoth of a chain outlet that sells pretentious coffee, pastries and sandwiches. Kitty corner to it is a globally-branded convenience store that features chocolate bars, candies, potato chips, pop, slurpies and milk – one staple for every ten treats.

These two relatively new chains run off a totally different business model than the old chains that co-existed with independent businesses during the heyday of main streets, I tell Tanner. Old-style chains took the cream off the top of the retail trade by featuring good prices for a narrow range of best-selling products – be they books, clothing items, personal care items, gifts, toys or foods. No special personal or neighborhood touch or feel was needed to move these mainstream products. Such chains therefore left lots of room for smaller independents that filled some special homespun niche. They either stayed open for longer hours, took special orders, stocked local preferences, offered quirky specialties, made customers feel like they were seeing an old friend the stock in trade of local butchers and bakers and candle stick makers for centuries.

By contrast, modern chains hog both the milk and cream of the trade. They stay open for long hours and sell enough of the little extras – pastries, sandwiches, tea and juice in the case of coffee shops, or coffee, juices and deserts in the case of burger joints – to take away the wiggle room needed by local independents. This street is not big enough for both of us, the new chains scream, and that is how diversity – the lifeblood of the main street -- is sabotaged by a chain business model that cannibalizes competitors rather than sticking to its own niche.

Not that long ago, about the time such chains came to become the norm across North America, governments lost interest in preventing abuses by monopolies, and turned a blind eye to predatory business practices that killed off genuine competition – the kind of competition among independents that builds neighborhood main streets rather than corporate malls.

Within two blocks of our first stop at two chain outlets are places where two former corner stores went out of business a few years ago. Within the same block, three independents -- a specialty tea shop, a diner featuring fresh-made pastries, and a café serving healthy wraps and other small meals – hang in as main street independents serving the custom trade.

I ask Tanner to drive to our next stop, a few blocks away, to a hardware chain store that occupies the huge space once occupied by a Hasty Mart. I used to frequent it late at night after I put my older daughter to bed, then went down to the kitchen to realize I had nothing in the fridge to make for her lunch the next day. The Hasty Mart was open late, and had a deli section with offerings to make a customized healthful and tasty sandwich.

The shop was a godsend for me, but the floor space and format were way too big for a neighborhood convenience store that works on tight margins, slow turnover and lack of repetitive sales that can be delegated to unskilled and lowly-paid staff. The food store went out of business and was replaced by a hardware chain, one of three cannibalizing one another within a mile.

The large floor space format is certainly a convenience for landlords, who thereby rent a huge space with one transaction. But it does not serve the neighborhood, which needs space for holes in the wall that serve the wide range of specialty needs present in any vibrant and mixed neighborhood – not enough seniors, teens, infants, home renovators, middle, low and high income earners to meet the needs of a few large superstores catering to one demographic, but enough to meet the needs of multiple mini- and micro-stores. That capacity to serve a mixed and diverse neighborhood is a public good which deserves legal protection on a vibrant main street.

Tanner and I drive on, pass a stretch of Queen East with a pastry shop that specializes in gluten-free goodies, an exquisite chocolate shop, a large-format petfood store (a crucial part of the food system in the dog-loving Beaches), not to mention Ed’s Scoop (luscious and unique ice cream), two Korean cafes and assorted Asian restaurants.

I ask Tanner to stop opposite a stolid bank building that’s now home to Wholesome, an organic full-service grocery. If organic stores were taking over from banks on every main street, our problems might be over, I say to Tanner, then ask him to find the parking lot. There isn’t one, he says. That’s my point.

And it’s not just the shoppers who don’t need to drive to buy food on the Queen East strip. The staff can also walk to work. Localized shopping thereby takes two sets of drivers – commuters and shoppers -- off the road, greatly increasing the traffic impact.

A few stores down, past a solar laundry and repertory movie house is the Remarkable Bean, with great berry muffins and store-roasted coffee sipped at ramshackle chairs and tables. This is what planners call a “third place,” a bit like the old TV series Cheers, where everybody can be themselves because they feel at home. You can’t have a main street without a third place, and you can’t have a third place without comfort foods and drinks, I say to Tanner.

A few more doors away is a specialty butcher, and a block further is a small format supermarket that usually has someone outside selling a newspaper produced for people who are homeless or under-housed. Both I and my younger daughter got to know one of the men who used to sell papers here. He’d endured a rough childhood, got hooked on heroine, but worked his way out of that hole by selling papers here. He kept coming back to sell his papers and keep up relations with the people who’d bought them, even after one of his customers offered him a permanent room in his house. He kept coming back while undergoing cancer treatment. When he died, a local minister held a formal memorial service in front of the store, and he did not leave this sad world alone, uncared for or forgotten.

Such relationships are part and parcel of walkable, slow-moving, human-scaled main streets. The car is something of an invasive species here.

Tanner tells me that the most surprising change he’s noticed after a few weeks of living in the car is that he has started to feel comfortable in the car as his private space, even though he’s in that space on public thoroughfares and in plain sight of others who can easily see through his car windows. It’s weird, he tells me, but people sing out loud as if they were in the shower at home, and quite a few pick their nose in plain sight of other drivers stuck beside them in a traffic jam. The car helps them feel lost in their own thoughts and space.

I get ready to give Tanner my lecture on main streets as social centers, not traffic thoroughfares, and to explain that we will solve the traffic gridlock problem when we manage this main street social opportunity in ways that reduce car trips.

But Tanner interrupts me, the so-called foodie, on a point of procedure. Where can I get something for lunch that’s fast and cheap but tasty and doesn’t require me to go far from the car, he asks. I ask for a drive back to my place, just down the street from a diner operated by a family from Sri Lanka. That way, you can support three kids going to university, who work here weekends and summers, I said.

Helping people to go somewhere in life happens more easily when people don’t always have to get somewhere by car.

I liken main streets to the keystone species in a dynamic ecosystem that an entire food chain depends on. If supported by city planners, traffic managers and politicians, we could have successful main streets that solve traffic congestion and many other problems in cities across North America.

In today’s world, main streets could provide most everyday and survival needs in a personalized and relationship-rich environment many of us feel a deep need for. Groceries, restaurants, gastropubs, diners and cafes serve as anchors of banks, bookstores, libraries, churches, cosmetic and clothing outlets, gift shops, playgrounds, elementary schools, healthcare services, barbers, hairdressers and fire stations, all of which could be within walking distance of almost everyone in a city or large town. Only large and big ticket items such as furniture and cars require the space that’s available on the outskirts of town, far from the madding crowd, accessible mainly by car.

But that division of land use would require planners to challenge the main groups monopolizing control over urban form – commercial landlords and supersized retail outlets.

Landlords find it easier to rent a smallish number of largish shops for real estate offices, banks, huge taverns, take-outs, drive-throughs, drugstores and family eateries. Well-established global chains are like money in the bank for landlords. But what’s easy street for them isn’t easy on traffic.

Many landlords, especially the ones with buildings on main streets, could do better financially, and suffer far fewer vacant, unrented and boarded-up premises, if they were pro-active entrepreneurs who catered to neighborhood needs – for example by providing a wide range of differently-sized premises and rental rates that recruited businesses keen on serving a mixed neighborhood. But there’s no business org that promotes such enlightened self-interest among landlords, and no government agency that supports main streets against malls, or treats the needs of residents and neighbors on par with absentee landlords.

This is the challenge and opportunity for food security advocates and planners who might look to animating main streets so they can promote local and walkable shopping, workplace and social alternatives, and thereby save most city economies billions of dollars in lost time, shattered nerves, squandered social capital and degraded urban environments.

When I drive, I often experience what Tanner described after living in a car for a solid chunk of time -- the almost self-absorbed trance of being in my own world, cut off from the rest of the world, seeing the outside as an instrument that should be doing whatever’s necessary to make things work for my driving ease . It’s an ideal environment for narcissists.

But the real world experienced by a pedestrian can transport us to better places that a car can. And one way to get there is by nurturing and supporting main streets, anchored by independent neighborhood businesses catering to the essential daily shopping needs of the walk-by neighborhood trade.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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