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A transit miracle shows how the King St. pilot project can work: Keenan

It was a bank holiday, and there is still lots to fix, but the first weekday of the pilot project offered a glimpse of how good it could be.

An awful lot of drivers seemed to need instruction on how the new King St. is supposed to work, and police may need to move from education to enforcement soon. But on the first weekday morning of the transit-priority pilot project, columnist Edward Keenan says, the streetcars were moving well.

Bernard Weil / Torstar News Service Order this photo

An awful lot of drivers seemed to need instruction on how the new King St. is supposed to work, and police may need to move from education to enforcement soon. But on the first weekday morning of the transit-priority pilot project, columnist Edward Keenan says, the streetcars were moving well.

From a seat on the 504 King streetcar Monday on the first weekday morning of the transit-priority pilot project, it sure felt like a streetcar miracle.

The car kept moving, first of all. Through the front window, you could see the streetcar a few blocks ahead. Through the back window, you could see the one a few blocks behind. It was standing-room only, but not the overcapacity mosh pit Torontonians have come to expect. And the trip I took, from Dundas West station to Yonge St., was fully 10 minutes faster than when I timed the same trip three years ago.

Three years ago was when I wrote (not for the first time) that the TTC should make some dramatic traffic improvements on King to give the streetcar priority on the road. Today, they finally did — not in exactly the way I suggested, but with the same goal — and that the city has finally tried at all to do the most obvious thing in the world after so many years of not doing it feels like a bit of a miracle in itself.

Maybe miracle seems like a strong word, but when at least one city councillor and at least one public broadcaster were leading the day by calling the project a “disaster,” perhaps some balancing hyperbole is in order.

The real test is ahead. Monday was a bank holiday, when many financial district employers were closed in observance of Remembrance Day. So both the streetcars and the car lanes were less crowded than usual. Yet it showed how streetcars moving on relatively clear streets can function well for the more than 60,000 riders who use them every day. If it isn’t exactly proof of how the streetcar priority scheme will work in everyday practice, it was certainly proof of how it can work, in the right conditions: reliably, smoothly, relatively quickly.

At least, for a start. Even on a partial holiday, there was still a lot of room for obvious improvement. It was interesting to get off the streetcar and observe from the sidewalk, where what was most noticeable was not how well the streetcars were moving but how oblivious to the road signs and markings motorists are.

Cars — at some intersections a majority of cars — ignored the signs telling them they were not allowed to drive straight through or turn left at most intersections, and ignored the yellow paint marking the no-car zone in the transit lane approaching intersections. Police were out offering warnings to drivers — though the vast majority of those ignoring the rules while I was watching did not encounter police — and it appears that significant fines will be in order to teach drivers to comply with the law. King St. is no longer a through street, it is for local traffic only, one block at a time: this is a message, clearly, that hasn’t entirely taken root.

Yet the reason the streetcar movement was flowing so well despite this driver ignorance or belligerence is because, on Monday, there were so few cars on King. If the message that most cars should avoid the road sinks in, even the scofflaws don’t entirely screw things up.

Many pedestrians, too, were oblivious. The new “every car has to turn right at the end of every block” system requires more than one or two cars be able to get through each light cycle — not just for the convenience of the motorists, but so the queue to turn doesn’t back up into the way of streetcars. To make this work, the city has added a new right-turn advance green to the traffic light signals. But a good number of those out strolling on Monday — some at every intersection I observed—were wandering out into the crosswalk against the red hand, blocking the turning traffic.

And it also seems there are things the TTC could learn from and improve. The streetcar I was on ran the trip about five minutes slower than it could have because of streetcar stops that have moved to the “far side” of intersections. That is, the streetcar stopped at a red light, waited a minute or more for it to change and then stopped immediately on the other side of the intersection to load and unload passengers. This is meant to facilitate the new right-turn-only lanes. But without any evident signal priority to keep streetcars from hitting red lights, it functioned to dramatically slow streetcar traffic on what is supposed to be a streetcar priority street.

It also felt, on a day when there was very little in the way of traffic in the way jamming up the roads, as though the streetcar was cruising at an unnecessarily slow speed — perhaps to keep to a schedule that has not changed for the pilot introduction. It certainly seems to me that if you have frequent service on a line (that is, people don’t need to check a schedule because the next vehicle is always coming soon) the frequency of the service and the headway between vehicles is much more important than the actual scheduled timing. If streetcars come every two minutes, reliably, then you’d prefer them to go as fast as road conditions allow rather than slow down to keep to a schedule designed for heavy traffic conditions.

That is to say: if the pilot achieves its aim and clears the traffic out of the way, then the driver ought to move the streetcar faster.

So: lots of room for everyone to improve. Lots to learn for drivers, for pedestrians, for the authorities enforcing the new rules. Lots for the TTC to tweak and improve too.

And no doubt on Tuesday, and through the rest of the week, when there is no weekend or holiday affecting travel patterns, there will be even more to learn. And in the weeks to come, as we see how things adjust and what real data shows, it will be time to consider more detailed adjustments that may be necessary.

But on the first weekday of the new pilot project, we all learned that the streetcar can work way better than it has. Hallelujah.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca. Follow: @thekeenanwire

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