Views / Toronto

King St. pilot project does what big cities around the world are doing: Micallef

Getting public transit moving quickly and efficiently is the only rational future for this city, Shawn Micallef writes.

King St. has changed to more pedestrian and TTC friendly with cars only allowed to go a single block along the street before having to turn off.

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King St. has changed to more pedestrian and TTC friendly with cars only allowed to go a single block along the street before having to turn off.

One of my earliest memories of feeling frustrated in Toronto was riding a streetcar. The streetcars themselves were fine: elegant street ships sailing the city’s rail network like an electric nervous system.

What was confounding was that one lone car turning left, often just carrying one driver, could hold up an entire streetcar filled with dozens of people, sometimes up to 130 or over 200 people, depending on if it was a short or long streetcar. Other times there were just too many cars on the road to allow quick passage of a mass transit vehicle.

Something seemed out of whack. How could this be? Was there no political courage in this new city of mine to give vehicles carrying many people a quicker passage? My newcomer’s naïveté was soon corrected.

Courage has been found of late, though. In July, city council approved a one-year pilot project to give streetcars priority on King St. between Bathurst and Jarvis Sts., and this past week the project was rolled out. Change might feel like it came quickly to those who don’t pay attention to City Hall, but planning and subsequent public consultations for this pilot began more than 18 months ago, and many planners and urbanists had been lobbying for this kind of thing for years.

The reason all this happened, the source of this newfound courage, is because of all the new people living along the King St. corridor — people who’ve moved into the Canary District, Corktown, the Financial and Theatre Districts, the immediate King West (of Spadina) neighbourhood and the incredible density in and around Liberty Village.

Some 65,000 trips are made on the 504 King streetcar everyday, nearly the entire population of Saint John, New Brunswick, while just 20,000 car trips are made. In comparison, based on 2015 numbers, only 38,570 trips are made on the Line 3 Scarborough RT each day, and 49,070 on the Line 4 Sheppard Subway. There were attempts to make King better for streetcars in the early 1990s, in 2001 and in 2007, though they were rather conservative, and some died at the proposal stage, and that relatively small number of cars continued to block an awful lot more people.

That it’s taken this long to do something about King, a notoriously unreliable and overcrowded streetcar route, says something about who counts in Toronto. As for residents of Liberty Village, thank them for moving there because they’re part of the reason there’s enough political force to make this project happen today.

Some will argue we shouldn’t allow density before infrastructure, but other than some exceptions, people move in first and infrastructure is forever catching up. Take a look at vintage pictures of terribly congested Yonge St. before the subway was built, or ask New Yorkers on the east side of Manhattan who’ve been waiting decades for the Second Avenue Subway: this is how city politics work.

There are some who just don’t like streetcars either, thinking they both get in the way and can’t manoeuvre around cars making those left turns. It’s an opinion likely born of not having to ride a bus every day: streetcars and other rail-based travel provide a smooth ride while buses lurch about in all that traffic. Riders feel every bump and hump and are knocked around bodily: do this everyday and the drudgery of life in the city becomes too real. Streetcars are gentle on their riders and they carry more of them than buses. The King pilot also aims to make them more reliable.

The amount of angst expelled over a project like this is a continued sign of Toronto’s teenage state — caught between accepting it’s a proper big city and behaving like a provincial town trapped in a 1955 dream. No big city worth living in is easy to drive in, but because Toronto is a North American city, largely built after the Second World War, the idea that you can drive anywhere and park out front is baked into the psyche here, even if doing so easily is not the reality or even possible. Even if we gave the roads over to cars entirely, there are simply too many of them. Getting public transit moving quickly and efficiently is the only rational future.

In the global scheme of things, King St. is a non-event and a conservative project at that. It’s doing what should have been done a long time ago. Certainly the pilot isn’t perfect, that’s why it’s a pilot, to see what works and what needs to be improved.

Other cities take measures like this to make transit reliable and efficient. London’s busiest shopping corridor, Oxford St., began banning vehicles other than buses and taxies in the early 1980s, and once the new Crosslink underground railway opens, it will be given over to pedestrians entirely. In the last decade, New York curtailed car use on Broadway, giving more room to pedestrians and public space. On-street trams in Amsterdam, Berlin and other European cities sometimes travel on transit-only routes, sometimes on streets with cars, but always have the right of way and rarely, if ever, are blocked by cars.

In Canada, a section of Vancouver’s Granville St. is reserved for trolley buses only, and in Calgary, 7th Ave. is primarily a C-Train corridor. Toronto’s King St. project has elements of some of these, and unique, Toronto-only designs as well.

Cars will always have a place in Toronto for a long time to come, but the King pilot project is a first small step in correcting this city’s imbalance in transit priorities and moving from teenage dreams to an adult reality.

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