Matt Elliott: Mayor Tory deserves credit for not bending on King St. pilot
There is virtue in compromise, but there’s more virtue in vision, writes Matt Elliott.
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Let’s give it up for Mayor John Tory, who has refused to compromise on King Street.
During the uproar and ice sculptures that followed the transit pilot's kick-off last November, it must have been tempting to strike a deal with the restaurant owners along King complaining that the new traffic restrictions and removal of on-street parking are killing their business.
The business push to alter the plan so that the road changes would only apply during rush hours felt like the kind of compromise the mayor might go for. He has, after all, built his political reputation as a conciliator – someone who tries to find balance between competing interests.
But Tory held firm. It was absolutely the right call.
The data tells the story. According to a report on data collected in January, transit ridership is up 16 per cent from before the pilot. About 84,000 people a day now ride the King route.
To put that in perspective, the Sheppard Subway — which came with a price tag more than 600 times higher than the $1.5 million spent to implement the King pilot – carries about 49,000 riders a day.
The King Street pilot might just be the most cost-effective transit investment in Toronto’s history.
Service quality is up. Streetcars move faster, on average. The bigger win, however, is in the consistency of service, as best presented in an analysis by transit expert Steve Munro. Prior to the pilot, travel times across King Street were highly variable — one day a trip would take 20 minutes, while the next day it could take 40. Now riders can count on the streetcar getting them to their destination in about the same amount of time, every time.
Meanwhile, the same data shows that the apocalyptic outcomes forecast by detractors have not come to pass. Car travel times on surrounding streets are basically the same as they were before the pilot started.
And business activity, as tracked by point-of-sale vendor Moneris, shows spending along King Street is in line with seasonal activity city-wide. No catastrophic drop.
This data should put an end to any talk of seriously modifying the plan. Limiting the pilot restrictions to rush hour would ignore both the reality of ridership on the line – it’s busy at night too – and that enforcement would become even more challenging with time-based rules.
Plus, a time-restricted pilot makes permanent infrastructure improvements virtually impossible. If King Street needs to revert to allow on-street parking at night, there will not be room for things like wider sidewalks, expanded restaurant patios and new public spaces — the stuff that can make King Street truly great.
I don’t want to compromise on that. And so far, the mayor hasn’t wanted to compromise either.
It’s a lesson, I hope. When contentious issues arise, the answer is not always to seek balance between opposing sides. There is virtue in compromise, but there’s more virtue in vision.
Whether we’re talking about King Street, Scarborough transit, the Gardiner Expressway or bike lanes on Yonge Street in North York, the best approach is to listen to the data and support bold plans — and to stand unwavering against skeptics and naysayers.