For a long time now, commuters have been complaining about the King streetcar. The 504 car is the busiest in the city, carrying 60,000 people on a typical day and passing through the heart of the financial district.
Pressure on the line has grown with the rise of Liberty Village, the thriving new residential district south of King Street West east of Dufferin Street. Residents trying to get downtown complain that the streetcar is so crowded that sometimes several go by before they can get aboard. Even when they do get on, they often have to stand cheek by jowl with fellow commuters as the car trundles its way through traffic.
Brett Chang and Taylor Scollon decided to do more than just complain. They decided to do something.
The two young entrepreneurs, both in their early 20s, launched a private bus service, the Liberty Village Express, to ferry residents to Union Station during rush hour at $5 a trip. They ran a pilot version of the service this week. They offered free WiFi. They gave out coffee and tea. They set up a friendly website and invited customers to vote on what other bus routes they would like to see.
Their little venture comes with a fresh, can-do spirit that immediately set it apart from the grey bureaucracy that is the Toronto Transit Commission. But this being Toronto, it wasn't long before people started worrying. Was this the start of a two-tier transit system, with ordinary folk squeezing onto streetcars and the better off getting a superior ride? Does it mean we are giving up on the dream of better public transit for all?
It is the same kind of concern we hear whenever anyone tries to inject a bit of competition into a public service, through the creation of charter schools, say, or private health clinics.
In this case, the worries are vastly overdone. Line Six, as its founders call their enterprise, is hardly a threat to the city's sprawling public transit agency, with its fleets of subways, buses and streetcars. The TTC has reacted calmly, saying that it is monitoring the situation but does not know whether Line Six violates its legal monopoly on transit service.
The founders themselves say they are big fans of public transit. They just want to fill a gap where the TTC is clearly failing. If they succeed – and the business is so new it is hard to say what will happen – it could spur the TTC to step up and do better, not just on the King route but elsewhere.
To be fair, the TTC knows there is a problem on King, and on other streetcar lines as well. Giving streetcars a lane of their own on King during rush hour could help. So could letting passengers board through the back doors on the honour system. Eventually, the TTC says, the new, bigger streetcars should improve matters.
Under Andy Byford, the agency's sharp chief executive, the TTC has been working hard on becoming a more customer-focused organization. A little prodding from a private competitor can't hurt.
Transit agencies from London to Hong Kong allow private firms to run some routes, although often under contract to a central authority. Unions tend to hate the idea, but there should be no taboo on private transit service here either.
Let Line Six and its energetic founders give it a go. If they succeed, it could be a boon not only for the frustrated residents of Liberty Village, who will get an alternative to the streetcar, but to transit riders everywhere, as the TTC rises to the private challenge.