Making the streetcar king
The TTC's busiest surface route may finally be accurately referred to as rapid transit if a new pilot project to shake up King Street is approved by city council
There's a good rule of thumb when considering the King streetcar for shorter trips: if it's not in sight, just start walking. You'll probably get there faster.
Portions of the city's busiest surface route barely top walking speed during rush hour. Hemmed in by other vehicles, delayed by drivers turning left, the King car is frustratingly slow.
It's a situation that flies in the face of the promise of "rapid transit" – especially since walking isn't an option for everyone – and it's one that could finally change.
"There is no city in the world that would move transit this way," said Chris Upfold, deputy CEO and chief customer officer of the TTC. "King Street doesn't work for anybody right now."
City staff are ready to propose a major shake-up of the central section of King Street, with a year-long pilot project to test how much transit could be improved if the bulk of the other vehicles were moved to nearby streets. If approved by council in July, this would be in place by October.
Transit passengers are already the overwhelming majority among those using King. About 65,000 people ride the 504 streetcar daily, compared with about 20,000 private vehicles on the road. The plan is to reflect this by remaking King to give priority to people on transit.
After months of fine tuning, the formal proposal is to be unveiled Wednesday. The Globe and Mail got an exclusive early look that helps explain the concept, and why city staff think it's so important.
"This is the fastest-growing area of the entire country," chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat said. "The 504 King carries more people than entire transit systems in many mid-size cities."
To let the streetcar do that better, the plan is based around the idea that King should no longer be a thoroughfare for private vehicles. Although streetcars will continue to run end-to-end, other vehicles will be forced to turn right at most intersections. What this means is that drivers will still be able to access destinations along King, but must enter the road at the block they are heading to and then leave again at the end of that block.
This will mean fewer vehicles to block the streetcars. It will also free up parts of the curb lane to be remade into public space. But it will require a culture shift that could take time. To help prompt this, staff are planning an education campaign to inform residents about the new system. And there will be police enforcement to ensure people don't simply continue to drive the length of King.
This shift is expected to cut the number of non-transit vehicles on the road by at least half. Where will they go? Barbara Gray, general manager of the city's transportation services department, said that there is capacity on parallel routes such as Richmond Street and Adelaide Street to absorb vehicles that had been using King.
Movement on those other roads can be facilitated by fiddling with the traffic-signal timing, a process that is expected to continue throughout the pilot.
The presence of those parallel routes explains the relatively modest scope of the pilot project. Making the changes to King only between Bathurst Street and Jarvis Street – barely 2.5 kilometres – means that people catching the streetcar at, for example, Liberty Village will continue to make the first part of their trip in mixed traffic. But restricting the pilot to that area also means that drivers have lots of options other than King.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean this proposal will sail through council when it debates the project this summer.
Previous attempts to change downtown streets have raised the ire of suburban councillors, who argue that these are not just local roads but are important to traffic from around the city.
There can also be expected to be opposition from some businesses in the area.
Mirvish Productions, which has two theatres in the area, is concerned that the perception it will be more difficult to drive in the area could dissuade the 50 per cent of their patrons who come from outside the city.
"The more obstacles are thrown at potential audience members, the less likely you are to get them," said Mirvish spokesman John Karastamatis, who would prefer that the traffic restrictions be relaxed outside of rush hour.
The removal of street parking along King, although only a small percentage of the parking available in the immediate area, will also ruffle feathers. However, the project has the backing of the local councillors and comes with a strong recommendation from city staff. It is also only a pilot project, which could be removed in a year if it doesn't work.
Success will depend on how much the changes improve life for transit riders. This could include faster streetcar speeds, better reliability of service or, because of those two factors, increased ridership.
"I personally think we are going to see big improvements in all three," the TTC's Mr. Upfold said. "The vast majority of trips on a corridor like King are going to be made by transit and we should do what we can to make them better, to make them a competitive choice."
King Street plan
The core of the plan is to reduce the number of vehicles on King Street, while preserving local access. Vehicles will be forced to turn right at almost all intersections. This means that destinations along the street can be reached, while preventing through traffic.
Streetcars, which currently stop on the near side of the intersection, will now drive through the cross-street before stopping. They will stop beside a mural painted on the road, which will help delineate this space as being for the transit passengers. At each end of this zone will be a physical barrier, perhaps a bike rack or a planter, as a safety feature.
The plan removes any street parking from King, but allows other access where businesses need it. This will vary from block to block and could be a delivery zone for a retailer, a cab stand or access to off-street parking. These spots will be reached by vehicles that enter King at the appropriate block, share the centre lane with the streetcar on the way to their destination and leave King at the end of the block.
Another main feature of the remake is the increase in public space. Extending the pedestrian zone out into what is now the curb lane will help the large numbers of people who walk along King. As with the commercial-access zones, these spaces will vary from block to block. But they will allow for new places to sit and will relieve the sidewalk crush.
The plan does not include formal cycling infrastructure. But its proponents say that cyclists will be helped in several ways. By removing many vehicles from the road, they say, King will be a safer spot for people on two wheels. And cyclists will rarely be riding beside a stationary vehicle, reducing the risk of being doored. But vehicles exiting King will have to turn across the path of cyclists, a potential friction spot.