Having launched in November to rapturous reviews from transit riders and activists, the King Street Transit Pilot has now moved on to Phase II: placating local businesses claiming financial ruin. On Friday the city announced a $10 parking discount when you use your Green P app in the area. (The idea is to convince drivers that the area has not been rendered unnavigable.) Earlier in the week the city unveiled “Eats on King,” a Winterlicious-ish campaign to encourage people to, well, eat on King. And on Tuesday Mayor John Tory unveiled “Everyone Is King,” a design competition inviting ideas to fill King Street’s curb lanes with public art, patios and stages.
To some of us, the claims of financial woe seem improbable: would the removal of just 180 off-peak on-street parking spaces really blow a hole in a restaurant’s Business model? (We will eventually have point-of-sale data about commercial transactions along King.) But assuming these curb lane installations don’t create the very conflict between automobiles and streetcars that the pilot project is partly supposed to address — I hope I’m not being naive — then all of this is for the good. And I’m all for keeping everyone happy to give a decades-in-the-making improvement to Toronto’s busiest streetcar line an honest shot at success.
As an occasional rider, however, I’m still not blown away by the transit itself. The TTC released December data Friday showing eastbound trips saved an average of just 0.2 minutes in the AM rush hour and 1.7 minutes in the PM; westbound trips saved 0.4 minutes in the AM and 2.5 minutes in the PM. It is still very slow, in other words: an average of 15 to 17 minutes to travel just 2.6 km. And with the exception of eastbound travel in the PM rush, December was actually slower than November. The TTC offers a reasonable explanation: a 25-per-cent jump in ridership, which ought to be good news. But the more crowded the streetcar, the more time it takes at every stop along the way.
It’s certainly understandable that daily riders of the 504 — as I once was; no fun — have embraced the pilot project. The slowest and thus most infuriating trips are considerably quicker than they used to be. Early data from the University of Toronto’s Spatial Analysis of Urban Systems lab suggested that the slowest five per cent of trips between Bathurst and Jarvis used to take 31-32 minutes — roughly walking speed. During the time studied, in November, that was down to 21 minutes.
New signage at Yonge St. and King St. during the first work day of King Street Pilot Project in Toronto, Ont. on Monday November 13, 2017.
The TTC boasts of shaving 3.7 minutes off the slowest trips in the westbound PM rush hour and 4.3 minutes eastbound. But that still works out to less than 8 km/h. And in the AM rush, the slowest trips were slower in December than they were in November. In November the TTC reported huge gains in “headway reliability” — i.e., in reducing the soul-curdling four-in-a-row-then-none-for-half-an-hour phenomenon. But again it gave back much of those gains in December; again it attributes that to increased ridership.
A shiny fleet of big, brand new low-floor Bombardier streetcars would certainly help, but alas, Bombardier has forgotten how to make them, and interim TTC CEO Rick Leary has abandoned his predecessor Andy Byford’s quixotic insistence that the company would somehow meet its final deadline. The circumstances for this pilot project are far from perfect.
The three measures of success are improved ridership (boffo); reliability (clear but inconsistent); and speed (not much). People are already talking about sanding down some of the project’s more controversial elements, and its opponents will certainly hone in on the streetcars’ pace when it comes time to make the changes permanent or not. My fear is the concept will be judged without having been given the best chance to succeed.
Toronto police say they’ve issued 1,675 tickets on King for “proceed contrary to sign,” since Nov. 11, but transit activist and writer Steve Munro thinks there could still be far more enforcement — especially on illegal left turns and on that most Torontonian of traffic offences, blocking intersections. Intersection-blockers should go to jail and their cars should be dropped from a great height onto their houses. If the cops can’t spare the manpower, let’s get red light cameras up at every intersection on King.
Transit signal priority for streetcars is available at some intersections. I humbly suggest it be turned on. Get as many streetcars on the line as can possibly be spared. And for the love of God, let’s not repeat the humiliating spectacle of shutting down King Street for TIFF — the act of a profoundly unserious city that Tory says is “unlikely” to be repeated this year.
Some 65,000 people a day ride the King streetcar (that was before the 25 per cent increase). That’s about three-quarters of the Sheppard subway’s and Scarborough RT’s ridership combined. A serious city would have ruthlessly prioritized their needs years ago. Whether this city can bring itself to do so is very much up in the air.