By Claire Nelischer
Earlier this week, the City of Toronto launched its one-year King Street pilot project to ease congestion along one of its busiest streets. Its ultimate goal is to improve transit speed, reliability, and capacity by prioritizing the movement of streetcars along King. So far, the public response has been largely positive, with excited straphangers Tweeting out videos of smooth-sailing streetcars and stats about their reduced travel times.
It’s faster walking
As anyone who commutes daily along this route knows, the 504 King is usually so mired in traffic that it moves at a glacial pace – many frustrated riders choose to simply get off and walk rather than contend with the slow travel speeds, delays, bunching, and overcrowding.
And yet, the 504 is still the busiest surface transit route in the city, with 65,000 daily riders – more than three times the estimated 20,000 private vehicles that drive along the street each day. The King Street pilot project seeks to correct this imbalance by giving priority to streetcars and getting people moving along a 2.6 km stretch running through Toronto’s entertainment and financial districts.
The project allows local access only for private vehicles, and cars are no longer permitted to drive through intersections. As a result, the streetcars have a relatively unobstructed lane for travel, and dedicated roadway space for passenger boarding and alighting.
Designing streets for dominant users
A lot of media commentary has focused on the details of enforcement, such as how the new rules are confusing drivers and how infractions are being addressed. But we’re in the early days of the project, so we should remember that King Street represents a huge step in the evolution of our streets towards appropriately accommodating road users.
As many as 75% of downtown residents walk, cycle, or take transit to work. But if you take a look at Toronto’s streets, we devote most of our road space to cars. The King Street pilot looks at who is using the street – in this case, largely transit users – and adjusts the design to really accommodate these users. This is an important move for Toronto now, but it will take on even greater importance in the future as downtown continues to grow and intensify in the coming decades.
When you build streets for transit, you get more transit-riders
Other cities are leading the way when it comes to designing their streets to reflect the realities of growth and use. We’ve all heard those tales of how New York City’s Department of Transportation, under the leadership of street fighter Janette Sadik-Kahn, took back the streets for people. By eliminating cars off a key stretch of Broadway around Times Square, NYC improved traffic flow in the area while opening up roadways for the people who are really using the space: pedestrians.
Canadian cities have also made bold moves in re-designing streets for people. Over the past two decades, Vancouver has opened almost three times kilometers of rapid transit as Toronto, while Calgary has opened even more. These developments reflect a simple principle: when you build streets for cars, you get more drivers and when you build for transit, you get more transit riders.
Growing population, not cars
It’s also important to keep in mind that Toronto is growing up – literally – and the condo boom we’re seeing now is just the beginning. The downtown core’s residential population of about 250,000 is estimated to rise to 475,000 by 2041.
While downtown is on track to double its residents, it’s clear that we can’t double the number of cars on the road. Now’s the time to prepare the city for the future, and build streets for safe, affordable, reliable, and low-carbon mobility options, such as walking, cycling, and transit. We’re already seeing promising movement in this direction with the Bloor bike lanes, which were recently made permanent following a one-year pilot project. And if the King Street project is met with the same enthusiasm – and the data to back it – as the Bloor bike lanes, it will hopefully be made permanent as well.
While there will be an adjustment period as drivers, transit users, and pedestrians get used to the new arrangement, it’s only a matter of time before travelling along King becomes second nature. So it’s important to keep in mind that this is a pilot project. The city will collect feedback and data, and make tweaks as necessary to keep things moving smoothly.
But let’s not get caught up in the weeds on this one; the King Street project represents a bold move in the right direction for Toronto, towards streets that embody the way Torontonians are living and moving.