In a simple move, Toronto transforms a streetcar line into something far more useful

» The city’s King Street Transit Pilot is preventing cars from using the street as a throughway. In doing so, it’s showing how other cities might prioritize transit on their busiest streets.

With almost 300,000 daily riders, Toronto’s streetcar system is the most-used light rail network in North America. Unfortunately, for many of its riders, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

That’s because most of its streetcar lines operate in a right-of-way shared with automobiles, slowing the system to a crawl. It’s a misery unfortunately shared with most of the new streetcar lines now existing, under construction, and planned in the U.S.—and, perhaps more importantly, with virtually all bus routes.

This week, Toronto has begun piloting one solution.

It has substantially improved streetcar service on a portion of King Street, which runs roughly east-west through the densest portion of the city’s downtown. On the 1.6 miles between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets, King Street has been temporarily transformed through the city’s intervention.

This pilot has significantly reduced space for cars along the street, eliminating parking spaces, adding public art, installing planters, creating small new public plazas, and—perhaps most importantly—prevented people from driving on the street for more than one block or taking left turns.

It’s therefore not a full car ban; some vehicles will still travel in the streetcar right-of-way, a less-than-optimal situation. But it is an effort to ensure that drivers are only using the portion of the street they need. As a result, most of the street is reserved for trains, bikers, and pedestrians.

We’ve yet to see the long-term results of the project, but initial public reaction suggests that the changes have significantly sped up what was once a very slow streetcar line. Riders are saving five to 13 minutes per trip, a massive improvement for such a short trip. Streetcars are running more quickly and less likely to get stuck at lights. Cyclists are riding more safely. And traffic doesn’t seem to have been pushed onto surrounding streets.

It’s too early to know the full impact of the changes, but Toronto will be monitoring transit and street performance over the next year, at which point the pilot may be made permanent. What is clear, however, is that at a cost of $1.5 million, the pilot is a very cheap way to test how to dramatically improve transit service.

It’s also targeted to the right area. Streetcars on King Street carry about 65,000 daily riders, more than any other surface transit route in the city. At the same time, only about 20,000 cars travel on the street on a typical day. In other words, the large majority of people moving on the street are on transit, not in personal automobiles. The city has intervened to prioritize people, not cars.

King Street has not been transformed into a full-scale light rail corridor, and it could certainly use an aesthetic upgrade. It does not go nearly as far as the creation of dedicated streetcar rights-of-way, as was done on other major streets in Toronto, such as Spadina and St. Clair. Yet these improvements are likely to grow ridership, much as those routes experienced.

What’s most exciting about Toronto’s project is that it suggests how other cities with major street-running transit lines might engage to improve the quality of service their riders experience. It suggests a mechanism for cities like Atlanta or Kansas City—which recently opened new, slow streetcar routes that share lanes with cars—to transition to faster, more reliable operations. It shows what is possible to achieve in situations where there simply isn’t adequate support to fully ban cars from streets.

It also is a demonstration of what could be done to improve bus service in the immediate term, at a very low cost, in cities everywhere. Places that lack the funds or interest to roll out a full-scale bus rapid transit route with expensive street upgrades and special streetscapes might, in the meantime, experiment with streets that limit car circulation much as Toronto has done. Executed through a pilot, cities could test options with very limited financial commitment but, in the process, potentially dramatically improve the performance and speed of transit trips.

Implementing this streetcar pilot was no foregone conclusion; just a few years back, Toronto’s then-mayor Rob Ford suggested that he wanted to eliminate the entire streetcars system. Street investments that truly prioritize people over cars require political initiative and will.

Image at top: Traffic on Queen King Street, from City of Toronto.

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