Toronto transit users love the new pilot project that puts people before cars

King street without cars
CC BY 2.0 Where are all the cars?/ Lloyd Alter

65,000 daily riders deserved something better. They got it.

Twenty years ago, former Mayor Barbara Hall changed the industrial zoning in the "Two Kings" -- land that had become mostly parking lots and under-utilized old buildings restricted to industrial uses that had long left the city. This started a residential boom that has been going ever since, with thousands of new homes and apartments at either end of King Street.

Meanwhile, there was no investment in the transportation system, so the King streetcar became one of the busiest transit routes in North America, carrying 65,000 people per day. The streetcars were overcrowded and slow, sharing the road with 20,000 drivers mostly sitting alone in cars. Something had to be done.

streetcar changesCity of Toronto/Public Domain

This week, the City started a pilot project where cars could no longer drive straight through King Street, but had to turn off it. You can still get to a store or restaurant but you can only drive a block. The change has been transformational.

Drivers are complaining, like Markie here, who believes that roads were created for cars; others have pointed out that, no, King St. was built for horses and pedestrians.

King Street before carsKing Street before cars/Public Domain

Still others have pointed out that perhaps cars are not the best way to get around in cities. Writing in the Toronto Star, Shawn Micallef notes:

No big city worth living in is easy to drive in, but because Toronto is a North American city, largely built after the Second World War, the idea that you can drive anywhere and park out front is baked into the psyche here, even if doing so easily is not the reality or even possible. Even if we gave the roads over to cars entirely, there are simply too many of them. Getting public transit moving quickly and efficiently is the only rational future.

One thing that is significant about this project is that it was quick and dirty, done on the cheap; no tunnels, no digging up the street -- just a few barriers to keep cars out of the streetcar loading areas, signs, and the jazzy new streetcars that we were getting anyway.

The local drive-in radio shows are complaining, blaming crashes two blocks away on the King Street project.

But transit users, people who walk, people on bikes, are delirious with happiness, getting to work on time.

La fenice restaurantLa Fenice Restaurant/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There has been a lot of concern about the restaurants and theatres; will people come if they can't get parking? In fact, street parking has been in short supply for years and much of the traffic in the area comes on foot or transit. I went for lunch at an old favourite yesterday, to show support and to ask about it; the headwaiter told me that lunches were the same as always (it was pretty full when we were there) but that dinner was down a bit. He thought that this was due to the fact that it was so new, and that it would be back to normal in a week.

King street King Street, Toronto, 1:45 PM, 16 November 2017/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It's not just a Toronto thing; people around the world are watching. Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic notes that there are lessons for other cities here:

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.

Freemark concludes that this was touch and go: "Street investments that truly prioritize people over cars require political initiative and will." We don't see much of that in Toronto. I hope that this is the start of something bigger.

Toronto transit users love the new pilot project that puts people before cars
65,000 daily riders deserved something better. They got it.

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