Cars Take Up Too Much Space on King Street
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Cars Take Up Too Much Space on King Street

Three possible options to improve King Street presented at recent meeting.

People packed into Metro Hall on February 13 to hear about the future of King Street.

People packed into Metro Hall on February 13 to hear about the future of King Street.

Hundreds packed into the third floor of Metro Hall February 13 to learn about the City of Toronto’s plans for redesigning King Street. The city is looking to implement a pilot project on the busy east-west downtown corridor, which could be implemented as early as the fall of 2017.

It was clear that city staff did not anticipate such a high turnout. Four hundred people were stuffed into two rooms, and an overflow room with a capacity of 200 filled up quickly as well. Latecomers were turned away at the door, told to visit the project website and comment there.

The city’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, began the presentation by speaking about the challenges facing King Street and the need for intervention. The main goal of the King Street pilot project is “moving people”—specifically operations on the 504 King streetcar, but also other forms of transport, including walking, cycling, and motor traffic. The other two goals are “improving placemaking,” which include sidewalk enhancements and improved public spaces, and “supporting prosperity,” which acknowledges the needs of local businesses and costs of implementation. But the emphasis was made that this was to be a “Transit First” strategy.

The pilot project would allow planners and engineers to quickly and inexpensively implement and observe changes to King Street, monitor traffic, streetcar operations, and public acceptance of the redesigned street ahead of making permanent changes.

The King streetcar, with 64,600 daily riders in 2015, is the third-busiest route in the TTC’s network, only behind the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth subway lines. The 504 and 514 streetcars are the least reliable and the slowest between Bathurst and Yonge Streets, as they pass through the Financial District and the Entertainment District, especially in the afternoon peak.

King Street is also a busy pedestrian corridor. Half of all users are pedestrians, but they are allocated just 25 per cent of the road space. Motorists make up only 16 per cent of all users, but are given 64 per cent of all road space. The King Street pilot is looking to change this.

Allocation of space on King Street

Allocation of space on King Street.

The King Street corridor is adding new residents and employment. Between 2011 and 2016, the population between Queen Street and Lake Ontario, from Roncesvalles to the Don River, increased by nearly 40,000 people. New offices were built at Sherbourne, in the Financial District, along King West, and in Liberty Village. Until a Downtown Relief Line subway is built, the streetcar will need to be the main transit link along the corridor. As pointed out during the presentation, it is sometimes faster to walk than take the streetcar.

The City of Toronto and the TTC tried fixing King Street before. In 1993, the city designated the centre lanes for streetcars and taxis only during rush hours, but they were often ignored; the police weren’t interested in enforcing the transit lanes, or ticketing cars and trucks illegally stopping or parking along the street.

In 2001, the TTC wanted to try something more effective and permanent: it promoted a plan that would ban traffic on King Street between Dufferin and Parliament Streets, while allowing deliveries, passenger drop-offs, and other services in alternating curb lanes. It was ambitious, yet affordable. However, it did not get past Mel Lastman’s city hall.

Merchants complained about the loss of parking and about the difficulties of deliveries and garbage collection. They also feared a loss of customers, ignoring the fact that most of the restaurants’ clientele arrived by foot or transit.

Once again, in 2007, the TTC proposed a pilot project to improve the King streetcar during the summer months of 2008. It was much less ambitious than the 2001 proposal—it would only last during July and August, and only along a short stretch between Simcoe Street and Spadina Avenue. Again, local business owners and a car-friendly City Council successfully opposed it.

2017 might be different.

On Monday, City staff and consultants hired by the city of Toronto (planning, engineering, and public facilitation firms Public Work, Sam Schwartz Engineering, Gehl Studio, and Swerhun Associates) presented three possible options for the pilot: separated lanes, alternating “loops,” and transit promenade. All three options would limit cars and trucks on King Street, between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets (with a possible extension east to Parliament Street) but none banish private vehicles altogether.

King Street Pilot block options

King Street Pilot block options.

The first option, separated lanes, includes physically separated centre lanes for streetcars, with left turns and curbside stopping banned along the corridor. While streetcar passengers should enjoy faster and more reliable service, right-turning traffic and illegally stopped vehicles would create severe traffic congestion. Because of these limitations, it is impractical for the needs of local businesses or for passenger pick-ups and drop-offs. Enforcement would be difficult and expensive.

The second option, alternating loops, is very similar to the TTC’s 2001 and 2007 proposals. At each block, only one side of the street would be open to motorists, alternating at each intersection. The opposite side of the street would feature a wider sidewalk, which could facilitate improved landscaping and sidewalk patios. Streetcars would be able to proceed along King Street as usual, unhindered by left turns and through traffic. This option would facilitate local access for delivery vehicles, taxis, and passenger pick-ups and drop-offs. This option would also improve accessibility at streetcar stops with curbside loading and unloading. This was the clear favourite of the project team.

The third option, transit promenade, permits local two-way traffic on King Street, sharing road space with streetcars motor vehicles required to turn right at the end of each block, with specified loading areas for cars, taxis, and delivery vehicles. Like the alternating loops option, sidewalks can be widened, and accessibility at streetcar stops would be improved.

For the second two options, through traffic would have to move to alternate routes, such as Richmond and Adelaide streets (one reason why the pilot area extends only east of Bathurst). Or, as often happens when roadways close, the traffic could simply disappear, perhaps absorbed by the improved streetcar service.

There was little consideration for cyclists on King Street in the three options, but a variation of the alternating loops option was presented that would allow cyclists to ride through at each intersection. That would reduce some additional sidewalk space on the alternate side of each block, and possibly create new pedestrian-cyclist conflict points. Perhaps a new cycling route on Wellington Street, connecting
downtown to the Railpath extension, would be a good alternative.

During the breakout discussions—which included specifics such as what criteria should be used to determine the success of a pilot project, the specific options and local considerations—most participants supported the pilot study, especially the preferred alternative loops. There were some good suggestions for trying each of the three options in different locations as well.

There will be a second round of consultations in the spring, and then the recommended pilot solution will go to City Council for approval. If all goes well, it will be up and running this fall.

There are, of course, threats to the King Street pilot.

The Toronto International Film Festival, with the city’s cooperation, closes King Street between University and Spadina Avenues for four days during the opening of the September film festival, forcing the TTC to suspend streetcar service through the area. They may be resistant to changes in the Entertainment District.

Mirvish Productions, which owns the Princess of Wales and Royal Alexandra Theatres (as well as the converted warehouses in between, on which it seeks to build new condominium towers designed by Frank Gehry), came out against the pilot project plans, saying that it tells people not to “come downtown.” This, of course, assumes that their patrons mostly drive downtown, despite the nearby subway and GO Transit services. Mirvish’s parking garage is off John Street, unaffected by any of the three plans.

We might also expect some suburban city councillors to come out against any plan that restricts cars, even in the downtown core. Earlier this week, Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24-Willowdale) put forward a surprise motion at Council that sabotaged work on a city plan designed to improve walking and cycling on Yonge Street in North York Centre, championed by residents and the local councillor, John Filion (Ward 23-Willowdale). That motion passed 24-20, sabotaging efforts to improve north Yonge Street.

After years of talk about fixing King Street, there is finally momentum towards doing something about it. A pilot project would be a low-risk step in making King Street work again.

You can have your say at the King Street Pilot Study website here. We also recommend you read Steve Munro’s detailed review of the project.