First, we take King Street, then we take midtown
The city could use more transit pilots—this time, let's try north of Bloor.
The King Street Pilot has been a success for transit riders. There are debates about its impact on local businesses and differing opinions as to whether this experiment should be expanded to other surface routes. Before the King pilot even began, the mayor was reassuring everyone that it was a “one-off.”
I strongly believe we should implement other transit prioritization pilots, but I think we should look north of Bloor for our test cases. Specifically, I want to make a case for Lawrence Avenue, Dufferin Street, and Eglinton Avenue.
The King Street streetcar’s ridership prior to the pilot was 64,800 per weekday. According to the same TTC figures from 2014, ridership for the 52 bus along Lawrence west of Yonge is 43,900, Eglinton’s 32 west of Yonge is 38,100, and the 29 along Dufferin carries 44,000 (and is almost as busy on weekends).
(The Dufferin bus runs from the top of the city to the bottom, so a good deal of its ridership is south of Bloor, but in my experience, it is busy from north of Eglinton, empties out at Dufferin station, and immediately fills up again.)
You will find similar ridership numbers along Queen and Spadina streetcar lines but also on the bus routes on Don Mills, Finch West, and St. Clair. Most of the busiest surface routes lie outside the downtown core.
There has been a lot of development along Yonge Street, particularly near the intersection of Eglinton Avenue, which has gotten a lot of attention. Not to mention the celebrity opposition to an eight-storey condominium in the Annex. What’s not been quite as front-page news is the development along other parts of Eglinton and along Lawrence and Dufferin.
Near the intersection of Dufferin and Lawrence, there are five condominium and mixed-use developments in progress, some with multiple buildings. Applications have been submitted for buildings ranging from eight to 37 storeys. On the northeast corner of Lawrence and Dufferin stands a new 26-storey tower, which should be ready for its new residents this spring. That project is part of three buildings that will collectively hold 1,375 units. These new projects will add thousands of new residents to the neighbourhood.
When Council approved the Dufferin Street Secondary Plan in 2015, they supported and even expanded the recommendation that a share of new residential development include two- and three-bedroom units to accommodate families.
The City Planning study [PDF] of the Dufferin corridor from south of Lawrence to the 401 found that 82 per cent of local trips were made by car, 15 per cent walking, and less than 3 per cent by transit. Overall, traffic to and from the area is about 65 per cent auto, 30 per cent transit.
We need to recognize the many people who move through certain corridors in the city outside the downtown. I can believe that most customers of businesses in the area arrive by car, but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it means they come from far away. Businesses are within easy walking or transit distance of a large number of residences—it’s just that it’s not easy to walk or take transit.
Both Dufferin and Lawrence are wide boulevards where cars regularly exceed the speed limit, and there are several intersections with frequent collisions. The intersection of Dufferin and Lawrence alone is the site of (on average) over 30 automobile collisions every year.
Travel demand maps [PDF] show that this part of the city is connected to many other parts of Toronto and its region, but there is a clear high demand in the local area, particularly along Dufferin, Lawrence, and Eglinton.
Frequent, reliable bus service that had prioritized transit-only lanes would make transit a better option than driving for local trips. Transit is frequent, but frequently packed, and slow. And $6 for the round-trip for a quick errand in the neighbourhood seems like a lot if it’s going to take more time than driving.
The slow speed of bus travel, due to being mixed in with car traffic, was noted in the area study’s Transportation Master Plan [PDF] in 2015. That plan recommended a 350-metre stretch of Dufferin’s curb lane immediately south of the 401 be designated a bus-only or HOV lane. It recommended implementing this lane southbound and studying the northbound as a possibility as well.
This is a good start, but the volume of transit riders and the need to increase transit’s mode share demands much more. A bus-only lane running between Lawrence and the 401 would improve travel times significantly. Add the other improvements for pedestrians recommended in the TMP, and the collective impact would be transformative.
It would reduce the speed of other traffic and, yes, reduce the space available for private cars. However, the heaviest traffic on Dufferin is between the 401 and Lawrence; for those drivers off the highway for whom transit is not an option, there is redirection to the Allen Road Expressway, two minutes east.
Even Yorkdale Shopping Centre, on Dufferin at the 401, is moving toward being less car-centric. Its owner, Oxford Properties, is contemplating converting much of what is currently surface parking to a new development of over a dozen residential and office towers.
There is a kind of midtown U of from Lawrence down Yonge across Eglinton and then up Dufferin. Along this corridor there is a lot of traffic from both public transit buses and private cars flowing along avenues of mostly continuous development.
That development is a good mix too: a wide variety of retail goods and services, schools, religious institutions, libraries, and community centres line the avenues of this U, behind which are mostly single-family-housing residential neighbourhoods. The avenues themselves are increasingly home to homes as well. In a loud echo of older midrise in the area (such as along Eglinton and Bathurst), there is significant residential tower development going in along Lawrence, Dufferin, and Eglinton, with good ground-level mixed use. The same developers who did the tower at Dufferin and Lawrence recently put in a 13-storey tower at Lawrence and Yonge.
The Dufferin Street Secondary Plan clearly has a vision for improving the opportunity, connectivity, and overall quality of life in the area. Planners see Dufferin as a place, not just a thoroughfare for those passing through.
This is an exciting vision for the area, and if we expand it to the midtown U, it is clear a lot of the basic infrastructure we would need, in terms of built form, economic development, and community, is already there.
But the vision will not succeed without a bold transit plan to move the growing population around within the area. We must think about moving people, not cars. If everyone moves by car, the area will quickly be a parking lot, and the volume of automobile traffic will reduce the quality of life for the whole area.
It is clear that a good number of people have already chosen transit. If we make transit the better choice, the midtown U will have more economic and social activity and less noise and pollution, and it will be a safer, more accessible area for everyone.
We mustn’t underestimate the need for local transit outside the city centre. Not everyone is trying to get downtown. Transit priority belongs wherever the ridership demands it.
The King Street Pilot is teaching us good lessons about the opportunities and challenges of moving more people faster and more reliably downtown. Now let’s think seriously about transit prioritization beyond the downtown core.