Connecting a number of rapidly densifying neighborhoods, the 504 King will finally get priority over cars along a central portion of its journey thanks to a one-year, $1.5 million pilot study starting this fall.
Toronto's 504 King streetcar is one Canada's busiest surface transit routes.
On an average weekday, the U-shaped route through the city's financial core carries approximately 64,500 people: more than Toronto's busiest suburban commuter line and only fewer than the city's two busiest subway lines.
In addition to serving the dense center of the city, the 504 King streetcar connects a number of rapidly densifying residential neighborhoods and a major entertainment district with the subway.
But here's the problem: The 504 King streetcar currently runs entirely in mixed traffic on a route with few design alterations to favor the majority of its users, transit riders. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), the city agency responsible for streetcars, buses, and subways, estimates the line is about 20 percent over capacity during the morning rush.
All this translates into a miserable customer experience. It's not uncommon during peak times for riders to watch several full vehicles pass before finding enough room to squeeze aboard.
Not that it's actually any quicker to be on the streetcar. Auto traffic on King Street, which amounts to about 20,000 mostly single-occupant cars, slows the line to a crawl. It’s typically more expedient to walk and save the fare.
During a typical morning and evening rush, thousands of compressed streetcar commuters must wait at poorly-timed lights and behind left-turning cars—a situation that leads to hideous bunches and gaps in service.
When the streetcar reaches a stop, the doors open onto the curb lane of the street. It's illegal for drivers to pass open streetcar doors, and streetcar operators are instructed to make sure traffic has stopped before releasing riders, but too often there's a bellow of horns as a driver zips ahead of exiting passengers.
This configuration forces all traffic to stop when the streetcar stops, leading to frustration and often aggressive driving by motorists. And when it comes time for the annual Toronto International Film Festival, the downtown portion of the 504 King is closed for days to allow the event to spill out onto the street.
While the convenience of motorists has long trumped the needs of all other road users in Toronto—even when they’re in the minority—their long unchecked supremacy has finally weakened just a bit.
Last Thursday, Toronto city council approved a one-year, $1.5 million pilot study that will give streetcars priority along a central portion of King Street. Starting in the fall, only streetcars will be allowed to use King Street as a through route during the day. All other traffic must exit at the next intersection. This is progress because, historically, attempts at prioritizing transit on King Street haven't gone well.
In the early 1990s, the city tried to restrict use of the center streetcar lane of King Street to transit vehicles and taxis during peak times. The transportation blog Transit Toronto describes the result as "an unenforced joke" made worse by parked cars forcing all traffic to share the same lane.
In the early 2000s, another, more ambitious plan called for the complete removal of all auto traffic on downtown King Street. The idea, however, was never implemented due to the concerns of local businesses.
Since then, many former industrial areas along King Street have been redeveloped or repurposed for residential use, further straining the 504 King service in its present form.
That trend of intensification is set to continue. A massive Frank Gehry highrise development will add almost 2,000 new residential units to King Street later this decade. A major, 620-unit development by Bjarke Ingels is also in the works along with about 30 other mid-to-high-rise residential developments.
Without intervention, it was clear the corridor would soon become an unusable mess.
Guiding the pilot project to fruition took deft skill by the city's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, and the city transportation and transit commission staff. Despite the obvious benefits and clear examples of success elsewhere in the city, some skeptical suburban councillors expressed concern about the loss of on-street parking (about 180 spots worth about $7,400 a day) and the perceived "closure" of the street.
(During the critical council debate, Councillor Stephen Holyday drew on a diagram of a heart, narrowing the pulmonary artery with black marker pen to illustrate the potentially fatal consequences of limiting downtown auto traffic.)
The pilot project prohibits private automobiles traveling along the central portion of King Street. Local access will remain, in part. But all traffic at each intersection must exit onto a north-south street via a right turn. Streetcar stops will be moved to the far side of the intersection and portions of the curb lane will be turned into loading areas and public space in the form of patios and small parks.
The TTC and city planning staff recommended against exempting taxi drivers, but a successful motion from Mayor John Tory created a late-night allowance for cabs between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. "We are going to measure this 19 ways from Sunday," Tory said, promising to fully evaluate the success of the project via a dashboard that will measure travel times and traffic volumes. "We have to do something and we have to try to make this work.”