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Let's Move on the King Transit Mall

Editorial by James Bow

(Originally Published May 1, 2001)

For more information about the King Transit Mall proposal and how it came about, click to the History of the King Streetcar page.

The proposal to create a King Street transit mall is one of the most ingeneous suggestions the Toronto Transit Commission has made in a long time, and it is one that I think should be put into place as soon as possible.

The 504 King streetcar is one of the most heavily used routes on the TTC's surface network, carrying as many as 54000 passengers per weekday. As many as sixty streetcars per hour ply both directions on King Street during its busiest period (the TTC would need eighty buses to maintain the same level of service as streetcars carry 33% more passengers than buses). As King Street redevelops, with condominiums and stores replacing the old warehouses and factories that used reside near the King/Dufferin and King/Parliament intersections, demand for service along King Street is only going to increase. The problem is, the TTC has gone as far as it can in providing service along King Street. The high use of the King Streetcar, the narrowness of the street, and the presence of hundreds of private automobiles is already corrupting the reliability of King service and preventing its increase.

The TTC's proposed solution is to effectively ban car traffic between Dufferin and Parliament Streets. Coexistence simply isn't working. The TTC tried to create streetcar-only lanes along this stretch in 1993, but the experiment failed as the lanes were an unenforced joke. The situation did not get better last year when the TTC paid the Toronto police force $100,000 to crack down on illegally parked cars and other obstructions to traffic. There weren't enough police officers to ticket the violators, and once the police officers were out of sight, the violators just kept on doing what they were doing. As a result, the TTC believes that the only viable solution is to remove the cars entirely.

King Diagram

(Above) Exhibit 1: A TTC diagram showing the widened sidewalks, the lane arrangement and the free moving streetcars.

(Below) Exhibit 2: An artist's rendition of the current situation at King and John, looking west.

King and John Today King and John Tomorrow

(Above) Exhibit 3: Artist's rendition of how King and John could look under the new proposal. The pubs and restaurants along King Street should benefit from the extra sidewalk space, and delivieries are not hampered.

Merchants along the route are understandibly leery of such a dramatic change. Some fear the hampering of deliveries and the loss of customers. It's interesting to note, however, that some businesses, according to the Toronto Sun, supported a less ambitious proposal to ban cars during rush-hours only. Unlike Queen Street, where a similar proposal was shot down by furniture merchants in the late 1980s, King Street's establishments are skewed heavily towards restaurants and pubs and their clientele are more likely to take the TTC or walk to their front doors.

To address the concern over deliveries, the TTC has proposed that a curb lane be left open for trucks and taxis. These vehicles would enter King Street via a right-turn, do their business and leave King Street at the next intersection through another right-turn. To prevent through traffic from flaunting the right-turn only restriction, these one-way curb lanes would alternate between the south and north sides of King Street with each passing block. On the side of the street opposite the curb lane, the sidewalks would be extended out to the streetcar tracks, blocking through traffic and improving pedestrian ambiance.

Too much, say the merchants. That will still make deliveries difficult and will drive away our business. Some drivers and one seriously misinformed city councillor suggested that the streetcars be banned from King Street instead.

The merchants and other detrators don't seem to realize that, during rush hour, the 504 King Streetcar carries twice as many people as private automobiles do. Over two thousand streetcar passengers travel along King Street per direction during the TTC's busiest hour, compared to only one thousand people moving inside cars. Ask yourself, which service, if impeded, will cause more people to turn away from King Street? Years ago, the TTC was once able to schedule as many as fifty streetcars per direction per hour along this downtown route. They'd love to do something similar today, but car traffic makes it impossible for the TTC to reliably schedule more than thirty streetcars per direction. Whereas the current total capacity of King Street, including streetcar and car, is roughly 3000 people per direction per hour, the TTC's proposal of operating streetcars on their own offers up the possibility of moving as many as 4000 people per direction per hour along the same route.

There is the question of where to put the 1000 car drivers and passengers currently running on King. The answer is: Richmond, Adelaide, Wellington and Front. Many cars which come in from the east already divert onto Richmond and Adelaide to get through the downtown core. Wellington and Front can become similar reliefs to King traffic heading in from the west.

The proposal to tear down the Gardiner Expressway works by diverting most of its traffic onto these car-oriented streets. Indeed, the plan is such that the total car capacity of the Gardiner system is increased once the span through the downtown core is dismantled and traffic moved onto the replacement arterials. With Richmond, Adelaide and Wellington already one-way streets, they are significantly less pedestrian friendly than either King or Queen, but they have been so for such a long time that further enhancing their convenience to the car will not cause more damage than has already been done. Their connections to the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway are less than convenient, but plans are already on the books to enhance Richmond, Adelaide, Wellington and Front Streets for this purpose. The first step, extending Front Street from Bathurst to Dufferin making it an off ramp from the Gardiner expressway, will start construction soon and make Front Street a significantly faster route downtown for cars from the west end than King Street currently is.

Toronto's downtown continues to grow at a rapid rate. Business is booming and people are moving in. The street network as it stands is not well suited to handle the traffic that is being fed into it. The most efficient movers of people remain streetcars, subways and other forms of public transit and, if the downtown is to continue to move, these services have to be enhanced. One way to do this is to select various streets through the downtown and say "these are for public transit and these are for the car."

Queen and King Streets belong to public transit, always have been, always will. On the other hand, Richmond, Adelaide, Front and Wellington already belong to the automobile and recognizing this will help keep people flowing through the downtown. This will keep the downtown merchants as well as their customers happy.


Anthony Leith of Sydney, Australia writes: "I think this is a great idea also, and it does have a precedent with the Melbourne system as an example. In 1990 a decesion was made to transform Melbourne's main thoroughfare into a daytime thoroughfare for trams(you call em streetcars), pedestrians and cyclists. Even Buses are banned from using it. The whole "Swanston Walk" goes for about 7 city blocks so is quite long. Between 8pm & 7am vehicular access is permitted and mostly deliveries take advantage of this window.

"Also out in the suburbs there is what are called "Fairways" in which during peak hours cars are not permitted to travel in the marked lane on top of the tram tracks. In the city centre Melbourne, they also have special rules to stop right turning traffic (remembering we drive on the left) blocking the passage of the trams. At specially signed intersections, cars wishing to turn right must pull over to the left lane inside the intersection, and are permitted to make the right turn when the cross streets traffic lights turn to green. These vehicles have right of way over vehicles coming from that cross street.

"Hope this insight on how our city with trams operates....."

(Thanks, Anthony! And my apologies for taking so long to correct your city of residence! --jb)

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