King streetcar pilot represents a monumental shift for Toronto - streetcarLarge

King streetcar pilot represents a monumental shift for Toronto



For the first time in living memory, the city has taken a step that prioritizes public transit over the private vehicle, Christopher Hume writes.

As much as the King St. pilot project will help bring Toronto’s wholly inadequate transit system into the 21st century, more important, it will enable the city to establish contact with reality, albeit to a limited degree.

Since 1998, when the province forcibly amalgamated Toronto and its surrounding suburbs, the megacity, as it was then known, has existed in an infantilized state. Rather than acknowledge the facts of life in a growing city, Toronto has buried its head in the sand and resorted to the tired rhetoric of the “War on the Car.”

Fuelled by these nonsensical notions, Mayor John Tory has launched a series of minor traffic fixes. Some have promise — why shouldn’t deliveries be made before or after rush hour? — others are more symbolic. Does anyone really believe we can eliminate illegal parking? Still, in a city that never lets reason get in the way of transit planning, these tweaks matter enormously.

But now, for the first time in living memory, the city has taken a step that prioritizes public transit over the private vehicle, streetcars over cars, truth over illusion. This represents a huge change, a paradigm shift of monumental proportions.

Of course, the stretch of King included in the pilot is too short. Toronto never does in full measure what it can do by half. The Bloor bike lanes are another example of a city trapped in its own timidity. The lanes are too short, but 2.4 kilometres was as far as council could see.

The real issue — mobility — has historically been equated with vehicular traffic. But the automobile is only one of many forms of mobility. This is a point that civic and provincial politicos have difficulty grasping. For them, getting around the city begins and ends with the car. It’s no surprise, then, that Toronto transit has fallen two or three decades behind much of the advanced world.

Toronto is tackling traffic with a year-long pilot project that bans motorists from driving through a busy downtown section of King Street, which started on Nov. 12. One commuter said her lunch-time streetcar ride is almost three times faster. (The Canadian Press)

The King St. experiment accepts that transit isn’t simply an alternative to the internal congestion machine, but is actually preferable. Accordingly, it gives streetcars precedence. Cars can still use King, but only a block at a time. Streetcars fly along the street. If the 504 route carried 65,000 passengers daily in the bad old days, how many will ride it now? The big problem remains lack of rolling stock.

The real test won’t come, however, until police aren’t on the spot daily writing tickets. Just as Toronto drivers routinely ignore bus and bike lanes, police routinely ignore offending drivers. The story of the city’s favourite cop, Const. Kyle Ashley, is instructive: he came to prominence tweeting his struggles to keep bike lanes free of illegally parked vehicles only to be silenced, ominously, by police brass.

In its willingness to go against history, the King St. project is a reminder of how poor transit planning has become in these parts. Even the Vaughan subway extension that opens next month is fundamentally flawed. It will attract more riders, but without increasing the system’s capacity to handle them.

This and the failure to create network connectivity have been transit’s tale since the Bloor line was built in the 1960s. The Sheppard line loses money with every ride. Tory’s proposed Scarborough line is already recognized internationally as a white elephant of global proportions. The only exception to this record of failure, the Eglinton Crosstown, an underground LRT, should have been a subway. And let’s not get into the lack of funding for the eastern portion of the line.

But now Torontonians have King St. as a reminder of what transit could be. It offers a glimpse of a different, smarter, more humane city. Of all the numerous problems the TTC faces, the most pressing is the need to be taken seriously, not treated as a goody handed out by vote-hungry politicians, municipal and provincial. For Tory, whose dismal transit record includes the Scarborough subway and SmartTrack, the pilot offers a desperately needed win. Most likely he will gain more votes in next year’s election by dealing with the reality of downtown transit than promising subways to nowhere.

Meanwhile, several weeks ago, the city quietly requested proposals for tunnelling sections of the relief line. Though this marks another move in the right direction, construction isn’t scheduled to start until 2025. That’s a long time to hold your breath.

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