Thoughts on on the King St. Pilot after One Year
I've lived in the same apartment in Toronto, near Queen & Spadina, for almost 3 years. Initially my commute to an office at Church and The Esplanade was taking the 510 streetcar from either Queen or King St. depending on where the winds took me. That seemed like the fastest way to go until it donned on me that I was essentially taking a detour south past Front to Queens Quay and then back north to Union Station, and then walking through the morning wave of people coming in from all directions via the GO trains. At some point I changed my commute to take the King St. streetcar, with the new Flexity cars just coming into service on the 504 route. (That might have been when I learned of the Secret Streetcar, the 503, with its semi-permanent short turn at Spadina Ave. and threading through Charlotte to head back east on King. It's the only time I can get a seat in the morning, and I'll let multiple packed streetcars pass knowing that soon, soon I will be the only one boarding an empty streetcar on my way to work.)
The year or so I spent on the King St., no matter which route, was a contract with congestion. Luckily then my pager duty shifts would start in the afternoons, because at least then I did not have to be in the office by a certain time in the mornings. It was not so much that travel times were long but how unpredictable they were. It wasn't even a joke that people could walk faster than the streetcar, it was a reality. If the choice was spending 45 minutes standing in a streetcar and a 45-minute walk to work, I would choose the latter.
As soon as I got wind that the City of Toronto, in conjunction with the TTC, would change the traffic pattern so that cars were required to exit King St. at each intersection (with exceptions), and not only be required to turn right but mandated to do so, meant that the streetcar would be the only vehicle on the road. The right lane on both sides is closed to traffic, and open only for art installations or loading zones or taxi bays. I called the pilot project a success at the outset, because it felt like a daring exercise the TTC is not exactly known for, and it prioritized transit riders which not only benefited me directly (I have never owned a car and don't want to), but it would benefit the tens of thousands of transit riders along the King St. corridor. After a year of the pilot, I was surprised how low the increase was in ridership at 11%, though it does seem to me and other riders of the streetcar that people are more packed in, and that Presto undercounts due to 'free rides' simply because people can't reach to tap in. (If I had any doubt that the TTC counts Bluetooth devices to determine the number of riders, the open data catalogue has put them to rest.) I remain of the opinion that no matter how many streetcars are on the route, they will fill up, because of how predictable the commute times are. That's a good thing! I'm just a little dismayed that overcrowding is presented as a problem, which it is, but unless they keep up with densification along the corridor, which they won't anytime soon, "overcrowding" will be present for a long while.
(Don't get me wrong: I'm in favour of more streetcars along King St., since it will mean even people on streetcars, which means fewer people driving cars. I just don't think getting a seat is something anybody should realistically count on.)
This evening I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by TTCRiders.ca. Attendees were split up into groups of 7 or 8 and led by a facilitator to discuss the pilot. To my pleasant surprise, a candidate for council in my ward, April Engleberg, led the discussion at my table. We had a sheet with 5 questions in front of us, and for each of the 5 questions, we had time to answer them on our own and then discuss them among the group. I represented the early-40s white male perspective as best I could, and found the complaints and concerns everybody brought to be eye-opening. Since my commute time is very predictable now (always under 17 minutes while in a streetcar, and traffic is only ever stuck behind one), I call the line a subway on the ground. My vision for the King St. has it extended to Roncesvalles Ave., if only to make it easier for me to move to Etobicoke, but that's another story.
Did some people think it was a session to complain to city staff despite being explicitly told it wasn't. Yes. Was it a shame that the groups stayed the same throughout the night? Possibly. Did I reframe some of my thoughts about the pilot based on other people's experiences of it? Absolutely.
At work, we had to stop calling a new service that we tried out with a select group of customer as a pilot because they associated that word with a temporary thing. The customers saw themselves as early adopters of something, so I worry too that the King St. Transit Pilot is seen by implementors and stakeholders and consumers as impermanent. I see everybody in the area as being not so much as early adopters, but as participants in a new way of thinking of city streets that was (and still is) disruptive, with some problems to iron out (and possibly people to compensate). I hope King St. becomes a transit-only part of town, and that we listen to people in the roundtables, who suggested that maybe public art in street lanes didn't work as well as it could, but can still reclaim that lane for people by making it a wider sidewalk (with public art!).