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Toronto Has a Plan to Clear the Way for Streetcars Stuck in Traffic

Currently, streetcars get bogged down down in private car traffic on King Street, Toronto’s busiest surface transit route. A new plan would divert private vehicles out of the path of transit. Photo: booledozer/Flickr

Toronto's busiest surface transit route could get a big upgrade as part of a year-long pilot project -- if it clears the Toronto City Council this summer, where suburban interests have a history of rejecting transit initiatives.

Each day, the 504 streetcar carries 65,000 trips on King Street across downtown Toronto. But the streetcars get bogged down in motor vehicle traffic -- about 20,000 private cars and trucks are on King Street daily -- making the route painfully slow for riders.

"It's a hugely busy route, but frankly, it doesn't work," said TTC chief executive Andy Byford in a video about the plan. "King Street is so congested, so the streetcars bunch, they gap, they get hopelessly snarled in traffic."

The plan, announced jointly by the TTC and the City of Toronto, aims to keep curbs accessible for deliveries and drop-offs while eliminating the vehicles that most often block streetcars. On a mile-and-a-half of King Street between Bathurst and Jarvis streets, drivers would only be allowed to turn right. Through traffic and left turns would be prohibited. On-street parking would be eliminated and replaced with loading zones, taxi stands, bike racks, and space for streetcar passengers to wait.

By requiring that drivers turn right at each block along King Street, Toronto hopes it can clear the way for its streetcars. Image: The Globe and Mail
By requiring drivers to turn right at each block along King Street, Toronto hopes it can clear the way for streetcars. Image: The Globe and Mail
By requiring that drivers turn right at each block along King Street, Toronto hopes it can clear the way for its streetcars. Image: The Globe and Mail

The new design would be a significant improvement from the current, traffic-clogged set-up, but Jarrett Walker at Human Transit notes that it's far from perfect. "There are still compromises: traffic is still in the streetcar’s lane, and refuges for passengers to board and alight will be marked only with paint," he writes. It also relies on police enforcement to keep drivers from turning left or continuing straight, and covers only a small section of King Street. Still, Walker says, "this plan is a critical step, and deserves enthusiastic support."

The pilot project, developed by a team that includes Toronto urban design firm Public Work, Sam Schwartz Engineering, Gehl Studio New York, and Toronto-based Swerhun Associates, was revealed to the Globe and Mail on Saturday in advance of a public meeting on Thursday evening.

"Previous attempts to change downtown streets have raised the ire of suburban councillors, who argue that these are not just local roads but are important to traffic from around the city," wrote the Globe and Mail's Oliver Moore. "There can also be expected to be opposition from some businesses in the area."

Despite the hurdles, it's clear that the status quo on King Street is leaving Torontonians stuck in gridlock. If approved by the City Council in July, the one-year pilot project could be up and running in October.

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