Toronto Shows How Easy It Is to Speed Up Surface Transit

New restrictions on car access have shave several minutes off streetcar trips along Toronto's King Street. Photos: Jennifer Keesmaat
New restrictions on car access have shave several minutes off streetcar trips along Toronto's King Street. Photos: Jennifer Keesmaat

Toronto’s streetcar is a rarity in North America: a legacy system that still functions as a transportation workhorse, moving large numbers of people. The busiest route is on King Street, where people make 65,000 streetcar trips a day.

But like most surface transit, the King Street streetcar operates in mixed traffic, making it frustratingly slow. Those 65,000 passengers get bogged down by the 20,000 motor vehicles that travel on King Street in a typical day.

They used to, at least. Toronto is trying out new rules along 1.6 miles of King Street, with strict limits on motor vehicle access. Now that King Street is no longer a through-route for cars, transit trips are a lot faster, writes Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic:

This pilot has significantly reduced space for cars along the street, eliminating parking spaces, adding public art, installing planters, creating small new public plazas, and — perhaps most importantly — prevented people from driving on the street for more than one block or taking left turns.

It’s therefore not a full car ban; some vehicles will still travel in the streetcar right-of-way, a less-than-optimal situation. But it is an effort to ensure that drivers are only using the portion of the street they need. As a result, most of the street is reserved for trains, bikers, and pedestrians.

We’ve yet to see the long-term results of the project, but initial public reaction suggests that the changes have significantly sped up what was once a very slow streetcar line. Riders are saving five to 13 minutes per trip, a massive improvement for such a short trip. Streetcars are running more quickly and less likely to get stuck at lights. Cyclists are riding more safely. And traffic doesn’t seem to have been pushed onto surrounding streets.

Freemark points out that this reconfiguration of King Street only cost $1.5 million. It’s an extremely cost-effective strategy that makes sense for other busy street-running transit routes, whether streetcars or buses.

More recommended reading today: Streets.mn considers whether roundabouts are safer for pedestrians. And Price Tags reports that Vancouver is under pressure from older residents to install rest rooms at transit stations.

  • Joe R.

    Also worth noting is if car restrictions reduce traffic volumes enough, you can remove the traffic signals altogether, speeding up streetcars even more. In fact, looking at the traffic volumes in that picture, they could probably get rid of the signals right now. With traffic mostly consisting of just an occasional streetcar, people don’t need signals to cross the street.

  • wklis

    Those
    opposed look at the motor vehicles that are absent (with 1.3 people
    inside). Instead, they should be looking at the PEOPLE on the sidewalks
    and inside the streetcars (70+ to 100+ each).

  • Corvus Corax

    And the nay-sayers think that a saving of 5 to 13 minutes is nothing to brag about, but they don’t do the math, don’t realize that those figures get multiplied by the 65,000 who save those minutes every day. And that’s a LOT of saved time.

  • Dan

    But the cars aren’t removed. They’re just on an adjacent street.

  • Taurussf

    Are they? Please cite references.

    I’d guess that as the transit gets faster, more people use it. Some of those people used to drive. If I’m wrong about this, please show me how.

  • Progressive Mapping

    There are photos on Adelaide (one block north) – no visible increase.

  • Anne A

    I’m looking forward to experiencing this myself next time I visit.

  • Anne A

    Yes, if transit gets faster and more reliable, more people use it.

  • Greg

    Maybe so, but a street without a dedicated transit line.

  • iSkyscraper

    Traffic is elastic.

  • AMH

    Incredible–this should be done on every Manhattan avenue.

  • Greg

    There’s something unnerving sitting in a slick new technologically advanced, smooth operating streetcar, idling behind co2 puffing cars and trucks creeping along a street through a part of the city sprouting ultra modern residential towers and office blocks housing an increasing aray of iT and creative industry residents – and moving only periodically at a steady predictable pace. Presto! Change attitude, change the game.

  • I’m all for transit (I use it daily), but come on. All this does is displace traffic to side streets which pisses off locals on these streets who can’t get around. The cars aren’t going to go away in spite of the fact you don’t see them on this particular street. You really want to reduce the number of cars, invest heavily in transit and smart transit-oriented development.

  • mooken

    Can’t — you still need signals for the north-south lanes that intersect the streetcar east-west tracks.

  • Sean

    They spent $1.5 million on speeding up the route. The idea is that some people will switch to transit as it is now a more viable option. Its worked on Mission St in SF, they are routed to South Van Ness instead, which is more suitable for cars anyway.

  • Wade Johnston

    There’s two anecdotes that says this doesn’t happen, the first, is from the story above, which says there’s no noticible increase in alternative streets, and the second is where they complete shut down a street next to the Seine in Paris, 50% of the traffic went to other streets, but 50% just disappeared. https://www.fastcompany.com/3064157/when-paris-closed-a-major-road-to-cars-half-its-traffic-just-disappeared

  • Have you been on Muni? People are ditching Muni for other ways of getting around town, like Uber/Lyft, because the system sucks. Shaving off a few minutes on one transit line doesn’t suddenly make it more attractive, except for maybe the people who only use that route, not those who have to transfer and use other transit lines which remain slow and unreliable. Also, regarding your comment about Mission St., ask the folks who live on South Van Ness what they think about additional traffic on their street. I can bet you they don’t like it very much.

  • It’s amazing what people will believe without actually being there.

  • GregKamin

    To some extent, but much of it isn’t e.g. deliveries, contractors, utility trucks, emergency vehicles, shuttles, cab and car services etc.

    The number of roads in the US that are completely closed to vehicular traffic is a trivial number.

  • GregKamin

    Yeah, plus there are the other issues with Muni, e.g. the crime, the homeless guys, the insane guys, the filth and the smells etc.

    Last Uber ride I took was $4. Why would I pay $2.50 to ride Muni?

  • Juschillin

    don’t worry they will make them all one ways ….the wrong way and get more revenue from the people that dare own cars!! it’s a joke!

  • Sean

    If you get a monthly pass you can go way further anywhere in the city including metro rail and a cable car. Good to hear your unsurged Uber ride once was $4. That guy isn’t drug tested and may have breezed through background checks and his car isn’t professionally maintained. Real San Franciscans ride Muni. Part time elistist tech snobs on a pit stop here on the way to the suburbs take Uber everywhere.

  • Sean

    I ride Muni everyday. There have been countless times it had been a superior option in price, travel time, and experience. Havibg mainline 14 Mission service with dedicated red carpet lanes vastly improves any connections along the route. I can take a 14 rapid bus faster than any other mode at rush hour, it is never surged and I comes to the same stop with no deviations.

  • JonDubno

    That’s odd because I know people born and bred in SF, who work as teacher and nurses, who take Uber because they do not trust Muni to be safe, quick, convenient or comfortable.

    Still I’m sure you know best, what with all those comforting generalizations and stereotypes that you harbor.

  • This is just a story, and is not accurate in terms of ridership data. There has been a national decline in transit ridership since OPEC lowered the price of gasoline 3 years ago, but Muni has actually increased ridership overall. There was a dip in 2015 and an increase in 2016 (numbers are not yet in for 2017).

  • Lvan Rogers

    In the event that you get a month to month pass, you can go way encourage anyplace in the city including metro rail and a link auto. Great to hear your surged Uber ride used to be $4. That person isn’t medicate tried and may have easily gotten through individual verification and his auto isn’t professionally kept up. Genuine San Franciscans ride Muni. Low maintenance elitist tech big talkers on a pit stop here while in transit to suburbia take Uber all o

  • iPedro1000

    No, that’s not what has happened at all. As with cities who have removed elevated expressways, the traffic has — and I know this is hard to believe — disappeared. I live on King Street and adjacent streets aren’t any busier than they were before while most traffic on King has kind of magically just disappeared.

    Some explanations for this phenomena is that unnecessary trips have either gone away or rescheduled for slower times of the day. Another explanation is that because transit is now a viable, fast and reliable choice for transportation, some drivers have left their cars at home and taken public transit. This is of course the entire goal of prioritizing transit.

  • iPedro1000

    It’s not shaving off a “few minutes”. The King streetcar was painfully slow. It could take an hour to get from work in the centre of downtown to a neighbourhood 10-15 blocks away. It now takes 15 minutes to cross the entire downtown segment.

  • Kind of like how you disbelieve in traffic evaporation in Paris without actually being there? It has happened many, many times in many, many places. Including the city that you ride Muni in after we tore down freeways.

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