Toronto’s Planning Department and the TTC hope to transform King Street as a realm primarily for transit vehicles and pedestrians with a pilot project aimed for fall 2017. Are the plans too aggressive, too timid, or just right? Is Toronto willing to embrace a fundamental change in the operation of a major downtown street?
On February 13, a crowd of hundreds packed into meeting rooms at Metro Hall for the launch of a new vision for King Street by the City of Toronto. Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat introduced the session with an overview of the project’s goals and the framework for upcoming studies and implementation. Top of her list is “Transit First”, a fundamental view of the street as existing primarily to move people in transit vehicles and, by extension, to shift from a street designed around automotive traffic to one built around pedestrians. This is not just an exercise in transit priority, but also a shift in street design beyond transit lanes to expand and improve pedestrian spaces.
Transit service is beyond capacity, and fast and reliable service cannot be achieved while accommodating the existing volume of cars. For the duration of the pilot, the transit experience should be improved.
Improving the transit experience on King Street should also transform the public realm experience for increasing numbers of pedestrians to help address open space deficits along the corridor.
King Street users are overwhelmingly pedestrians, not motorists, and yet the lion’s share of space is dedicated to cars, not to transit and those on foot.
Inspired by trial street interventions by other cities, Toronto looks to take a short-cut in reaching a demonstration of what is possible with pilot configurations using a minimum of construction. This has several advantages. A trial avoids the lengthy, complex and finality of a formal proposal assessment, which can take years before anyone has a chance to learn whether a scheme actually works. A pilot can use temporary, movable installations such as planters, signs and road markings that can be quickly changed for fine tuning, to test alternate arrangements, or to undo the changes. Residents, businesses and politicians can buy into a trial hoping to see improvement, or at least to determine that side-effects are tolerable for the broader goals, without fearing they are locked into major expense and upheaval that might not work.
This is a refreshing change from endless studies producing little action, with the only downside being that some changes are simply beyond the limitations of a pilot. If a trial works well enough, then more lasting changes requiring construction can follow.
King is not a street like others in Toronto where transit priority has been attempted. Spadina, St. Clair and Queens Quay are all wider, and options for increasing road space on King are few. Traffic patterns and business needs differ on each street, and a layout that works in one place may not be appropriate for others. Equally, the benefits or horrors of these streets do not necessarily apply on King.
The city has three proposed layouts for a transit-first King Street. At this stage they exist only as general schemes, not as detailed, block-by-block plans. On that fine-grained level any new scheme will succeed or fail. Even if a plan achieves transit improvements, too many small annoyances, too many details overlooked could collectively derail a scheme. The planners flag this as a need for both a “micro and macro” view of the street – the big picture of better transit, and an awareness that every block, every neighbourhood along the street is different.
Common to all plans is a substantial reduction in the space available for cars and trucks. Some areas now used for loading, drop offs and cab stands would be repurposed either as through traffic lanes with no stopping, or as expanded sidewalk space into what is now the curb lane. Left turns would be banned throughout the area.
This demands a major re-think in how the street works for its many users both regular and casual.
The street is only four lanes wide, and along much of its length buildings come out to the sidewalk line. Only limited roadway expansion is possible, but not practically across the corridor. In any event, the focus is not on cars but on pedestrians and their transit service. Road improvements should not masquerade as benefits to transit.
In the illustrations below, the yellow areas indicate new space reserved for pedestrians while the blue lines show where cars would be expected to drive.
The scheme for separated lanes is the simplest of the options, but also the least likely to succeed. This would involve adding a barrier, possibly a small curb, between the two central streetcar lanes and the curb lanes into which all non-transit traffic including cycling would be moved.
The arrangement eliminates any ability to stop along the curb lanes because following traffic could not get around a delivery van, a tour bus or a taxi taking on or discharging goods or riders. Cyclists would directly compete with cars and trucks for use of the curb lane.
With the curb lane remaining as “road” space, pedestrian areas could not be expanded. To aid right turns off of King Street, transit stops would be shifted to the far side of intersections. Curb lane traffic would be blocked, as today, for riders crossing to access transit vehicles, but there would be the added problem of “double stopping” by transit vehicles so familiar to riders of the Spadina streetcars. Real transit priority – unlike the Spadina situation – would be needed to ensure that King cars were not trapped by red signals just before arriving at a stop.
A “loops” scheme was proposed many years ago by the TTC, but nothing came of the idea. King Street then was very different without the fast-growing population and demands for a better street not just in the financial district, but in the neighbourhoods beyond.
King Street street would be divided into blocks that would generally contain one city block except possibly for cases of short blocks and laneways. Within each block, the curb lane for one direction would be dedicated to expanded pedestrian space, while in the opposite direction, traffic would use the lane. Lay-bys would be designated for loading or taxi zones, and traffic would swing out into the central transit lane to bypass vehicles in these areas, but would return to the curb lane beyond.
Through traffic at the boundaries of the blocks would not be allowed except for transit vehicles forcing autos and trucks to leave by a right turn. The right-in, right-out scheme creates a layout where each block is its own “loop” with traffic circling north and south to adjacent streets for through trips.
Transit stops would be located adjacent to the expanded pedestrian zones so that riders would directly board and leave vehicles without crossing a traffic lane. This will require moving some stops to far side locations. For example, if at King and Yonge, the pedestrian zones were on the north side west of Yonge, but on the south side to the east, then the transit stops would lie beyond the intersection in both directions. However, at Bay the situation would be reversed and the stops would be on the near side as they are today.
An alternative version of this includes sharing the curb lanes in both directions with cyclists. This would give mixed auto and cycling use in one direction and semi-exclusive cycling use in the other, an arrangement that would switch from block to block. Further confusion could arise because cyclists would be allowed to ride through intersections where motorists would be forced to turn off.
This builds in a direct conflict between the goal of an expanded pedestrian realm, especially at transit stops, and cycling. Where this has been done on Roncesvalles Avenue, cyclists must ride through transit waiting areas. However, King Street has far more pedestrian activity.
The Transit Promenade is the most pedestrian-oriented of the three in that widened sidewalks would exist on both sides of the street for much of its length. Transit vehicles would share the one remaining lane in each direction with other traffic with lay-bys inserted in the curb lane for pickups and deliveries.
Although the central lanes look “open”, planners claim that there would be some mechanism to prevent traffic other than transit vehicles from actually making a through movement at major intersections, and only right turns off of King would be allowed. This would effectively divide the street into blocks much like the Loop arrangement.
In the Promenade configuration, all transit stops would be far side because the nearside area would be reserved for the right turning exit from each block. This arrangement only works if the traffic wishing to exit at each block boundary will fit in the stacking space in the curb lane. Providing adequate room could eat well into the hoped for sidewalk widening.
Challenges and Tradeoffs
Both the Loop and Promenade schemes assume that traffic volumes will be considerably reduced with only “local” trips actually requiring access to and using King Street. Without this reduction, the idea that traffic would somehow stay out of transit’s way is not credible. The Separated Lanes option renders the curb lane almost useless for local traffic because stopping for more than a brief period is impractical.
All of that diverted traffic has to go somewhere, and the wider design to handle this is not yet clear. Although the King Street Pilot is part of the wider TOcore study of downtown, there has been little discussion of how other streets in the core area network would operate. This includes provision for turns to and from streets to access the Loop and Promenade arrangements at locations where turn volumes are now lower or turns are prohibited.
Some traffic demand could evaporate on King because people simply stop making trips via that route, but there remains the effect on parallel streets where through trips would still be possible.
Cycling lanes are most likely to be implemented on parallel streets like Richmond and Adelaide, but not on King. One variant of the proposals does include cycling, but making this work would be difficult with competing street uses, notably pedestrian access to transit, and the addition of traffic turns at locations where they are now banned.
Planners are developing a traffic model of downtown, and this will be used to test various possible configurations for the road network, not just for King Street itself. The area to be modeled extends about one kilometer either side of King reaching north to Dundas and south to Lake Ontario.
Although the model will consider the entire King route, the area where changes to the street will occur is confined to the busiest portion between Bathurst and Jarvis, with a possible eastward extension to Parliament. This is based both on ridership levels and on differences in the street grid outside of the central part of the King route where parallel streets are available to absorb traffic.
An important issue in any “transit first” proposal is that transit is not just streetcars and buses, but also includes vehicles such as taxis and Wheel-Trans vehicles that have very different requirements for passenger handling. How much of King Street will remain for other uses such as truck loading after space is reserved for these alternative passenger-carrying vehicles?
Any form of barrier to restrict lane access poses a number of problems. First, and most obviously, the barrier consumes space that is already in short supply. However, barriers would also impede emergency or oversized vehicles, and could even make bus operation more challenging in a tightly defined transit lane. These problems could be intensified by any substantial snow accumulation that trimmed lane widths.
Special events on King Street range from the ever-so-common lane closures for utility work to special events such as the film festival, TIFF. Studies of King Street’s behaviour show that some of the worst congestion and transit delays arise from events that remove capacity from King Street itself, or from parallel routes as far away as the Gardiner Expressway and Queen Street. Any scheme to reconfigure King Street must work not just under ideal conditions, but with the inevitable pressures that will arise when the downtown street network is not in its peak condition.
A perennial issue with traffic management and transit priority is the almost total lack of enforcement of existing bylaws or control of traffic at key points to prevent intersections from locking up. The 2017 Toronto budget proposes additional funding for TTC’s Transit Constables to perform traffic management, primarily for unusual conditions such as parades, but better “hands on” direction is an ongoing requirement.
An important but missing part in the city’s presentation is a discussion of design changes on other streets to absorb diverted traffic and to provide for the new access patterns that cars and trucks will use to access points on King itself. Changes to other streets such as Richmond and Adelaide cold provoke as much debate as the work on King.
Making Transit Better
If there is one thing everyone downtown agrees on, it is that transit service on King and other routes has become unacceptably bad. However, “fixing” King is not just a simple case of kicking cars off in favour of transit for part of the route. The 504 King line actually runs through many different neighbourhoods each with its own streetscape, travel patterns and traffic problems. Service quality is not just an issue for the centre of downtown, but over the entire route.
Riders look for three key items in a transit service:
- Reliability: Does the vehicles arrive on a regular basis with predictable wait times?
- Capacity: Is there room on vehicles for passengers to board, or does overcrowding lead to extended waits for a vehicle with available space?
- Speed: Is the transit vehicle routinely delayed by traffic conditions that slow or halt rider journeys?
Reliability – evenly spaced transit vehicles that show up on an expected frequency – is a long-standing problem for TTC operations. Bunches of two or more vehicles are common, and the length of a wait for service can be unpredictable. This behaviour shows up across the transit system under all weather and traffic conditions, and is far more deeply rooted in the TTC than the effects of a few kilometres of King Street.
Capacity is determined by the size of transit vehicles and the number of them passing a point each hour. Moving vehicles faster adds nothing to capacity if the travel time savings are not reinvested into more frequent service. The portion of 504 King that will be affected by the pilot project is less than a third of the total route, although it contains some of the more congested areas. If one talks of a 10% improvement, that will apply only in the pilot area, not over the full route, and so travel times will be reduced only for part of the route. The effect overall will be smaller because large parts of the route will operate as they do today.
King is particularly challenging because it now operates, during the morning peak period, at a scheduled vehicle spacing (or “headway”) that is close to what a street can handle. More capacity is an issue of vehicle size, and the lengthy delays in arrival of new larger streetcars on King is a constraint that will not disappear soon. Some media have reported that the TTC plans to expand capacity by switching 504 King to new streetcars as part of the pilot. This is neither planned by the TTC nor practical given the number of new cars they will likely have for a fall 2017 pilot. The TTC has confirmed that the only addition of new cars on King Street will be the full conversion of 514 Cherry that is likely to be completed in early spring. Further plans have not been settled.
We will continue to fill out the 514 with low floor cars until the entire route has them. We are reviewing deployment for the rest of the network and hope to report out soon. [Email from Brad Ross, Executive Director, Corporate Communications, TTC, February 14, 2017]
Speed affects perception of transit service in a few ways. Studies of rider behaviour show that as long as a vehicle is moving at a reasonable clip, riders don’t pay too much attention, especially if this is the normal behaviour for a transit route. However, the moment a vehicle slows or stops due to congestion or some other delay, a rider’s first thought is “oh no, not again” and they start worrying about timely arrival at their destination.
Another part of “speed” is access and waiting time, and these tie back to both reliability and capacity. The time required to reach a stop and then wait for a vehicle with room to spare is dead time for riders, and it is perceived as a high “cost” out of their trip. This portion of a journey from, say, Liberty Village to downtown can be a substantial portion of the total travel time. Overall perception of “speed” can be improved simply by ensuring that transit service arrives promptly and that the first vehicle can serve waiting passengers, not the second or third.
The worst problems with transit operations lie in the centre of the route. Between Bathurst and Jarvis, the speed of streetcars on average can be in the range of typical walking speed. The range of speeds shown in the chart below also indicate how much the travel time across downtown can vary from trip to trip. Many factors affect these speeds including traffic conditions, the time of year, the day of the week and events that limit road capacity on King itself or neighbouring streets.
Reliability on King shows up both as a matter of vehicle speed and predictability of the time before a streetcar will appear. The combination of slow travel speed and unpredictable arrivals can be deadly for transit’s credibility on this busy route.
Some problems with congestion lie outside of area the pilot will alter – from Bathurst west to Roncesvalles, and (to a lesser extent) from Jarvis east to the Don River.
Traffic is no longer a “peak period” issue, and indeed it is hard to determine the exact bounds of a “rush hour” on parts of King Street.
The pilot must acknowledge that many of the 504 King route’s problems lie beyond the area where changes will occur, and scale expectations for improvement accordingly. For its part, the TTC should address problems with service reliability over the entire route as a contribution to this project.
For a project on this scale and with the potential for more extensive, permanent changes in the future, some measure that the changes achieved their goals must be possible. In turn, this requires that the goals be defined together with their relative importance.
For example the reliability, capacity and speed of transit can be measured directly, but how much should improvements in these areas dominate the effect on other traffic and the wider road network? Does the expansion and improvement of the “public realm” (which is more than just sidewalks) take precedence over other goals, and does an improved public realm actually lead to a better experience of life on King Street?
Scoring systems for public projects can be notoriously vague with so many options, so many measures of what is “good”, that there is no clear relationship between the scores and the project’s goals. Moreover, evaluation of the effects must be retested throughout the pilot period as changes occur to fine-tune the street layout, and these effects will almost certainly vary along the route.
The project will not, and probably cannot, solve every problem and please every user of the street. The challenge is to establish that the greatest benefit occurs for the highest priority goals.
The public meeting on February 13 was one of the best-attended planners and politicians who were there to participate or just to observe have seen. Breakout discussions for various topics were full with standees, and participants rotated from area to area eager to comment. The challenge was to accommodate the many voices in the time available.
Such a gathering could have turned raucous, but although some speakers put their issues forcefully, the evening concluded without disruption. Planners received many detailed suggestions, and their challenge will be to respond to them cogently as part of the next stage in the study process. There is no faster way to turn off a sense of “public participation” than to pay lip service, to hold a meeting, but to not really listen. Everyone will not get the answer they hope for, but all opinions deserve the respect of analysis if only to demonstrate which can or should be part of a pilot, which might have to wait for more extensive work (anything requiring significant reconstruction), and which are impractical or contrary to the project’s goals.
The comments were generally favourable even if support was guarded, and there is a willingness to see what might be done. If anything, there was concern that the scope was not ambitious enough, and that the study should push west of Bathurst and east of Jarvis.
Some speakers sought to minimize the downside for auto and truck traffic even to the extent of compromising the transit first concept to squeeze out capacity, real or perceived, for non-transit users. The challenge of a “death by a thousand cuts” faces planners who must ensure that demonstrable benefits for transit and pedestrians survive the inevitable efforts to whittle away at designs.
City planning staff will assess the feedback received at this and other meetings (such as with groups of stakeholders across the study area) with the intention of reporting out to another round of consultation followed by approval of a recommended design by the TTC Board and Council in early summer 2017. Detailed design and implementation would follow with the hope of seeing changes beginning in early fall.
Comments and suggestions should be sent to the study team at email@example.com.
Full Disclosure: I have acted as a paid consultant to the City of Toronto and TTC for analysis of transit vehicle movements on King and other streetcar routes. Recently, on a pro bono basis, I have updated this work to include current conditions on King Street. Opinions expressed in this article are my own.
This article was originally written for the Torontoist, but was deemed too long and complex for their site. I am, therefore, publishing it here.