King Street Redesign Project Goes to TTC/City for Approval

The proposal to redesign the central section of King Street with priority for transit and pedestrians moves into its approval phase with a report going to the TTC’s Board on June 15, and to the City’s Executive Committee on June 19, 2017. Details of the study behind this proposal are on the King Street Pilot page of the City of Toronto’s website.

For those who have been following this project closely, there is little new in the report which consolidates material that has been evolving through a series of public meetings and consultations with affected groups along the route.

In brief, King Street between Jarvis and Bathurst Streets would be modified as below:

  • No through traffic would be permitted, only local access, and vehicles would be forced to turn off of King Street rather than continuing in a straight line across the core area.
  • Transit stops would be shifted to farside locations so that pedestrian activity from riders boarding and alighting would be separated from right turning traffic movements.
  • No parking would be permitted, but specific locations would be designated as loading zones for short-term use and for taxi stands.
  • In some areas, pedestrian space would extend into the curb lane, and would be protected with measures such as planters to prevent vehicle access.

A generic view of this arrangement is shown below.

Each block would have four basic types of use in the curb lanes:

  • Farside transit stop (red/orange in the diagram)
  • Pedestrian realm improvement (green)
  • Loading zone (blue)
  • Right turn lane (gray)

The details will vary from block to block. For example, not all blocks have transit stops. Both the length of blocks and the nature of uses along the blocks will affect how much room is available/required for each type in each location. Transit stops and turn lanes are clearly “hard” requirements that must be met, and whatever remains would be divided for other types of treatment. Fine details of this plan are not included in the report, but will be worked out in detailed design over the summer with a target for implementation in fall 2017 after TIFF and its street occupancy is over. (Some aspects may not be implemented until Spring 2018 as they would be seasonal in nature.)

The enforced turning pattern is summarized in the diagram below.

The City expects that once motorists adjust to the new arrangement, the amount of traffic attempting to use King will drop and that these drivers will shift to parallel approach routes. Without this shift, the backlog of traffic awaiting turns off of King westbound at Jarvis and eastbound at Bathurst will present a substantial barrier to transit. This shift is easier for motorists to achieve east of downtown where parallel westbound routes are available via Front/Wellington, Richmond and Queen. To the west, options are much more limited because neither Front nor Adelaide runs west of Bathurst. This could affect congestion on Queen which is already a difficult corridor.

Shifting traffic onto Richmond/Adelaide also begs the important question of redesign of those streets and the degree to which their designated lanes are already abused. These are cycling streets, and part of the grudging acceptance of the absence of bike lanes on King by some in the cycling community was the availability of parallel routes. If these are not both enforced and physically protected so that they remain available, conflicts between cyclist and cars will inevitably rise. Moreover, if these streets allow incursions by motorists into the cycling lanes, then the their true performance will not be measured because cars will have more capacity available in practice than in the design.

Improved transit performance and capacity are obvious goals of any “priority” scheme. This raises important issues about TTC service that will be familiar to readers of this site.

  • Speed alone does not provide more capacity for riders, it only moves them faster. Capacity is a combination of vehicle size and service frequency, and only by improving at least one of these will riders see a difference. If the TTC does not actually run more cars/hour and/or larger cars, then the capacity will not change. In this situation, the main benefit of the pilot will be to insulate transit from events that might disrupt service in the core area, and allow scheduled service to be better maintained. However, changes downtown will not have any effect on scheduled service in Parkdale and Liberty Village.
  • Service reliability is important to riders because it makes their wait time for a streetcar predictable and distributes demand evenly among vehicles. The report states that congestion downtown “leads to unreliable streetcar headways along with bunching and gapping of streetcars”. This is true up to a point, but bunching and gapping are issues along the entire route including the spacing of vehicles leaving terminals. Indeed, the TTC’s own Service Standards accept a variation of ±50% from the scheduled headway so that cars intended to arrive every 4 minutes can actually show up on a pattern of 6-2-6-2-6 and be considered “on time”. The acceptance of bunching is baked in to the standards.

The TTC plans to increase service on King, subject to vehicle availability, but how this will be allocated remains to be seen. An important consideration for any scheduled short turn service, such as the 514 Cherry overlay on 504 King, is that of proper spacing. Adding a short turn car onto a route that comes out immediately behind a through car creates a “bunch” right at the origin and does little to add to service capacity or convenience. During peak periods when scheduled service is frequent, this does not matter much except when there has been a disruption and service spacing needs active intervention, not a laissez-faire attitude. (Irregular spacing is a chronic problem on all TTC routes where there are “blended” services that work on paper, but not in practice.)

They also plan increased supervision, but this runs headlong into “TTC culture” and scheduling practices. In an attempt to reduce short turns, streetcar (and some bus) schedules have been adjusted in recent years to have more running time. The premise is that the schedule should match real-world conditions. The problem lies in the amount of extra time which tends to suit less-than-ideal circumstances, but which causes streetcars to have more time than they require under “typical” conditions. This leads to slow operation along the routes, and backlogs of vehicles at terminals. (A recently retired operator of long acquaintance quipped that he was leaving “because he could not drive that slowly”.)

In an attempt to fix one problem, the TTC created another. Indeed, if the pilot is successful in reducing travel times through the core, streetcar operators may have even more excess time and may be forced to dawdle even more simply to avoid running early. The fundamental issue here is whether there is a way to move major routes like King to headway-based management rather than schedule-based. This brings problems of crewing because vehicles would not be in “scheduled” locations. On the subway, the TTC deals with this by making crew changes between trains along the route to put operators back on time even though the trains are in the “wrong” place. This practice is much trickier for on street routes, and it is simpler to short turn both the vehicle and the operator.

Although the TTC plans to provide more supervision of King Street service, this could be counter-productive if “staying on time” includes slowing vehicles down to match the existing schedules. To add to this problem, the lead time for a schedule change is close to three months, not the sort of nimble response one would want in response to changing conditions with the pilot.

Because this is a pilot project, an important issue will be that as problems arise they are identified and fixed (or at least an alternate strategy tried) quickly. To that end, the report proposes that the process for changing the traffic rules on King and many adjacent streets be delegated to the City’s General Manager of Transportation Services. Normally, any traffic regulation change goes through a process of staff reporting to the local Community Council (in this case the one for Toronto & East York) and because these are transit streets, the report must then be approved by Council. For the pilot, a quicker process giving the GM the ability to make changes “on the fly” will be in place until December 2018.

The full list of proposed changes to regulations on turns and parking is included in an appendix to the report.

The City and TTC plan to monitor the project to see just what happens both with the quality of transit service and with the effects on traffic flows in the study area. One important aspect of any review will be to look not just at “ordinary” days, but at the effect of special events such as nearby road closures (e.g. events at City Hall and other central locations, parades and construction). Also of interest will be the behaviour of traffic in the entertainment district between Simcoe and Bathurst, especially west of Spadina which is very congested on weekend evenings. A plan that works on Mondays will behave very differently on Fridays and Saturdays.

This pilot is a big change from the more timid approach to traffic management we usually see in Toronto. There is only so much to be achieved by tweaking traffic signal timings and adjusting regulated hours for parking and left turns. At some point, the more fundamental discussion – who is the road space for – must come forward.

[Full disclosure: I have worked on aspects of this project both on a paid and a pro bono basis providing analyses of TTC vehicle movements.]