Anyone who was gearing up for a fight over a car-free King St. can stand down.
The Star was given an advance look at the long-awaited proposals under consideration for the pilot project.
When the options are publicly presented at a meeting Monday night, all will include space on the road for automobiles. Perhaps controversially, none of the proposals will include bike lanes. Two of the three proposals give more space to pedestrians and public realm improvements such as seating or patios. And all are intended, first and foremost, to “move people” by giving priority on the road to streetcars, according to Toronto general manager of transportation Barbara Gray and chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat.
“Transit first is the frame around which we’re going to lead this decision,” Gray says.
“The objective is to create a transit priority corridor. The objective isn’t to create a car-free corridor,’” Keesmaat says. “It’s about being transformational, improving streetcar operations, and innovative placemaking.”
City staff members will present three options to the public for consideration a meeting at Metro Hall on Monday evening at 6:30, the start of a public consultation process during which proposals will be evaluated and refined over the next few months. A final recommendation will be voted on by city council in July, and if approved, will launch on the street for a pilot project period this fall.
The pilot area runs along the downtown length of King St. from Bathurst in the west to Parliament or Jarvis in the east — an area selected because it is where streetcars encounter the most delay right now, and because it offers many “parallel routes” as options for cars and cyclists to travel on.
Of the three options, Keesmaat says, “Two I think we would argue do a very, very good job, and we’re going to be recommending. The third is a less ambitious option,” put forward in case the “public appetite” for change proves lower than the project’s designers hope.
The first option recommended by planning and transportation staff is labelled “Alternating Loops.” It would allow a single lane of one-way car traffic, to facilitate local access to driveways and deliveries, but with the direction alternating each block, preventing through traffic. Cars and trucks would also be forbidden from making left turns. The two centre lanes would be reserved for streetcars only. And the sidewalk on one side of the street would extend out to cover one existing lane, featuring customized “public realm” improvements (seating, marketplace tables, patios or performance spaces, for example) for each block.
The second recommended option is called “Transit Promenade.” This would see the sidewalk extended into the road on both sides for public realm improvements, while allowing local, right-turn-only car access in both directions — cars would be forbidden to drive straight through at intersections, forcing right turns at the end of each block. Cars would share the streetcar lanes except at the edges of blocks, where they would move into right-turn lanes. This option allows somewhat more room for creative pedestrian spaces while still limiting obstructions of streetcars from left turns and traffic volume, but could, the presentation notes say, still cause transit delays due to the shared use of the streetcar lanes.
The third option, less enthusiastically presented by Keesmaat and Gray, is “Separated Lanes” which offers no enlargement of public realm pedestrian space. Instead, it dedicates the centre lanes to streetcars, and gives the remaining one lane in each direction to car and truck traffic, forbidding left turns and stopping, but allowing through traffic. Staff notes suggest this option would still facilitate faster streetcar movement while offering no change in “public life” elements. Keesmaat notes this option may also wind up more frustrating for motorists who expect to be able to drive through along the street, but get held up for deliveries, cab pickups, or fender benders in the only lane available to them.
In all three cases, the TTC will be running new, larger streetcars for the duration of the pilot in order to allow for more reliable service and more passengers, and transportation services will be giving streetcars priority at traffic lights.
Detailed statistics about the changes in streetcar performance, business and pedestrian volume, and traffic volumes in the larger area around the pilot site will be tracked to measure success or failure.
Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents one of the main downtown stretches the pilot will cover, is enthusiastic about the launch. “The fact is, King St. is congested today, and it is going to get worse. Unless we rethink our streets, we will fail.” He says he believes there’s pretty wide acknowledgement from the public, from local businesses and from politicians that the current way the street operates is frustrating for motorists, transit users and pedestrians and that the pilot project is a test of a potential way out of it.
“Speed is important,” he says of the fall launch. “When pilots fail, it’s because we treat them as a permanent change,” he says, study and designing and debating them in endless detail before starting. “We have to be quick, adjustable and flexible.”
Today, the 504 King streetcar line is the TTC’s third-most travelled route — carrying more passengers each day than the Sheppard subway line, and more than the Scarborough RT — despite being notoriously slow and unreliable during rush hour. Many (including me) have suggested that even while the city debates multi-billion-dollar, decades-long transit construction projects, speeding up the operation of the 504 could provide a cheap way to ease pressure on the overcrowded Yonge subway line by providing reliable alternate routes into the downtown core.
“This is a quick win, it’s low-hanging fruit that can significantly improve quality of life in the financial district and in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country,” Keesmaat says. “We’re signalling that we’re not stuck in our ways, that we can adapt, that we can mature how we use our infrastructure. It’s a really exciting step.”
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