As hundreds of Torontonians made their way through the line and squeezed through the doors, the seats filled up, and the standing room quickly followed suit. Some people were turned away at the door, and left to wait outside. The humid winter bouquet of perfumes and wet wool floated through the air, and a voice came on the speaker. But it wasn't the streetcar driver, and this wasn't the 504. The voice belonged to Ward 20 Councillor Joe Cressy, and the venue was Metro Hall, where the stage was set for the public's first opportunity to shape the future of Downtown King Street.
"King Street doesn't work," Cressy—who was joined by Ward 14 Councillor Gord Perks—told the audience, setting the context for a public review of the King Street pilot project. Spanning from Dufferin to River Streets, the Downtown stretch identified in the City's 'Primary Study Area' is part of the busiest surface transit route in the City, carrying some 65,000 people each weekday. But "sometimes it can be slower than walking," Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat noted, speaking to a reality all too familiar to King Street commuters.
To those of us in the audience, it came as no surprise that King is overburdened. As a daily reality, that fact is hard to escape. More striking was Keesmaat's explanation of how poorly space is allocated. While only 16% of King Street users are drivers, 64% of the space belongs to cars. It's not just inefficient, but undemocratic, relegating both pedestrians and transit users to the relative fringes of urban space. To build a more functional city, the balance has to change.
To that end, the City presented three options for the pilot project, all of which are—to varying degrees—designed to put "transit first" in an improved streetcar corridor, Keesmaat stressed. Despite some early indications that part of the street could become an entirely car-free corridor, all three options leave some space for vehicles. Nonetheless, the options differ substantially in their approaches to sharing the street. (A more detailed look at how ROWs improve transit efficiency is available here).
The first and decidedly least ambitious option is dubbed "Separated Lanes." Leaving one lane on either side of a dedicated streetcar right-of-way (ROW) to vehicle traffic, this configuration creates a more efficient transit corridor without re-shaping the public realm. Although left turns for vehicles would be prohibited, the City warns that right turns would continue to "back up traffic." Cyclists would continue to share the curbside lane with vehicles, while nearside streetcar boarding would continue. As the least transformative option, the "Separated Lanes" layout offers a strategy for improving transit conditions while minimizing wider impacts. This means cars would still use the street in both directions, while cyclists and pedestrians continue to make do with existing conditions.
Meanwhile, two more options introduce a mix of pedestrian and cycling improvements at the expense of decreased vehicle space. Whereas the "Separated Lanes" option offers a ROW with minimal infringement on vehicles, the "Alternating Loops" option offers essential vehicle access with minimal infringement on the public realm. Here, only one side of each block is open to one-way vehicle access. The roadway would alternate between the north and south sides of the street from block to block, preventing through traffic.
While still allowing local vehicle access, the limited one-lane roadway allows for expanded cycling or pedestrian uses. The space created by reducing the roadway in the "Alternating Loops" scenario leaves room for two possibilities. First, an expanded pedestrian promenade could provide improved sidewalk conditions to the busy stretch, while contributing a continuous, landscaped public space to a Downtown area—particularly in the Entertainment District—bereft of parkland. Alternately (below), a separated bike lane could be installed in lieu of the enlarged sidewalk and public space.
The final option is dubbed the "Transit Promenade." Taking a more pedestrian-oriented approach, this option would see streetcars and vehicles continue to mix mid-block, with the reduced roadway allowing sidewalks expanded on both sides. While a potentially greater mix of cars and streetcars is allowed mid-block, through vehicle access would be forbidden, with cars forced to turn right at the intersection.
For the Planning Division, the "Transit Promenade" and "Alternating Loops" options are more strongly supported. By contrast, the "Separated Lanes" option offers a more car-friendly street, which could prove to be more politically palatable. While the Planning Division has expressed preference for the "Transit Promenade" and "Alternating Loops" options, Keesmaat has noted that "all three options have merits," and that public input will be key to determining a preferred solution.
In addition to the three options, the City presented opportunities for more fine-grained analysis of King Street's neighbourhoods. An overview of the numerous contexts from Dufferin to River provides different opportunities and challenges, with the needs of street users varying from place to place. Looking beyond the core, the project's Secondary Study Area also looks at how the potential changes will be integrated within the city as a whole.
In the coming months, a preferred pilot option will be elected, with design and implementation work set to begin later in the Summer. Throughout this process, public and stakeholder engagement will continue. In developing the study, the City is working with a team of consultants, including Toronto-based urban design and landscape firm Public Work and consultation and engagement firm Swerhun Associates, as well as New York's Gehl Studio—a Danish architecture and design firm—and Sam Schwartz Engineering.
Given the current overcrowding on King Street, an improved transit corridor is likely to have a major impact on a streetcar corridor that already serves more weekday passengers than the Sheppard Subway and the Scarborough RT. As Councillor Cressy pointed out, the corridor serves a Downtown population that swells to some 900,000 during the workday. With the urban core projected to double in population by 2041, improved transit connections are only becoming increasingly vital, particularly since the proposed Downtown Relief Line—and particularly its western stretch—remains a relatively distant aspiration. In the time being, improved connectivity on east-west surface routes like King could help alleviate subway congestion on the Yonge Line.
Overflowing past the doors, last night's packed consultation evinced very strong public interest in a major city-building project. Of course, it's unlikely that latent unanimous support awaits the project, with the difficulties faced by street redesign initiatives like the Bloor Street bike lanes hinting at Toronto's rather balkanized political landscaped. For King Street, the City's political realities were thrown into sharp relief on Twitter, where Ward 7's Giorgio Mammoliti and Doug Ford's ongoing fight against "Tory taxes" crescendoed at another large community gathering. On King and Finch, the meetings were held simultaneously, pitting two ideological frameworks against one another.
Which crowd was bigger?
That question was asked by Councillor Mammoliti himself, who challenged "Gordie" Perks to produce a picture of "his" crowd on Twitter. Mercifully not obliged by the Ward 14 Councillor, the schoolyard "show me yours" request is nonetheless a stark reflection of the city's fraught political divisions. It was a graceless way to pose the question, but the question still counts. In a city simultaneously facing an austerity budget and an increasingly ambitious urban agenda, which road do we choose? On King Street at least, the road we have doesn't work.
More information about the King Street pilot project is available on the City's official website, linked here. An opportunity to engage with the project on Twitter is also offered through #KingStreetPilot. We will keep you updated as the plans continue to take shape, and a preferred option emerges. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment on this page, or join the ongoing conversation in our Forum thread.