"This is our moment, this is our opportunity to envision King Street as something fundamentally different!": these were the impassioned words of Toronto's chief city planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, at the 'Our Future King' event hosted by the Pembina Institute last week. The event kicked off the King Street Visioning Study, an initiative that aims to reimagine and redesign King Street into a more efficient and liveable artery through the downtown core.
The event was attended by a who's who of transit and planning officials in the City, featuring speeches by Ward 14 Councillor Gord Perks; Jennifer Keesmaat; TTC CEO Andy Byford; Manager of Surface Transit Operations at the City of Toronto, David Kuperman; and Executive Director of the Entertainment District BIA, Janice Solomon. The lectures were followed by an engaging and candid panel discussion where the four speakers were joined by Nithya Vijayakumar from the Pembina Institute, and Dylan Reid from Walk Toronto.
The tone of the event was one of enthusiastic optimism, but also one that hinted at a dire urgency to redesign one of the City's busiest corridors. The speakers outlined the objectives of the study and the motivations leading to its conception, and stressed the need for a complete rethinking of King Street for the benefit of pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and drivers alike. The initiative not only aims to move people more efficiently, but also to improve place-making along this important stretch of the city, and to support economic prosperity. As it is only the beginning of the study, the discussion fell short of proposing any concrete design solutions, but perhaps hinted at some early ideas and precedents of what may come.
The need for the King Visioning Study has arisen from a perfect storm of sorts, in what Keesmaat describes as the ideal conditions for a reimagining of the street. Currently, the King streetcar is the busiest surface transit route in the city, carrying approximately 65,000 passengers along the route every day. It also passes through shoulder areas of the downtown core that have experienced explosive growth over the past decade, such as Liberty Village and the Entertainment District, adding unprecedented numbers of new residents relying on the King artery.
Toss into the mix that King Street passes through the highest concentration of jobs in Canada, as well as the statistic that nearly 75% of Torontonians in the downtown area either walk, cycle, or use public transit as their primary mode of transportation, and suddenly the current design of King Street just doesn't cut it anymore. As Keesmaat bluntly stated, "We're not just thinking about the future, we're trying to play catch-up here".
The study is part of the larger TOcore initiative, and will look at the stretch of King from Dufferin Street in the west through to River Street in the east. Acknowledging that there is "no one size fits all solution", Keesmaat pointed out that there are several character areas incorporated in the study, and that the treatment of the street will vary according to the needs of each specific neighbourhood.
Transit was inevitably the hot topic of the discussion, as the notorious 504 streetcar route is plagued by delays and overcrowding. Byford praised the role of streetcars in Toronto—which boasts the largest streetcar network both in length and ridership in North America—lamenting that “they have an unfairly bad name because of the environment in which they have to operate on most streets”. Congestion caused by heavy traffic is a constant issue for the efficiency of the streetcars, prompting many to opt for simply walking rather than waiting for the next one to come. "Okay, I've done it once", Byford confessed with a cheeky smile, confirming that indeed no one is immune to the frustrating disappointment of streetcar delays.
Despite recent operating changes outlined by Kuperman, such as all-door boarding, the new fleet of streetcars (which Byford currently refers to as "unicorns" given their ephemeral presence on Toronto's streets) and transit-priority traffic signals, Byford acknowledged that something more needs to be done to truly address the current issues. "There is only so much you can do with tinkering with this," Byford explained. "We can keep adding streetcars on the route, we can keep putting buses on, we can tell people not to park, we can say to them you're not allowed to turn left, we can fiddle with the traffic lights, but until we do something radical, it will still be suboptimal, and it will still not be satisfactory".
In addition to traffic and transit on the street, the pedestrian realm plays an important role along King, one that was emphasized by Solomon as a vital part of the economic life of the Entertainment District. Many of the businesses along this busy stretch of road rely on pedestrian traffic to succeed, which becomes problematic given the narrow sidewalks along much of the street that create heavy pedestrian congestion and often force people to step off onto the street in order to pass others. Solomon stressed the importance of the public realm, and implored that occasionally closing down King not be left off the table, given the importance of events such as TIFF that rely on a completely pedestrianized road.
The idea of place-making was also a point of discussion, given the importance of many of the landmark buildings along King. Passing through the historic heart of heart of the city, King Street features significant structures such as St. James Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall. It also plays host to the beloved Royal Alexandra Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall in the Entertainment District, and takes on a unique industrial heritage character in the King-Spadina district. In her speech, Keesmaat touched on the importance of "streetcar streets" in Toronto, highlighting their virbant street life and economic importance as the city's main arteries, emphasizing the significance of the public realm.
Suggestions and precedents given during the lectures hinted at some improvements to come, including restricting traffic on King to one lane in one direction that alternates each block; having dedicated transit lanes, which may not necessarily be located at the centre of the street; increasing the width of the sidewalks; incorporating cycling infrastructure and bike lanes; and even closing down parts of the street to vehicular traffic completely. At this point, the City is embracing all ideas, and nothing is left off the table. A radical approach is not unlikely, given that their private consultants on the study are world-renowned Danish firm Gehl Architects, known for their people-first approach to urban design, with notable pedestrianization projects such as Times Square in New York, downtown Melbourne, and the Strøget in Copenhagen.
A pilot project for King Street could be implemented as early as summer 2017. The study will continue throughout this year with an online and social media campaign this summer; the Public Spaces Public Life data collection study in three locations along King in the summer and fall; and public consultations happening throughout the fall months. Looking beyond King Street, the results of this study and its eventual implementation will impact other roads in the city, which will hopefully use King as a precedent for a future city-wide rethinking of street design.
We will keep you updated as the King Street Visioning Study evolves over the next year. More information on the study can be found on the TOcore website, here, and in our previous article, here. In the meantime, you can get in on the discussion by checking out the associated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.