Talk about transit improvements in Toronto usually seems to revolve around large scale, multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects, be they subway or LRT. When faced with a rapid transit system that is almost universally agreed to be undersized for the population and ridership it serves, it's easy to fall into the 'go big or go home' mindset. As planner and architect Daniel Burnham famously said, "make no small plans". But often times the 'best bang for your buck' when it comes to transit improvements comes not from multi-billion dollar projects, but from relatively modest investments and changes to existing infrastructure.

The 504 King streetcar is the busiest surface route in the TTC's system, and carries more riders than both the Scarborough RT and Sheppard Subway. With a daily ridership of about 65,000, that one route alone carries more riders per day than all of Durham Region Transit or the Minneapolis Metro system (often regarded as a success story for LRT). In fact, it is the busiest surface transit route in Canada or the United States that operates solely in mixed traffic.

A typical sight along King St: A crowded streetcar, image courtesy the City of Toronto

As anyone who has taken the 504 King knows, it's often times a slow, crowded, and unpleasant ride. A left turning vehicle with just a single occupant can hold up a streetcar packed to the rafters for an entire light cycle, frustrating everyone on board. When you look out the window, you can see the woman on the sidewalk pushing a stroller is moving forward faster than you are.

King St Study Area, image courtesy the City of Toronto

It's no secret that streetcars are a polarizing topic in Toronto. Some drivers (and politicians) will tell you it's streetcars that are causing congestion on the roads. Reality will tell you it's the streetcars that are stuck in car traffic. Of the 10 most congested intersections or stretches of road in Toronto, how many of them are routes with mixed traffic streetcars? Zero. It's almost as if the presence of (or lack of) streetcars has little to no impact on the amount of congestion that road has. So what's the solution?

The one most touted by the anti-streetcar crowd is to replace them with buses. The 504 King currently carries about 2,100 passengers per hour per direction during peak, with streetcars scheduled every 3 minutes 45 seconds, a total of 16 per hour. To handle that same ridership with buses, you would need 27 buses running every 2 minutes 20 seconds. If bunching is a problem with streetcars now, imagine how much of a problem it would be with almost 70% more vehicles on the route. It should also be noted that the new streetcars being (slowly) delivered by Bombardier have roughly double the capacity of the current CLRV (the standard length streetcar), so the TTC is moving in the opposite direction from buses in terms of capacity per vehicle.

Another option frequently touted is to build a subway. While the TTC and Metrolinx are advancing work on the Relief Line, the estimated in-service date for the line isn't until 2031. While the Relief Line is certainly a great long-term solution, it does nothing to address the capacity crunch in existence today. The study area for the Relief Line also only extends as far west as University Ave, which offers no relief to the areas west of downtown. A "Possible Future Western Extension" is included in the study, but it is not being seriously evaluated yet.

Relief Line study area, image courtesy the City of Toronto

So this brings us to the option the City of Toronto is currently studying: multiple variations of a surface streetcar right-of-way. The concept is certainly familiar to most in Toronto already. Spadina, Queens Quay, and St Clair West already have streetcar right-of-ways. They're effective means to boost the speed and reliability of surface transit. They also boost ridership. When the right-of-way was introduced on Spadina in 1997, ridership jumped by 58% compared to pre-right-of-way operations. On St Clair West, it jumped 36%. But all of those streets differ from what is being proposed on King, mainly because none of them removed vehicle lanes when the right-of-way was put in.

Study Options presented in the King Street Visioning Study, image courtesy the City of Toronto

The road right-of-way width on King would make any kind of streetcar dedicated right-of-way alongside general traffic lanes very difficult. Cars would be limited to one lane per direction, at best. As a result, the City is studying a variety of options, from the status quo, to new pavement markings and turning restrictions, to alternating curb lanes, to a partial transit mall, to a full transit mall. With each of these successive options, the balance shifts less towards prioritizing private vehicles and more towards prioritizing transit and active transportation.

A transit mall is a corridor where vehicular traffic is either prohibited outright or extremely limited. If instituted permanently, the streetscape is often rebuilt to include wider sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and enhanced streetscaping amenities. One of the most often-cited examples of such a conversion is Swanston Street in Melbourne, Australia. In 2010, the City made the decision to remove private vehicles from the street, except for overnight deliveries and emergency vehicles. The result has been a dramatic improvement in tram (as they call them) operational efficiency, and an improved active transportation environment.

Melbourne's Swanston Street in 2010, prior to transit mall, image courtesy the City of Toronto, originally from Google Streetview

Melbourne's Swanston Street in 2014, after transit mall, image courtesy the City of Toronto, originally from Google Streetview

The benefits of such a right-of-way can sometimes be difficult to quantify, but let’s do some math. Currently, according to the posted schedule during peak hours it takes a 504 King streetcar 71 minutes to travel from Dundas West station to Broadview station, with 19 vehicles going in each direction during that time, or one vehicle every 3:45.

Let’s say that the introduction of a dedicated streetcar right-of-way along King Street reduced the one-way trip time by 11 minutes, down to an even 60 minutes. This represents a modest 18% improvement in trip time, or an increase from 12 km/h to 14 km/h. For comparison, 14 km/h is approximately the same average speed as the 512 St Clair streetcar once you factor out the dwell time at St Clair West station. It is slightly higher than the average speed of the 510 Spadina streetcar (which is hampered by a lack of signal priority), and is slightly lower than the average speed of the 509 Harbourfront streetcar. More detailed study will need to be done to determine the exact amount of time saved and projected speed of the line, but a reduction of 11 minutes and an average speed of 14 km/h is a reasonable assumption given other dedicated right-of-ways in Toronto.

An 11 minute reduction would be an equivalent service boost to adding an extra 3 streetcars per hour per direction to the route. Unlike simply adding more streetcars however, this service boost would come with no additional operational costs associated (beyond the marginal difference in electricity consumed). It's by far the most operationally cost-effective way to boost service levels.

To put it another way, if the same number of people rode the 504 after the right-of-way implementation as do today, each streetcar would have about 20 fewer people on it. To anyone who has done a canned sardine impression on a streetcar, you know how much of a difference 20 fewer people on that streetcar would make. It’s the difference between having the person next to you permanently camped out in your personal space, versus having them merely occasionally enter it.

Instituting a streetcar right-of-way along King Street would come in at a fraction of the cost of tunnelling a subway under King, which would take over a decade to complete. A transit mall would have a measurable impact on streetcar operations, and given the number of parallel roadways, a negligible impact on private vehicle travel times. It could also be implemented as a Pilot Project over the course of a weekend, as no significant physical infrastructure alterations would be required.

Transit users already outnumber drivers on King Street by over 3 to 1. When you add in pedestrians and cyclists, that ratio goes even higher. A solution that improves travel times and the travel experience for the vast majority of the corridor's users is not only wise, it's downright democratic.

The City is hosting an Open House on February 13th at Metro Hall to provide more detail on the Pilot Study and the various options. The results of this Open House will help define the parameters of the Pilot Study that the City could undertake along King Street.

You can join the discussion about the King Street Pilot Study in our forum thread, or in the comment section below.