By Tess Kalinowski
It’s time to look at taking the cars off downtown King St. — and maybe Queen as well — at least in the morning rush, says the head of the TTC.
CEO Andy Byford says Toronto needs bold solutions for the bunching and short-turns that plague downtown streetcars, particularly those on King and Queen, where there are long gaps in service before two or three cars show up at once.
It’s a bold idea that comes as the TTC embarks on the complicated launch of its new fleet of 204 Bombardier streetcars next year, along with the provincial Presto fare card.
Councillor Karen Stintz, who chairs the TTC board, will move a motion there Monday asking staff to assess the feasibility of trying a transit corridor on King as a pilot during the 2015 Pan Am Games.
The time has come for radical solutions if those cars are going to move unimpeded through the downtown, Byford said. The TTC would have to work with the city to assess the impact on traffic and business.
“We need to get serious about enabling surface transit to move freely at the busiest times, in addition to introducing larger vehicles,” he said.
“If you really want to crack the age-old problem of streetcars running in mixed traffic, coming up against people trying to do left turns or other blockages, is it not time to revisit — just as a study — the political and public appetite for a 7 a.m. until 9 a.m. transit-only-in-one-direction road, and displace the traffic elsewhere,” said Byford.
“We’ve got to at least reopen that debate,” he said, adding that some city councillors have already expressed interest.
The TTC is also working to improve on-street route supervision and pushing talks with the city’s transportation department about giving streetcars signal priority at traffic lights.
It’s not the first time city hall has considered closing King St. to cars. In 2007, former TTC chair Adam Giambrone pitched a four- to five-block “demonstration” zone on King West between Bay St. and Spadina Ave. But the idea was blocked by Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina). In 2001, the idea was thwarted by opposition from businesses along King.
“Those are the kinds of things we would have to work through,” said Stintz.
“It’s worth piloting, but it’s a big pilot,” she said, adding that in the context of the Pan Am Games, it would be for a limited time.
King is the busiest of the TTC’s 11 downtown streetcar routes, carrying 56,700 riders a day, more than the Sheppard subway.
“We need more service on King,” said Stintz, referring to the growth of Liberty Village and condos along the route.
She dismissed criticism from Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) about the TTC’s plans to run the new streetcars less frequently than the current service in the rush hours. Instead of running about two minutes apart on King, in the morning rush, the gap would be 92 seconds longer.
Perks wants the TTC to order more streetcars so that the new fleet can maintain existing frequencies. The current fleet of CLRVs and ALRVs includes 247 vehicles.
“When I go to get on the Dundas streetcar, I go to get on a streetcar, and there will be fewer of them and I will wait longer. Nobody disputes that. I will be waiting longer because the TTC doesn’t want to spend the money to keep the same level of service I enjoy today,” Perks said.
Growing ridership means the TTC will probably need more cars than the current order, Byford said. He and Stintz are lobbying the city to ensure that when the TTC has surplus revenue it gets to reinvest that money, rather than returning it to the city’s general funds.
Meantime, because they’re running farther apart, the new, larger-capacity streetcars will be less likely to bunch up and the service will be more reliable, argues Byford.
“Yes, it is true there’s a bigger gap. But if you can run them more reliably, so you can know with certainty when the next car will turn up — because you haven’t got a traffic jam of very long streetcars — customers have told us that’s at least as important as headways,” he said.
He is confident riders will be pleased with the new cars, which carry about twice as many people as the current CLRVs, have air conditioning, and permit boarding through four sets of doors at once.
The complexity, however, of launching them in conjunction with Presto (for proof-of-purchase boarding rather than the current system) can’t be underestimated.
“You couldn’t possibly create a more complex scenario for converting to Presto than what we’re going to have to tackle in this city,” Byford said.
The TTC is considering deploying an ambassador on each of the new cars in the beginning, to act as a fare-enforcement presence and help riders figure out how to pay using Presto or other TTC fare media.