Toronto Researchers Track the Impact of Streetcar-Friendly Redesign

Data suggests a win for King Street commuters. 

A streetcar on King Street in mixed traffic in 2015 (Credit: booledozer)

A group of researchers have unveiled some flattering numbers for Toronto’s controversial King Street pilot project. The project, which prioritizes streetcar traffic by limiting motorists and eliminating on-street parking along a portion of King Street, has (none too surprisingly) failed to impress a number of drivers and local shop owners — so the new research will likely prove a shot in the arm for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

Data analyzed by University of Toronto researchers show significant slashes in mean streetcar travel time, the Toronto Star reports. The numbers show that during the evening rush hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.), the mean travel time for westbound streetcars has dropped by 24 percent in the pilot area, from 22.8 to 17.3 minutes. Meanwhile, the mean travel time for eastbound streetcars has gone from 20.6 minutes to 16.4 minutes, a reduction of about 20 percent. Average travel times are also down overall, except during the early morning hours when there weren’t often delays to begin with.

The pilot concept, which was approved in July, was a matter of some desperation. The majority of commuters (about 65,000) on King Street use transit, but they’re often mired in traffic from around 20,000 drivers.

“There’s a clear imbalance there that we need to correct,” TTC spokesperson Brad Ross said, according to an earlier Star article. He added: “We have to try it. (King is) just not working right now.”

It hasn’t been working for a while, as Next City has reported in 2014. Stephen J. Smith wrote that the line has dedicated lanes in theory on King Street, but the rules are rarely enforced. “Giving [the line] more priority over general traffic has been discussed ad nauseum, but has yet to happen,” he wrote.

While the paper calls the $1.5 million project a “remarkable return on investment,” the TTC is wary of declaring victory since it’s also monitoring the project’s impacts on pedestrians and the local economy, among other factors. And some business owners, in particular, have not been happy with the changes. The project is “hurting small businesses and killing jobs,” according to one restaurant owner who spoke with the Star. He added that foot traffic to his establishment has been reduced to “almost zero.” (Next City has covered other cities’ efforts to keep businesses thriving during major construction projects here and here).

The TTC is collecting its own internal data about the project, and will evaluate it over the course of the pilot. But apparently the University of Toronto research lines up with its observations. “From a transit perspective, we’re very excited about what we’re seeing so far,” Ross told the paper.

If only every ambitious but beleaguered infrastructure overhaul had a team of interested academics keeping watch.

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: streetcarstoronto

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