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Toronto King Street transit pilot working, must continue, Toronto Mayor John Tory says

After years of planning, study and controversy, the King Street transit pilot appears set to become permanent.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has thrown his support behind efforts to speed up streetcars on King Street, the busiest transit surface route in the city, arguing that the changes have helped passengers without unduly inconveniencing drivers.

“The King Street pilot is working and must be continued,” he told reporters Tuesday morning. “We essentially created a surface subway along King Street in the space of a weekend, and the benefits are clear.”

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Council voted in the summer of 2017 for the pilot, which began near the end of that year. In an attempt to clear congestion and allow streetcars to move more quickly, the pilot banned through traffic of private vehicles at most intersections on a 2.6-kilometre stretch of King through the downtown.

According to a report by city staff issued Tuesday, which recommended making the pilot permanent, the effects have been dramatic.

Ridership on the King streetcar has jumped from 72,000 daily to 84,000. Transit vehicles are moving a bit faster and the duration of trips has become considerably less variable, meaning people can be more confident in arriving on time. Journey times for motorists on nearby streets grew, on average, by less than a minute in rush hour.

“When you look at overall movement, we are now moving 3 per cent more people in the entire downtown core,” said Councillor Joe Cressy. “Meanwhile, the number of cars in the downtown core has gone down, which says people moved out of cars and onto transit. That’s success. In a growing city, that’s what success looks like.”

Opposition continues, though, including from restaurant owners who say business has suffered.

“The King Street pilot evaluation has not considered the dismal performance being experienced by the local business community,” Tony Elenis, president of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, said in a statement. “They are not listening to the business owners … who are continuing to struggle.”

City staff acknowledge a recent increase in the turnover of business licences in the King Street pilot area. This figure has risen from 8.9 per cent in 2016 to 9.6 per cent in 2017 to 11.1 per cent last year, which staff note remains a lower turnover rate than in the surrounding area and the city as a whole.

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Tracking of credit-card spending in the pilot area showed restaurant business was down 1.2 per cent in the 12 months after the pilot was installed, compared with the previous 12 months. However, spending increased 1.7 per cent at retail venues in the area over that same period and 10.5 per cent in the service sector, leading to overall economic growth.

With Mr. Tory’s support, making the King pilot permanent is almost guaranteed to be approved by the hand-picked members of his executive committee, and is likely to be passed by the full council.

One sticking point could be the idea of relaxing the King Street rules in the evening and on weekends, something restaurant owners have pushed for. Staff are recommending against any such flexibility, pointing to data showing that transit use remains high outside of rush hour and warning that adding traffic could impact safety in that area.

Making the pilot permanent would prompt short-term improvements to the streetscape while laying the groundwork for a full-scale redesign of the road in a few years, when the Toronto Transit Commission is scheduled to replace streetcar tracks in the area. In the meantime, a parking subsidy meant to encourage people to visit will be cancelled, but patio fees for local businesses will continue to be waived.

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