Astonished. Flabbergasted. Mind-blown. That's what commuters and city planners have been since the City of Toronto launched the King Street Transit Pilot project, a one-year experiment in which automobiles are no longer allowed to use the route as a thoroughfare in the downtown core between Jarvis Street and Bathurst Street.
Cars are not banned, but they must now turn right after travelling a block. The goal is to speed up commute times on the streetcar line, which carries approximately 65,000 people a day. Police have been ticketing scofflaws who ignore the new rules, giving them $110 fines and two demerit points.
Thus far, the project has been a success. Commuters report their travel times are being cut in half. Pundits have praised it. They've filed gushing reports from the streetcars. Who would have thought essentially banning cars from a street would lessen traffic woes?
It's as if removing "traffic" reduces traffic jams.
You'd think they'd discovered alien life on another planet.
Don't get me wrong. I'm extremely happy that people who live in condos along the six-kilometre stretch between Dufferin Street and River Street and work in the financial district can now get to work 10 minutes faster. That's a win. I don't want to harsh anyone's buzz by suggesting that all they've done is move traffic from one street to another, essentially redistributing congestion.
Aside from the staggering revelation that getting rid of cars makes public transit quicker, there are a few other lessons we can learn from our infant King Street Transit Pilot. Perhaps the most demoralizing is that it's all about class. Quite a few of the folks riding the 504 King streetcar are affluent and political, they have pull. They're the downtown gentry.
If you're commuting from the suburbs, however, your times are longer and there's no "Pilot Project" to help you out. A 2013 poll by Forum Research Inc. found that the average commute by transit from Scarborough is 52 minutes. For Torontonians living anywhere in the city who make less than $20,000 per year, it's 47 minutes. The city average is 39 minutes. There are so-called "transit deserts" – areas that are underserved by public transport. In these zones, buses seem to arrive with the same frequency as blue moons. It's transit inequality.
Three professors at York University examined the phenomenon in their 2015 report, Switching Tracks. "In Toronto and other major metropolitan centres," the report states, "investments in lines and stations – almost always rail – tend to favour the influential power elites of the region, and thereby reinforce pre-existing socio-spatial inequities."
Among the report's conclusions: "Transportation infrastructure in Toronto is becoming polarized with privileged projects, locales and residents being prioritized and others experiencing the brunt of under-investment, disinvestment and fragmented service."
It's little wonder that many living on the outskirts of the GTA opt to scrape together enough money to own a car. That's the side of the car debate that some choose to ignore. It's not about those who love Mother Earth and those who don't. It's a divide between those who live downtown, take transit during the week and use their cars to have fun on the weekends and those on the outskirts who must choose between substandard transit and the autonomy of the automobile and the congestion it creates. It's not surprising that the Forum Research study found that the wealthiest Torontonians wanted more transit while those with less wanted more roads.
The King Street Transit Pilot is a nice start and will make the well-heeled very happy, but the city needs to address the needs of all its citizens. How about a Put More Buses on the Road in the Suburbs Pilot?
Personally, I think we're past the pilot stage. Traffic congestion in Toronto is so bad that we need radical measures. We don't need a pilot to figure out that bus-only streets would move people faster. We need to start declaring streets "bus only." We need bicycle-only streets. We need action. If it brings a little chaos, so be it. If you want a rainbow, you need to be ready for a little rain.