The King streetcar is now being given special priority through the downtown core, a pilot project that will inconvenience some drivers but is meant to speed up the TTC's busiest surface route.
The one-year test began on the weekend, with crews dragging out new barriers and unveiling a host of recently installed traffic signs. Police were also on hand to explain to motorists that they must now turn off of King Street at most intersections. The officers' presence appeared limited, though, and in the early stages of the change a great number of drivers were ignoring the new rules.
The King streetcar carries about 65,000 passengers a day, making its ridership the largest in the city second only to Toronto's two main subway lines. By contrast, about 20,000 private vehicles are driven daily on King. Mixing the transit and private vehicles has slowed the streetcar dramatically, sometimes to barely more than a walking pace, and the narrowness of King means a single left-turning vehicle can hold up scores of transit passengers.
A previous attempt to carve out space for the streetcar was largely unenforced and is routinely ignored. Attempts to tweak TTC service have had limited effect, prompting the current revamp of how King operates between Bathurst and Jarvis.
"We believe that, having done incremental things previously on King Street to improve transit, really the only way that we're going to make some significant gains and really try to both increase the service level for existing patrons [and] also attract other people to the corridor, is really to pull all levers," said Barbara Gray, head of the city's Transportation Services department.
One change is that, in a number of cases, the streetcar stop has been moved from before the intersection to just after it, which should speed up operations. And while motorists will still be able to drive on King, they will not be able to do so for extended stretches.
Motorists will be able to access specific blocks along King but will have to turn off at many intersections, effectively preventing the use of the road as a thoroughfare. Licensed taxis are exempt from the turning requirements between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Other ride-hailing vehicles do not enjoy this exemption.
City staff believe that parallel roads should be able to absorb cars that had been using King, leaving the streetcar the space it needs.
The new rules went live early on Sunday and, by the middle of the day, were achieving modest compliance. A reporter watching where the road intersects with Yonge Street counted 229 non-transit vehicles using King Street in an hour. One hundred and two of them – about 45 per cent – turned off of King as required. The remaining 127 vehicles went straight through. A number of times motorists attempting to drive through were then hung up behind the streetcar at its new stop location, leaving them blocking the intersection or the pedestrian crossing zone.
From a vantage point around the northwest corner of the intersection, it appeared that only one of 127 scofflaw drivers was stopped by police.
Proponents of the project acknowledge that it will take time for drivers to modify their behaviour. Police are planning a two-pronged approach, beginning with education and then switching to enforcement. There will be as many as eight officers, both police and parking enforcement, along the route at any given time. There will also be an increased presence of TTC officials as the agency tries to maximize improvements to the King streetcar.
"A lot of resources [are] being thrown at this to manage the route as it should be managed," said Brad Ross, chief spokesman for the TTC. "In this configuration we think we're going to see … that the [time between streetcars] will become more regular and therefore more reliable. And you'll probably see an increase in ridership as a result, because the service will be running properly."