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Toronto's King streetcar sees ‘spectacular’ rise in ridership

Looking out the window of a westbound TTC streetcar on King Street West on Dec. 6, 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ridership on the King streetcar has surged 25 per cent during the busiest times of the day in the wake of efforts to speed up transit on the key downtown roadway, according to the Toronto Transit Commission.

The rise has been so abrupt that TTC acting CEO Rick Leary said in a report released Thursday evening that the agency is "a bit of a victim of our own success," with crowds of passengers exceeding vehicle capacity.

"The rationale to do this [change] is to move transit more quickly and get people on transit, and this shows that in spades," TTC chair and councillor Josh Colle said in an interview.

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Mr. Colle called the rise "spectacular" and said that streetcar ridership has not dropped on nearby Queen Street, which suggests that these additional passengers are people new to transit.

The TTC plans to address crowding by using buses on both College and Dundas and redeploying those streetcars to "routes, like King Street, where demand is critical," Mr. Leary wrote.

Evidence of the rising ridership, which came as part of the monthly report by the CEO of the TTC, emerged amid rising anger by business owners who say that their bottom lines have been hurt badly by the project. Many of them are expected to meet Friday with Toronto Mayor John Tory to argue for rolling back some of the transit changes.

In early November, the city started a pilot project that included a number of adaptations to King Street, between Bathurst and Jarvis, chief among them ending curb parking and forcing drivers to turn off at most intersections. The goal was to preserve vehicle access to all parts of King, while preventing it being used as an auto thoroughfare.

Bronwen Clark, the general manager of Rodney's Oyster House, a bit west of Spadina, reported dramatic declines in business since then and said that poor attendance has prompted them to close part of their restaurant. She is hoping city leaders can be convinced to relax the driving restrictions in the evening.

"We want the street opened up," she said. "Then people can be encouraged to go out for dinner."

Advocates of the project counter that the streetcar sees substantial use outside of rush hour, and that the city failed the last time it tried to have time-based restrictions on King. A quarter-century ago the city reserved the centre lanes of parts of King to streetcars and taxis at certain times of day. Signs mandating this still hang in places over the roadway but the tactic proved ineffective. This failure eventually prompted the current pilot.

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King Street was chosen because it is has the highest surface transit demand in the city. The baseline daily ridership for King is 65,000, according to the city, and those passengers shared the space with about 20,000 private vehicles.

The city assumed that non-transit traffic would be cut roughly in half. But instead – a result of either confusion, fears of penalties or the mistaken belief that driving is no longer allowed – private vehicles are now sparse along King. In their absence, the streetcars, which have in recent years been slowed to a walking pace during rush hour, are moving more quickly and more reliably. And commuters appear to be voting with their feet.

"You can bet, you can guarantee, that every new [streetcar] arriving from Thunder Bay is being deployed to King," Mr. Colle said.

The city will have to weigh this success at attracting riders with the impact on local businesses, many of whom say they have been hurt by the project. Those canvassed by The Globe and Mail report year-over-year declines ranging from "slightly down" to an 80-per-cent drop.

Toronto tests driving restrictions to prioritize transit (The Canadian Press)
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