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This photo is looking east on King St. West from Portland St. on Nov 27 2017.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A controversial experiment taking most of the cars off a downtown stretch of King Street has led to dramatically more reliable streetcar service and modest speed increases, while having relatively little traffic impact on nearby streets, the city reports.

The year-long pilot project giving priority on King between Bathurst Street in the west and Jarvis Street in the east to the 504 streetcar, the most heavily used surface transit route in the city, is being studied exhaustively to measure its impact. The first tranche of this data, analyzing the initial few weeks of the project, was released on Tuesday.

According to the city, the number of streetcars meeting their schedule has doubled in the morning rush hour, an improvement that indicates less bunching of vehicles and more predictable service for riders. The slowest trips on the streetcar, those that had been most affected by traffic and were most frustrating to riders, were dramatically improved. These dropped from maximums of 19 minutes in the morning and 25 minutes in the evening to 16.7 and 22 minutes, respectively, declines of around 12 per cent.

Average travel times for streetcars through the pilot project area – from 7 to 10 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. – were also down, though more modestly. These dropped by between 0.4 and 2.6 minutes, depending on the time and location, representing improvements of between 2.6 and 13.6 per cent.

Local councillor Joe Cressy called the early numbers "a great first start," noting that the project will continue to be modified.

"In just three weeks of measurements, the King Street pilot is working, and improvements are still to come," he said. "You can improve streetcar service with a minimal impact on cars."

Travel times for many drivers on nearby streets did worsen, but not in all cases. Of the 38 sections of road and times of day being measured, driving was slower in 25 of them, faster in 10 and the same in three. Among those that saw reductions, in three-quarters of the cases the delays were less than one minute.

The King Street pilot was launched last month, following years of complaints from the Toronto Transit Commission and its passengers that the route was too slow. With the streetcars operating among other traffic, a single turning car or double-parked courier truck could stop a heavily laden transit vehicle. The streetcars – which carry 65,000 people daily – were sometimes reduced to the speed of a pedestrian.

The approach being tested now allows private vehicles to use King Street, but they must turn off at most major intersections. The logic is that King will no longer act as a thoroughfare, reducing the number of vehicles and allowing the streetcar to move more quickly.

The early reaction from transit riders has been overwhelmingly positive. Some business owners along King have complained, though, saying that business is down, foot traffic has evaporated and the street now appears deserted.

The city plans a long-term study of the economic impact of the changes to King Street, part of a broader analysis that did not feature in the preliminary report issued on Tuesday. Also still to come is reporting on the number of transit riders, parking data and the volume of cars, bicycles and pedestrians on King.

"Measurement is vital to the King Street pilot, and will ensure we can make any necessary adjustments," Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement. "We also appreciate the feedback of local businesses, transit users, and the taxi industry and will continue to address any concerns as quickly as possible."

Toronto is tackling traffic with a year-long pilot project that bans motorists from driving through a busy downtown section of King Street. One commuter says her lunch-time streetcar ride is almost three times faster.

The Canadian Press

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