Even Junius has to get to work in the morning.
The Globe and Mail editorial board’s fictional leader and author of the newspaper’s motto – “The subject who is truly loyal to the chief magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures” – tends to spend his time wrestling with weighty questions. Issues of principle. Matters of state. The capital-F Future.
But before any of that happens, there’s the small matter of getting to the office on time.
And each day, like 84,000 other people in Canada’s largest city, Junius rides the King Street streetcar.
A little more than a year ago, Toronto, site of some of North America’s longest commutes and home to the continent’s least taxpayer-subsidized public transit system, decided to try a little experiment. On the stretch of King Street running through downtown, streetcars would be given priority over cars. The goal was speeding up commuting times – with nothing more than a little change in the rules of the road. It involved installing a few concrete barriers and painting some yellow lines, over a weekend.
It wasn’t a multidecade, multibillion-dollar megaproject. It was an instant, cheap micro-project. And the impact has been enormous.
So far, though, it’s just an experiment – the King Street Transit Pilot isn’t permanent. Last week, city bureaucrats recommended that Toronto Council make it permanent, essentially creating a kind of instant, low-budget surface subway through the centre of town.
That should be a no-brainer. The little transit miracle on King Street deserves to be studied, expanded and emulated.
Thanks to the project, commuting times have been significantly shortened, and passenger traffic on the streetcars is up 17 per cent. New streetcars have been added to the route, but they’re still overcrowded at rush hour.
It proves that shortening commuting times doesn’t just benefit existing riders; it encourages new people to switch to public transit. The more a transit service is quick, frequent and convenient, the more people will use it. Obviously.
The King car is not just Toronto’s busiest surface transit route. It carries as many people as the number riding the Sheppard subway and the Scarborough RT – combined.
In fact, this one streetcar route serves more people than entire public transit systems in many American cities.
The King car carries more commuters than the Miami Metro. The subway in Florida’s largest city has 23 stations and is 39 kilometres long.
The King car carries as many people as the Denver, Colo., system of light rail (LRT) and commuter rail, with 63 stations and 141 km of track.
On an average day, the number of passengers exceeds the entire daily traffic of each of the LRT networks in Phoenix; Minneapolis, Minn.; Seattle; and Houston.
It carries more people than the Seattle trolley-bus system, which has 15 routes and 109 km of overhead wires. It carries only slightly fewer people than the LRT network of Dallas – which with four lines and 150 km of track is the longest light-rail transit system in the United States.
At first, the King Street pilot project generated pushback from drivers who feared their bumper-to-bumper gridlock would only get worse, and from a small but vocal group of local restaurateurs along King Street who worried about losing car-driving patrons. But Toronto’s downtown is so crowded that the only way to reduce paralyzingly heavy car traffic is to create more options for people to abandon cars for public transit.
And while Toronto still needs several big fixes, such as the so-called Downtown Relief Line subway, the quality of life in a city is also the product of lots of small decisions that can either improve the life of citizens, or immiserate them.
Right now, the stretch of King Street where streetcars have priority is only a couple of kilometres long. It should be gradually expanded, especially to the fast-growing neighbourhood of condos to the west of downtown. More streetcars should be added, further speeding up service. And, as in cities such as Montreal, restaurants can even be given the opportunity to set up patios on the street.
The big stuff – making a city easier to live in, faster to commute to and more desirable to visit or do business in – is the product of a lot of small steps. On King Street, Toronto’s small steps are having a big impact.