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In late 2017, Toronto made a big little change.

To speed up service on its busiest streetcar route, city council limited car traffic on a crowded, slow-moving stretch of King Street running through the heart of downtown. It produced big results: Even as car traffic on surrounding streets was largely unaffected, the streetcars moved faster and arrived more frequently. Already high ridership surged.

The King streetcars, in 2018, carried 84,000 people on an average weekday – or nearly as many passengers as the entire GO train network, and more than the Scarborough RT and Sheppard subway combined. Before the pandemic hit, the King streetcar was moving more people than the entire public-transit system in some major U.S. cities. The changes were made permanent last year.

It was such a big success that this space several years ago only half-jokingly suggested renaming it the “Cross-Town Rapid Transit Way.” Or the “Toronto Hyperloop.” Or the King Street Subway.

The King Street project is big – but it is also little. Speeding up the busiest surface transit line in Canada’s biggest city cost hardly any money at all. It involved the installation of some concrete barriers and the painting of some yellow lines during a weekend.

It was a swift, tiny-budget project, the opposite of the usual multidecade, multibillion-dollar megaproject. Small cost, big win. This page welcomed it and called for more.

Last week, Toronto offered more. Using the pretext of the need for physical distancing, it announced a big-little revolution to transit service on five of the city’s busiest suburban bus routes. The Toronto Transit Commission plans dedicated bus lanes on these five routes.

As happened on King Street, this can be done quickly and cheaply. No years of tendering; no billions of dollars from higher orders of government; no decade of construction. The bus lanes are to be in place by September. And that should be just the start. The TTC operates 13 of the 24 busiest bus routes in North America, each carrying more than 30,000 people a day. Yet beyond a handful of streetcar routes, Toronto has essentially zero priority measures in place for transit.

The pandemic has sparked widespread rethinking of our cities: how we’ve built them at the altar of the automobile and how we can liberate our streets for people.

In New York, after the success of an express busway in Manhattan created a couple years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio two weeks ago announced more than 30 kilometres of new car-free bus routes. It will benefit 750,000 New Yorkers. “More service equals less crowding equals more health and safety,” Mr. de Blasio said.

COVID-19 and the need to physically distance is the immediate reason, but the benefits could be long lasting. Many changes are so far temporary. Cities need to make them permanent.

The list of good ideas is long.

Toronto on weekends has closed a few lanes of traffic on Lake Shore Boulevard to cars, turning it over to cyclists and walkers. Vancouver intends to close one of two lanes through Stanley Park, after a full closing during the pandemic was a success. Many cities have emulated Oakland, Calif., which closed 10 per cent of its streets to traffic to make room for people. Cities from Vancouver to Toronto are offering curb lanes, previously reserved for parking cars, to restaurants that want outdoor patios. And there is a broad push to hasten the building of bike lanes. Montreal has extensive plans, while the British government is spending more than $400-million and predicting health care savings as people become more active.

The pandemic inspired and forced some of this rethinking, but our cities will be better for it long after the pandemic has passed. Transit is especially important. All operators are struggling, as ridership and fare-box revenue have crashed. People understandably fear the novel coronavirus and worry about public spaces, although research suggests that transit was not a major source of early transmission and need not be as economies reopen. Still, worry will take time to fade.

Cities have to draw people back to public transit. Making it faster and more reliable is one way to do that, in pandemic times and in the years and decades to come. Toronto shows opportunities exist to make a big impact, quickly and on the cheap.

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