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Globe editorial: A little transit miracle grows on King Street

"Make no little plans," goes architect Daniel Burnham's oft quoted line. "They have no magic to stir men's blood."

But for commuters in Canada's largest metropolitan area, the problem has never been a shortage of blood-stirring big plans. No, when it comes to public transit, the Greater Toronto Area never lacks for magic mega-projects under consideration. In Canada's megalopolis, there is always some hulk of exceedingly expensive, allegedly transformational transit being pondered, pedalled or dreamt on. The problem is that these either never get built – or worse, they get built.

So this week, Toronto began an experiment in thinking small, in a way that could achieve big things. Every Canadian city may be able to learn something from the result.

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A three-kilometre stretch of King Street, which runs through the heart of downtown and is home to the busiest streetcar route in the city, has been redesigned to give public transit priority. For decades, streetcars have been slowed to a walking pace at rush hour, held up by a crush of cars. As of a week ago, however, cars are being severely restricted on King, and must turn right off of the newly transit-centric street at every intersection. Under the one-year pilot project, only streetcars can use the downtown stretch of King as a thoroughfare.

The aim is to greatly speed up the King streetcar, which carries 65,000 passengers a day. That's more people than any above-ground transit route in the city, roughly as many as the 500 buses of the provincial GO Transit's entire suburban bus system, and more than the Toronto Transit Commission's Sheppard subway. (The Sheppard line was one of those Big Plans that never made sense based on ridership or economics, but which got built anyhow because it had the magic to stir the blood of well-connected politicians.)

The cost of this big change on one of the busiest transit routes in the city? Small. Instead of being measured in billions of dollars and decades of construction, it involved the exorbitant expense of trucking in a few concrete barriers, changing a handful of road signs and buying some yellow paint. Construction period? Counted in days. This in a city used to endlessly debating big, transformative transit solutions that, if they could get funded, would arrive around the time one of Jagmeet Singh's grandchildren is elected prime minister.

For example, look at the so-called Downtown Relief Line. It's a badly needed subway expansion that has been under consideration for more than half a century. Politicians, who have repeatedly shelved the DRL because it will do a better job of serving passengers than voters, have recently rediscovered it, and feasibility studies are once again moving forward. But even under the most optimistic timetable – and assuming Toronto, Queen's Park and Ottawa find the money to pay for it – it's still at least a decade and a half away from completion.

Meanwhile, between a Friday night and a Monday morning, King Street was transformed from a run-of-the-mill road into the country's newest public transit thru-way.

But beyond King Street, politicians and promoters continue searching for the biggest of big transit ideas for the GTA. For example, the provincial Liberals continue to push ahead with planning a $21-billion (before cost overruns) high-speed rail line between Toronto and Windsor. And the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, the quango that runs Pearson International Airport, is pushing the idea of making itself the region's second public-transit hub, a move it estimates will cost $11.2-billion. The concept, however questionable its value to most GTA commuters, aims to excite the new Canada Infrastructure Bank, while pleasing 905-region voters and the politicians who woo them.

The challenge is that much of the GTA is too low density to support high-intensity public transit. The two big exceptions are routes running from the periphery to the compact employment area of downtown Toronto, and transit within the central parts of Toronto, which are dense enough to allow many people to live car-free.

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It's why a project to speed up transit on King makes so much sense – no matter how small and inexpensive it is.

Of course, the branding is all wrong. A transit project that doesn't need much in the way of public bucks, or that doesn't visibly put shovels in the ground, is a problem, despite the city and province being strapped for cash.

Just look at the Scarborough Subway project. Cost: $3.35-billion and rising. Number of stations: 1. Expected number of daily passengers, in 2031: 64,000, or fewer than the King streetcar today. If built, it will vie for the record for the greatest mismanagement of public-transit funds in Canadian history. No matter: It refuses to be stopped. It has the name of an old borough of half a million people on it, combined with the word "subway." It has branding.

What the King Street project needs is to spend a lot more money – on brand consultants. Learn from the Union-Pearson Express, the half-billion-dollar boondoggle train to the airport. UP Express launched with its own logo, sponsorship deals, staff uniforms, a magazine and an entire executive team – all for the care and feeding of a transit line with one-seventh the King streetcar's passenger volume.

Without big brand ambition, politicians won't be able to love the little miracle on King Street. So, first item of business? Stop calling it TTC route No. 504. Heck, stop calling it a streetcar. Rename it the Cross-Town Rapid Transit Way. The Super Fast Surface Service. The Toronto Hyperloop. The King Street Subway. Whatever.

Make no little marketing plans.

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Because if King Street really does see faster travel times and rising ridership, and if the strategy is extended to other routes where car traffic can paralyze streetcars – we're looking at you, Queen Street – then downtown Toronto will become an easier place to commute to, and an easier place to travel within. And that, not giving politicians something to tout, visionaries something to dream on or international pension funds something to invest in, is what public transit is for.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this editorial attributed a quote to David Burnman. The quote is by David Burnham.
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