Rush hour on Toronto's King streetcar is usually hell on steel wheels. The packed streetcars that travel the city's busiest above-ground public transit route trundle along at the pace of a Victorian landau, stuck in traffic like everyone else. Walking is often faster. Cyclists fly past.
So commuters who boarded the King car on Monday, the first weekday of a year-long experiment in getting the lead out, were amazed, even a little bewildered, when they looked out the front windshield and saw, well, nothing. No line of stop-and-go traffic. No big delivery truck blocking the road ahead. No old beater stopping to turn left, causing a mass transit vehicle with scores of people on board to shudder to a halt while waiting for a single car to get out of the way.
Just a long stretch of clear road, free of obstacles, even at the height of the afternoon rush. It was such an unfamiliar sight that it was hard not just to gawp, like a yokel seeing his first elevator.
Here was a vision of the future, and, you know, it seems to work. Freed of its four-wheeled competitors, the big red-and-white streetcars fairly sail along the open street, making that sweet electrical hum that they do when they get going.
Toronto transit riders never speak to each other – the riders' code forbids human interaction – but on this day, a man in a fashion-forward version of one of those winter hats with the strings dangling past the ears couldn't help turning to a couple of women beside him and remarking, "It's almost like travelling at warp speed today." He shook his head in wonder. "Toronto is putting on its big city pants and growing up."
That put it nicely. Finally, after years of chin stroking, the city has found the courage to do something bold about its commuting mess. Finally, it is coming to understand that cities that want to avoid strangling on their own growth have to change how they move people around. At last it has seen the sense in giving big vehicles with lots of people an advantage over small vehicles with one or two. At last it is struggling to loosen the tyranny of the car.
The King Street project gives streetcars precedence on the busy stretch of King between Bathurst Street in the west and Jarvis Street in the east. Motor vehicles won't be able to drive through any more. They won't be able to turn left, either. If they come onto that stretch of King, they must turn off at most intersections and get out of the way.
Vehicles operated by emergency services, road crews and the Toronto Transit Commission will get an exception, as will taxis after 10 at night. Cyclists can ride right through as before. Apart from that, streetcars will have the run of the road.
It is about time. This should have happened a decade, two decades ago. The King car is the third-busiest transit service in the city, trailing only the two main subway lines. It carries more than 65,000 people a day. That compares with the 20,000 vehicles that use the street. It is obvious who should get priority.
City leaders hesitated because they feared being accused of launching a "war on the car," a familiar battle cry of the Rob Ford era. For years, nothing happened. The King car kept on trundling, full to the fogged-up windows with the thousands of new workers who are commuting to Toronto's thriving downtown and the thousands of people who have moved to teeming condo communities such as Liberty Village. Change had to come. So Toronto bit the bullet. City council voted to authorize a pilot project. It started on Sunday.
Naturally, there have been problems. No one expected otherwise. That is what the pilot is for: to see how this can work. Some motorists are ignoring the signs forbidding them from driving straight into the streetcar zone. Cop cars with lights flashing were pulling many of them over on Monday and giving them a warning. Some commuters were confused when they found that their old streetcar stops have been moved. Instead of stopping at the traffic light at big intersections, the streetcars stop after the light. There are sure to be other hang-ups. This is all very new and it's going to take time to get used to it.
But, at least at first, the streetcar zone seems to be making a real difference. With planters on the road at stops and colourful barriers at intersections, the King car seems not just faster, but safer. This looks and feels like a real transit zone, where transit riders are not battling for a space on the street and hoping to avoid getting knocked over by a car when they step out the streetcar door. For once, they are being treated as if they matter. For the battle-weary Toronto strap hanger, that is a delicious feeling.
The whole thing makes the city feel a little bit different, too. A little more sophisticated, a little more modern, a bit more like the international city that Toronto has come to be. Those big-boy pants look good.