Toronto: Defending Transit’s Right to Move

Toronto’s King and Queen Streets — where packed streetcars stop and wait behind one left-turning driver or someone taking forever to parallel-park — is one of North America’s greatest monuments to the natural superiority of motorists over everyone else.

100+ people's lives held hostage by the lady in the grey car at far left. Photo: GTD Aquitaine at Wikimedia Commons

100+ people’s lives inadvertently held hostage by the lady in the grey car at far left. Photo: GTD Aquitaine at Wikimedia Commons

These streetcars are all Toronto has in the way of east-west transit through the very core of downtown, yet their operations are routinely strangled by quite small numbers of cars, running as slow as 6 km/hr (4 mi/hr) (!) during the peak in the most critical section. This for a service that carries the overwhelming majority of the people moving down the street.

We’re talking about the middle of downtown Toronto, the city’s densest and fastest densifying area.  For such a place to function, transit just as to succeed.

We're clear on how dense downtown Toronto is, right?

We’re clear on how dense downtown Toronto is, right?  The King streetcar connects this area to very dense residential areas to the east and west.

Since this is Canada, you can be sure these are legacy streetcar lines.  Almost nobody outside the US intentionally builds streetcars in mixed traffic, but many cities have inherited them.  Long ago, they were reliable because there wasn’t much traffic.  But things got worse in the usual boiling-frog manner, and now here we are.

Now, the city is attempting the first step to improve things, by banning through traffic on King Street, one of the two key arteries.  Oliver Moore has the story, which sounds like almost every story about a city trying to pry a little space away from the motorist so that anyone else can move.  In few places, though, are the motorist’s claims to dominion so indefensible.

The key change will be that cars will be forced right at every intersection, and left turns will be banned.  There are still compromises: traffic is still in the streetcar’s lane, and refuges for passengers to board and alight will be marked only with paint.

Yet the plan will still be controversial at Council, with some Councilors arguing that they have a geometrically incoherent “right” or “need” to drive cars anywhere in the city.  This plan is a critical step, and deserves enthusiastic support.

12 Responses to Toronto: Defending Transit’s Right to Move

  1. Steve Munro May 13, 2017 at 9:14 pm #

    As a pilot, this could be changed for the better or watered down into something that “proves” transit priority does not work. What is a bit sad is that an interim design with block-long transit malls at transfer points to the subway was ditched because businesses objected to restriction on access.

    Politically, decisions on this type of change are controlled by the full City Council, not the portion of it only responsible for downtown, and there are far too many road-hogging suburban members on the larger body. It will be interesting to see whether the mayor, who talks a good line on transit, but fades at critical moments, ensures that his suburban pals support the pilot.

    A related problem is that the TTC could screw this up by failing to add service and properly manage the portion of the line outside of the pilot area. Time will tell.

  2. Simon May 13, 2017 at 11:38 pm #

    Don’t they use hook turns in Toronto as in Melbourne?

    That would keep the left turners out of the way of the tram (streetcar).

  3. Steve Munro May 14, 2017 at 2:35 pm #

    No hook turns in TO. What we do have is provisions for U turns at select locations (protected) to eliminate the need for standard left turns at minor intersections.

  4. Simon May 15, 2017 at 1:26 am #

    Well I can’t see the logic not using hook turns although in this particular case it does make it redundant if you get rid of cars completely.

    Some people hate them enough to do three right turns, or 3 left turns in Melbourne. I guess that’s the reason right there, just not a good one.

    • Robert Wightman May 16, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

      Our roads are, in general, much narrower, 20 m including traffic lanes and sidewalks, than Melbourne’s and there is no place for a car to wait for the hook turn,

  5. Jacob Mason May 15, 2017 at 9:58 am #

    While the concept is good, the illustration makes me think that better communication and design is needed for drivers to do what the plan aims for them to do. As designed, I foresee a lot of driver just going straight through, which is what happens a lot on Market Street in SF. Make the center through lanes at intersections some sort of rumble material that is very hard to drive a car over, and make the smooth asphalt divert people to the forced turn lane. Otherwise, this will be routinely ignored.

    In short, make following the law obvious and make breaking the law challenging.

    • Kevin Love May 15, 2017 at 12:34 pm #

      A similar concept was previously tried on King Street. Surprise, surprise, car drivers openly defied the law.

      Also not-so-surprising was that the Toronto police declared that enforcing the law was not their “priority.” So it failed. Steel and concrete is the way of enforcing this law.

      Toronto police have a bad reputation for not enforcing the law when it comes to car drivers. For example, Toronto’s Public Health Department has determined that motor vehicle operators poison and kill 280 people in Toronto every year. See:

      Needless to say, the Criminal Code of Canada does not approve of poisoning and killing people. Yet the Toronto police does not enforce the law in the face of these violent and dangerous criminals. Pity the dead.

    • Dave May 16, 2017 at 11:58 am #

      Or simply install cameras to catch people driving straight through and let the tickets teach drivers to obey the law. (I never understand why we don’t use technology to stop individuals from doing things that are both against the law and detrimental to the public good at large.)

  6. David M May 16, 2017 at 10:00 am #

    Glad to see this and hope Council follows through with it. you are not entirely correct that only the US is building streetcars in mixed used environments. Manchester, England has built a system with some sections seeing trams in mixed traffic. And a new line to Trafford Park will be similar. You are correct that none are being built in Canada. Personally, I don’t see the point of spending money to build lines in mixed traffic, when I bus can carry the same number of people and can move around obstructions (even trolley buses can do that).

  7. Suzanne May 16, 2017 at 10:21 am #

    If only the people holding our (Tucson; yes, in mixed traffic) streetcar passengers hostage were even IN their cars! The frequent hangups for improperly parked vehicles along the route are more than maddening.

    • ChrisC May 21, 2017 at 12:16 am #

      Is the Tucson streetcar running curbside? Toronto’s streetcars run in the centre lanes.

  8. Gag Ha;frunt May 20, 2017 at 2:06 am #

    Not about Toronto, but about the “right to move”:

    NHK World television has a series about Japanese railways called Japan Railway Journal. The May 11th episode, watchable online until May 25th, is about the Toden Arakawa line, the last surviving part of Tokyo’s tram network.

    The presenter says that most of the network was closed from 1967 onwards because road traffic was increasing and “the Toden network became one of the main reasons for traffic congestion” (i.e the trams *caused* congestion). He then goes on to say that the Arakawa line survived because most of the route was on its own right of way and so “its impact on traffic congestion was less of an issue”.

    BTW, can HTML be used in comments here?)

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