Toronto: A new King Street for Transit

By Christopher Yuen

For the past few decades, Toronto’s King Street, a frequent transit corridor through the densest and fastest-growing parts of the city, has been increasingly choked by car traffic. Built before the age of the automobile, and running in mixed traffic as was typical with legacy streetcar systems, the 504 King streetcar’s speed has deteriorated to just about walking speed on most days during rush hour. That was until three weeks ago, when the City of Toronto launched a one-year pilot project to restrict car traffic and give transit the space it needs to move. The Globe and Mail has a great piece on the significance of this project here. Details on the project and its design are available at the City of Toronto website here.

King Street Pilot Plan Diagram excerpt

The King Street pilot project prioritizes transit.

The new design of 4-lane King street was particularly thoughtful, given some of the constraints the corridor faces. While transit malls in some cities completely ban non-transit vehicles, existing high-rise parking garages that front onto King Street and businesses throughout the bustling entertainment district without back lane for loading and deliveries meant that vehicular access had to be maintained. Under the new design, left turns and through-travel are prohibited for cars and trucks at all major intersections- requiring drivers to turn right and use alternate streets.

At the approach to intersections, vehicles waiting to turn right form a queue in the right lane, out of the way of transit. At some intersections, cars receive an advance turn signal ahead of pedestrians to ensure the tail of the turning queue does not impede the streetcars.

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Taken on a weekday at 4:00pm, this scene would have been much more chaotic with through-traffic blocking transit before the project. Now, cars are channeled to turn right at every intersection. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Without through-traffic, having two lanes at the start of each block is no longer necessary, allowing for an important feature for efficient transit operations- far-side stops. Streetcar tracks in Toronto, and in many legacy systems, operate in the middle of the road. To board and alight, passengers must step into the roadway, protected only by a rule prohibiting motorists from passing open streetcar doors. As a result, stops have always been located on the near-side to reduce the risk of drivers making a right turn onto a transit corridor and immediately conflicting with passengers getting on or off a streetcar. Under the new design, streetcars stop on the far side of most intersections, beside barriers that effectively extends the curb to the second lane at the start of each intersection.

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

New far-side stops with a temporary curb-extension mean passengers no longer have to walk through a traffic lane to get on and off the streetcar. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

In addition to the obvious safety benefits of the new design, the far-side stops also allow transit vehicles to travel faster. Traffic signals along Toronto’s King Street already feature transit signal priority- they detect an approaching transit vehicle to hold a green light, or shorten a red light. With near-side stops, the unpredictable dwell times at stops would sometimes cause the traffic-signal to time-out, leaving the transit vehicle with a red light just as it closes its doors and is ready to get moving. Far side stops allow signals to be held for a streetcar to get through an intersection before stopping for passengers.

The new design also re-allocates curb space as loading zones, taxi stands and for new seating and patio space mid-block- all valuable features for a dense, mixed-use central business district which would not have been possible when all four lanes have been dedicated to the throughput of cars.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins.

New public spaces like this will become especially valuable when patio season begins. (Photo: Alex Gaio)

Since its launch, public support has been for the most part, positive. The all-at-once approach to implementing this pilot across the corridor has ensured that the new inconvenience to some drivers has also been matched with a drastic, noticeable, and immediate improvement for everyone else. Across the twittersphere, Torontonians are reporting anecdotes of more consistent departures and trips taking half as they did previously.

Even among some taxi drivers, subject to the same turn restrictions throughout the day, initial skepticism appears to have eased.

Preliminary analysis of GPS data shows that the project is working, significantly reducing both the average and the spread of travel times.  However, it remains to be seen if enough drivers will comply with the new restrictions once the initial enforcement blitz is over. If New York or San Francisco‘s bus lanes offer any guidance, Toronto should introduce automatic camera enforcement along the corridor. Over the course of this one-year pilot project, municipal staff and the transit agency will be sure to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments based on actual results.

Cities, faced with growing populations and spatial constraints, must defend the right for transit to move if they wish to limit the negative impacts of traffic congestion. Toronto’s King Street offers a story of how that can be done quickly and effectively.


Christopher Yuen is an associate at Jarrett Walker+Associates and will be regularly contributing to this blog.

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13 Responses to Toronto: A new King Street for Transit

  1. Iain December 5, 2017 at 6:18 pm #

    Christopher, great article, thank you. Lots of us here in Melbourne will be watching closely to see how King Street progresses. We have dozens of vibrant, but significantly congested strip retail tram streets here which experience exactly the same issues King Street faced. As residential densities increase along these corridors (driven by Transit Adjacent Development planning policies), car congestion has risen in step. Melbourne has taken tentative steps along different corridors to address the issue, but no consistent ‘transit first’ approach has been implemented in narrower corridors outside the CBD. The King St trial is therefore of great interest (not the least because our ‘patio’ season lasts basically all year!).

  2. Sean Gillis December 6, 2017 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks for the update, Christopher. Many cities big and small are watching this experiment – glad to see it seems to be a smashing success so far.

  3. Jeff Wegerson December 6, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    Streetcar or bus mounted cameras operated by the operator seems to me to be a possible enforcement approach for lane violations. Do such exist or have they been tried anywhere? Or what are some possible roadblocks towards such an approach? Just wondering.

    • Forcaca December 10, 2017 at 5:44 am #

      there’s no need to have anyone operate anything, the cameras can automatically detect cars on the lane and read the plate numbers, and save a pic so that a police clerk can check for false positives and disputed fines can be solved.

      The operator can stick to driving.

      I guess you could put these cameras on the streetcars but it may be overkill compared to just putting cameras on the traffic light poles, it’s also more complex since it’s not a still image where you can just manually set the zone within which a car will get fined.

  4. Peter L December 6, 2017 at 9:10 am #

    It’s Toronto. For decades, pedestrians could stop traffic by doing “Look-Point”. Seems like that’s a little less prevalent than it was 30 years ago (more signals now), it’s still an indicator of how Torontonians, like most Canadians, just do what they are told. 🙂

    Once the new pattern on King settles in and, assuming there are no items that make no sense, people will generally just do the right thing.

  5. Dave Tronna December 7, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    The new traffic signs aren’t visible in the dark, which starts around 5:00 these days. You know, rush hour.

    The enforcement also needs to step up again. I see so many motorists just driving through and ignoring the lane restrictions.

    But so far, it’s been good to be a streetcar commuter!

  6. MB December 8, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

    The only issue with the new King Street is how quiet the street is at times.

    King Street does have evening activities on it, like theaters and nightclubs in some sections. However, King Street is not the main street downtown, and therefore, it does not have that packed pedestrian activity (outside of a small section near the nightlife area) that is common on most car lite streets.

    I already have heard from a few people I know, that they did not feel comfortable walking on King Street at night since the change. Not that they feel like they are going to be mugged. But just that the street is too quiet, with little car traffic animating the street at night, when pedestrian numbers are lower. They sort of feel out of place.

    This will have to be addressed, or it could have negative impacts on business and street vitality in general.

    Maybe the restrictions need only be till 7pm or something.

    • asdf2 December 8, 2017 at 7:30 pm #

      Seattle has a couple of street downtown with restrictions like this. And lots of drivers ignore them. One of these street, in fact, does apply the restrictions only at rush hour, and the time conditions simply generate confusion. I also don’t feel like having 40 mph car traffic alongside me when I’m walking makes me any safer – if anything happens, the drivers will be going too fast to notice it anyway.

      There are other ways to make the street feel less quiet besides inviting car traffic – for instance, how about playing music?

  7. Steve Munro December 9, 2017 at 7:17 am #

    For some reason my comment of December 6 on this has never made it out of moderation.

  8. Steve Munro December 9, 2017 at 7:18 am #

    It would appear that putting URLs in a comment might trigger moderation limbo. Here is the comment without the links.

    One correction: TPS is not active on King at this time, and some of the intersections in the financial district never had it because of concerns re lost green time to the north-south cross streets. Approaching streetcars are being caught at the tail end of a green rather than getting extended time to make it through to the farside stop at some locations where TSP was formerly active. I believe this will be adjusted in due course as the City’s transportation folks figure out the ideal arrangement.

    Another minor point: Although there will be some areas for increased pedestrian space in what was once the curb lane, this will not be installed until spring 2018 when warmer weather returns.

    There remain problems with lack of enforcement and signage that could be more “in your face” about diverting motorists. Very much a work in progress.

  9. Steve Munro December 9, 2017 at 7:20 am #

    More detailed analysis of the data is available on my site. Sorry for the multiple posts, but I am second-guessing how the automatic filtering works here.

  10. Forcaca December 10, 2017 at 5:47 am #

    the idea looks great, especially because it doesn’t impede bicycle through-traffic too much. It’s vital to not make cyclists travel more distance than a walking person would otherwise they’re going to use a car the next time.

  11. Mike Challis December 12, 2017 at 6:33 am #

    Thank goodness. When I lived in Toronto near King Sreet the wonderful streetcar was always getting caught in traffic. It not only slows public transport but does so in inconsistent ways do you can’t even plan for it easily. I may have missed this but is the scheme only during working hours? I recall that King Street seemed most clogged at 1 or 2 in the morning when you just want to get home on quick reliable transit.

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