King Street Visioning Study kicks off

I attended a meeting tonight called “Our Future King” at Innis Hall, presented by the Pembina Institute, the Pembina Foundation and the City of Toronto, and sponsored by the Metcalf Foundation. No, this wasn’t about Charles or William: rather, the future of King Street, our busy transit corridor through downtown and beyond.

These are my notes from the meeting, mostly done live so not much in the way of analysis or commentary, just capturing what I heard.

City councillor Gord Perks opened the evening with comments on how we need to think about our city services to make changes to make things better: both big things and small things. Cars are the least efficient way to move people around the downtown, and people in Toronto are choosing other methods, including transit, walking and cycling. Tonight, we’re here to talk about King Street, Toronto’s busiest surface transit corridor: it’s dysfunctional as it is (IMO), and needs some bold new thinking to make it work for all of Toronto.

We heard presentations from six people who have quite a few ideas about what can be done to transform King Street, starting with Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for city of Toronto, who asked how we can make the most of our streetcar system and the King Street corridor. Streetcars are a critical part of our character as a city, but also a clean, quiet and efficient way to move people around. It’s the largest streetcar network in North America in terms of ridership and track length, and moves almost as many people each day as the GO commuter train network. King Street, as the busiest of these transit lines with 65,000 passengers per day, cuts right through our largest concentration of jobs: the financial district, the entertainment district, Liberty Village and the Distillery District. In the last 10 years, the population around King Street from Liberty to Distillery has gone crazy due to condo building, to the point where there is a current consideration to split some city wards to better represent these ares. This is our opportunity to transform how to move along and interact with the 6km of King Street from Garrison Common to the Don River, and that’s the point of the King Street visioning study that is launching today. We can learn from other cities who have undertaking similar areas, such as Melbourne, but also from areas in Toronto that have undergone transformation such as Roncesvalles. The plan is to roll out pilots beginning in 2017 where designs can be tried out and studied, collecting community feedback through a variety of channels.

Andy Byford, CEO of the TTC, discussed the challenges of transit in Toronto when we haven’t had the budget or mandate for expanding the modes of transportation that we really need: streetcars in downtown, but in a car-free environment either on dedicated rights-of-way or on streets where cars have been completely removed. The idea of removing cars from King is a key thought running through this visioning exercise, and I suspect that we’ll be seeing a removal of at least some of the car traffic from King in the pilot next year. Byford talked about what they’re doing to improve transit service, from better scheduling, to more on-street supervisors to avoid bunching, to all-door boarding; however, they are reaching the limit of what can be done with what they have. There’s a new streetcar service going live this weekend, the 514 Cherry, which will overlay the King 504 route across the busy downtown area, from Dufferin to Cherry Street.

It strikes me that although his name has not been mentioned, everyone here is giving a giant middle finger to the ghost of Rob Ford, who set Toronto transit back by at least 5 years.

David Kuperman, from the city of Toronto’s Transportation Services, got into more of the details of past studies and what will happen in the upcoming pilot projects. Compared to other North American cities, commuter traffic in Toronto is about in the middle: we have a lower transit % than New York, but about the same or higher than other cities. We also have a healthy share of bicycle commuters. In a recent study (still underway) on the King Street streetcar operations, they found that boarding/disembarking time was the biggest cause of delay — which is now being helped by the all-doors boarding — followed by traffic control signal delay (streetcars bunched up at signals), then traffic congestion. They have made a number of other improvements, including extended turning and no parking peak hour restrictions, increased fines in no stopping times, and improved transit signals including priority signals at some intersections. The new streetcars will also make an impact because of higher capacity, whenever Bombardier decides to start delivering them instead of delaying them even further. We need to consider a number of factors with surface transformation, not just the vehicles and their passengers, but also how this works with pedestrians and cyclists on the same streets. There are a lot of different models for how to remake streets to share transit, some car traffic (or none), cyclists and pedestrians, plus the businesses along the street.

Janice Solomon, executive director of the Entertainment District BIA, spoke on behalf of the downtown business improvement areas. She talked about it from the point of view of businesses along King, and how they can benefit from restricted car traffic and more flexible street configurations, including complete closures for events such as the Toronto International Film Festival (a hugely controversial closure). There are a number of privately-owned, public spaces (POPS) along King, many of these in front of and around the office towers, and public spaces need to be maintained and expanded where possible to encourage pedestrian traffic and provide locations for public art.

These four presenters were joined by Nithya Vijayakumar of the Pembina Institute, and Dylan Reid of Spacing Magazine and Pedestrian Toronto (as well as my former neighbour — hi Dylan!). Vijayakumar gave a short introduction that included her opinions on how King needs to be restructured to better accommodate all modes of transportation, but especially to make transit service more consistent. Reid pointed out that King is not a “destination street” like Queen Street: whereas you can walk a long length of Queen and have interesting shops and things to look at, King has some pretty boring bits that don’t encourage you to walk there. That means that when that third overcrowded 504 streetcar passes you by and you start walking towards your destination, it’s not all that inviting. He also mentioned that we need more connections between King and the lanes, streets, parks and other areas just off King, to encourage people to explore the neighbourhoods and explore their businesses and attractions.

Byford took the first question on how much improvement can be done operationally versus requiring “changing things”, by which I assume the question-asker was referring to changing street configurations. He stated about 5% gains from working ahead with their current improvements, more still with the new streetcars, but much greater gains if they can move to a dedicated streetcar ROW. Kuperman also commented on the impact of signal changes: delayed greens for streetcars, for example, and more restrictions on cars turning and parking. Solomon pointed out the lack of bicycle parking in the downtown area, which she feels impacts businesses since cyclists may not choose to stop and shop if they don’t feel that their bike is safe. Vijayakumar — the researcher on the panel — feels that a pilot project is essential for seeing how potential changes are actually going to work, and the public feedback to them. She stated examples from other cities, but also our Richmond and Adelaide separated bike lanes, which have become hugely popular and benefited from a number of tweaks based on public feedback. Reid took on the topic of how to make King more walkable, including more obvious things such as wider sidewalks, but also improving the dark and uninviting train underpass just east of Liberty Village that cuts it off from the western downtown area, and addressing the planning for new buildings along the sidewalks to make sure that they have things of interest to pedestrians, such as public spaces, shops and restaurants. Keesmaat pushed the idea of the pilot as a way to try: there is a potential for failure, but also a potential for success. Although we can learn from other cities and other parts of our own city, it’s really tough to know exactly how something is going to work until we try it. Once there’s been a chance to study the effects, the pilot can either have more investment put in to make it a permanent change, or backed out if it doesn’t work.

There was a question from the audience on what is being done to improve safety of cyclists and pedestrians, given the high number of pedestrian deaths that we’ve seen this year. There’s a study going on now that is coming under some criticism since many feel that it doesn’t go far enough with the goal to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths by 20%; the ideal would be no deaths. However, many of the initiatives to make pedestrians and cyclists safer cost money, and the city doesn’t put a lot of money into that. Solomon pointed out that the concrete flower planters separating the bikes lanes from traffic along Richmond and Adelaide (only east of Spadina, unfortunately) have made cyclists feel much safer and likely led to higher cycling traffic in those lanes. Byford and Kuperman talked about the interaction between (car) congestion and transit-only lanes: although it seems that car traffic displaced from the streetcar ROWs would just cause gridlock elsewhere, the addition of the ROW would also result in the removal of curbside parking, leaving that (usually blocked) lane open for moving traffic. Keesmaat also mentioned the evaporation theory, where the reduction of car traffic lanes results in less cars since they also are correlated with better transit and cycling options. Solomon talked about how the improvement and maintenance of POPS and actual public spaces: she stated a case where their BIA spent their money to clean up a public park area, and received a letter from the city telling them not to trespass; obviously, the city and the BIAs need to be more in sync. Keesmaat said that POPS need to be seen as being publicly accessible, since some ambiguously appear to be private spaces. Kuperman addressed a question about restricting car traffic in downtown (such as congestion charges or tolls on DVP/Gardiner access highways) by stating that there are already a lot of restrictions caused by parking cost and availability, but that anything further would require more study. Pretty much a non-answer. Byford lived in London when congestion charges were introduced there, and said that it made a remarkable change at the beginning, although traffic crept up over time; all revenue from the London congestion charges go directly to public transit, which is definitely a great idea. Keesmaat said that parking in the downtown core needs to be rethought, and that autonomous vehicles will eliminate much of the need for it; Solomon stated that some of the restaurants in their BIA are upset at the thought of no parking in front of their restaurants, which seems terribly out-of-touch with the reality of so many of us who walk or transit to restaurants, and also isn’t an accurate representation if you consider that the average restaurant storefront would allow for about two cars parked: not exactly a full house of customers. Removal of street parking can actually improve business through more cycling and pedestrian traffic. Kuperman and Keesmaat addressed the related issue of delivery traffic in areas where car traffic is removed; this can be resolved with some special-use lanes for trucks delivering goods, or times of day (e.g., 1-6am) when trucks can make deliveries.

We finished up with Keesmaat talking about the TOcore, a broader downtown planning initiative, and heard from Adam Nicklin, the planner working on the larger initiative. There’s an open house for three days next week — June 20-22 — in the Metro Hall Rotunda if you want to learn more about TOcore, and a stakeholder workshop next Tuesday night. Lots of exciting things going on for the city!

Check out the very active Twitter stream during the event, both from people here at Innis Hall as well as those watching the live stream.

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