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Love it or hate it: The King Street Pilot still falls short on transit needs along the corridor

By: Diana Petramala and Alex Butler
April 26, 2018

The discussion in this blog is based on data released by the TTC in March for the period ending in February.  The TTC has since released new data for March.  However, the story has not changed with the new set of data.

The City of Toronto has restricted vehicle traffic between Bathurst and Jarvis on King to give the 504 (King Street) and 514 (Cherry Street) streetcars priority at its busiest stops– a temporary project called the King Street Pilot.  This has become a widely debated transit experiment – some love it and some hate it. Whatever your feelings are, the experiment highlights the woes that occur when there is a mismatch between transit planning (or infrastructure) and development.  The pilot project has helped the transit system catch up to all the office and residential development that has occurred in the area in the last decade or so.  However, given an 8,000 units still under construction along the route, the streetcar is likely to be overcrowded once again in the coming years, even if the pilot is made permanent.

The issue with the King corridor is the amount of development that has occurred without proper assessment of transit needs

The eastbound King Streetcar runs between Dundas West Station (at Bloor and Dundas) down Roncesvalles to King –along King Street to Broadview -- then north to Broadview Station. The westbound streetcar goes in reverse along this route.  The 514 Streetcar travels along King between Dufferin and the Distillery District.

Analyzing the census tracts that the King Streetcar runs through gives an idea of the amount of construction happening within 400 meters of King Street. Based on CMHC data, there has been almost 30,000 new residential units built in census tracts around the King Street corridor since 2010.  Put another way, almost 10% of total development across the Greater Toronto Area occurred in areas serviced by the King streetcar. 

The only change in service to accommodate this development was the addition of roughly eight to ten streetcars in the morning peak (between 7 am and 10 am) and ten streetcars during the afternoon peak (4 pm to 7pm) between 2011 and early 2017.  In other words, the TTC made room for between 860 to almost 1300 passengers to accommodate the creation of 30,000 residential units alone.  This does not include office development.  

The result was overcrowding on the King Streetcar.  By 2016, the 504 streetcar was by far the busiest surface route in the City of Toronto (see figure 1) and a Toronto Star article highlighted that it was running at 126% of its capacity during peak hours.  Based on standards set by the TTC, each streetcar can carry a maximum of 108 (old streetcars) to 130 (new streetcars) passengers comfortably and is considered overcrowded if it exceeds these levels.  However, riders were managing to cram themselves into busy streetcars, while some were left standing out in the cold as full streetcars passed them by.  As such, at the busiest hour and the busiest stop, an average of 2,200 people were riding the King street per hour, when really it should have only been carrying 2,100 riders.

 

Life after the pilot project was introduced

The experience on the streetcar shows that the program has been a modest success so far. According to the City of Toronto data, the number of daily riders on the King Streetcar increased to 84,000 from 72,000.  The streetcar is also moving marginally faster for most of the day, without major impacts on alternate streets like Adelaide, Queen and Dundas according to the TTC data.  Travel times for the streetcar between Bathurst and Jarvis have fallen by about 2.5 minutes, while travel times across the whole route have improved by over five minutes during the AM and PM rush hour peaks. 

 

We would like to point out that the rise in transit ridership did not match the number of fewer cars traveling on King Street per hour.  There are, overall, less commuters using the road. At the same time, a quick google maps analysis does suggest that traffic is a bit heavier in pockets along Adelaide, Queen and the turn-off points along King relative to pre-pilot days.

Nonetheless, removing most of the cars that travelled on King Street during the morning and afternoon rush hours has meant that the TTC can now run streetcars more frequently.  At its peak capacity, the streetcar comes every 2.7 minutes on average.  At its best, the TTC can now carry up to 2,900 passengers per hour without the streetcars becoming overcrowded (see figure 3), or approximately 800 more passengers per hour than before the pilot was introduced. Set against the number of new riders per hour (2,750 at its busiest point in the day), the streetcar is no longer overcrowded– most of the time.

 

However, according to City of Toronto data, streetcars only arrive within four minutes 85% of the time in the AM Peak. This is a slight improvement over pre-pilot conditions, but still limits capacity.  The travel times between Bathurst and Jarvis have not changed relative to pre-pilot days – even after almost all car traffic has been removed, evidence of continued overcrowding during the AM rush.  According to transit commentator Steve Munro, overcrowding can slow streetcars down because it takes longer for passengers to load and unload at stops.

 

What to expect going forward

Even with the pilot project, the TTC doesn’t have much room to increase ridership in the coming years.  At its peak service level, the streetcar route can only carry an additional 150 people or so before it breeches its maximum capacity once again.  There are still some 8,000 residential units under construction around the streetcar route – not to mention the office development also under way.  The streetcar will once again be overcrowded if just under 6% of these new households use the streetcar as their main mode of transportation during the workday commute.  According to the census, 40% of households in the census tracts around the streetcar line relied on transit to get to and from work in 2016.

Using census data on average family size in the area and  ward level data from the 2011 Transportation Tomorrow Survey on commuting patterns of households, we expect these new residents to increase the number of daily trips taken on the line by 10,000 per day and almost 800 per hour at the AM Peak. Not all of these trips will necessarily take place along King Street, however it will add considerable strain to the already crowded streetcars.

 

Conclusion

The data collection for the pilot statistics did occur during the winter months – and its been a cold winter.  We suspect that ridership rates may edge down as the weather improves and more commuters opt to walk to work.  We will need a full year of data to properly access the success of the pilot.

However, the experience so far is an example of how the city and province combined could benefit from evidence-based planning decisions.  As of now, the Province, through the Growth Plan, directs that there must be appropriate transit and infrastructure in place to support the intended development, allowing development to occur along a transit corridor is sufficient criteria. There are no guidelines to estimate/monitor the corridors capacity to support said development. By US standards, the amount of density allowed to occur along the transit line would have been enough to support investment in a heavy rail (subway) system.

 

The downtown relief line could help alleviate some of the ridership pressures on the King Streetcar, but completion is not slated until 2031 and that’s a long time to be waiting out in the cold.  Until then, more creative solutions to carry passengers along the route may be needed to accommodate for all of the development occurring within 400 meters of the King route.  

 

 

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Diana Petramala is Senior Researcher at Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development (CUR) in Toronto.

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