Lessons of King St. streetcar should be applied to bus routes

Lessons of King St. streetcar should be applied to bus routes

A year ago this week, I rode to work along King St. and declared that it felt like a “streetcar miracle.” That was the first weekday morning of the transit priority pilot project, restricting car traffic on the street to get the streetcars moving more quickly and reliably.

I rode the 504 route again on Monday, the anniversary of the pilot, and found it still felt like a miracle, albeit a much more crowded one. The stats back up that impression: ridership on the route is up 11 per cent to a subway-like 80,000 boardings per day (or more), travel times from Bathurst to Jarvis are running a full minute faster, and reliability of the streetcars is up over 80 per cent. Cycling in the corridor is also way up, there are more pedestrians on the street, and even car travel times are down.

Ridership on the 504 streetcar is up 11 per cent in the year since Toronto restricted car traffic on King St. to get the streetcars moving more quickly and reliably.
Ridership on the 504 streetcar is up 11 per cent in the year since Toronto restricted car traffic on King St. to get the streetcars moving more quickly and reliably.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star file photo)

Despite some high-profile whining by some restaurateurs, I have heard from other restaurant owners supporting the project, and data collected by the city tracking sales in the area through the Moneris payment processing system show business is up.

All this with only a $1.5 million investment from the city, and an implementation time measured in weeks rather than decades.

The debate to have now is not about whether to make it permanent. That’s a no-brainer — a proposition supported by both of the major mayoral candidates in the recent election and, according to a DART Insight poll commissioned by the Toronto Sun and released last month, by 64 per cent of Torontonians.

The big thing to get on with is applying the lessons of its success elsewhere. Not on other streetcar routes (or not only on them), but on bus routes.

I think the experience of other cities, on a model similar to the King streetcar, provides the prospect of quick wins for riders on the bus, especially in the north, east and west of the city, where transit service is currently the most difficult to rely on.

Cities including New York City, London, Bogota and Singapore have helped revolutionize their own public transit by providing bus priority lanes, often coupled with express bus service. In some places, this involves full-on bus rapid transit systems that have track-like lanes constructed in the middle of the road, protected by concrete barriers and stopping at full-on bus stations. In other places it’s simpler, with signs and paint indicating certain lanes are reserved for buses, either all the time or during certain hours of the day (7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on some London routes, for example). In some places, only buses are allowed in these lanes; in others, motorcycles, cabs, bikes or high-occupancy carpooling vehicles are also allowed. There are even places where buses get traffic signal priority.

What the differing models have in common is the realization that in many areas, especially suburban ones, buses are the main form of mass transportation right now, and that we can make bus service faster and more reliable without the decades of construction and expense involved in building a subway or LRT line.

And it works. In the Bronx, the first “select bus service” line on Fordham Rd. sped up travel times by 20 per cent and increased ridership by 10 per cent almost as soon as it began travelling on dedicated lanes. A decade after Bogota introduced a rapid bus transit network, the system was carrying 1.7 million passengers and travel times were sped up by almost a third. In London, advances in bus priority and service levels (combined with the introduction of a congestion charge in the central city) saw bus usage surge 60 per cent between 2000 and 2013.

The TTC has recently been expanding its express bus network and enhancing bus service across the city. It seems natural to consider taking some of the busiest of these routes and experimenting with bus priority schemes. Finch and Sheppard already get talked about, naturally, as candidates for busways of some kind. The Markham Rd. bus in the east and Islington or Jane in the west seem like heavily travelled possibilities. The Don Mills bus — a ridership monster already — could be a candidate.

The TTC faces some restrictions on how effectively it can ramp up service during rush hour for both buses and streetcars due to a lack of vehicles. But it can work on getting the priority right and ramp up service to meet demand over time, while it improving the rider experience relatively quickly through speed and reliability.

The King St. project is a success. Now it’s time to share the miracle around the whole city.

Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire

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