King St. streetcar project is no solution for congestion woes

King St. streetcar project is no solution for congestion woes

Data shmata.

Which is my usual nose-flip to the meteor shower of analytics that has ruined sports.

But the subject today is the King St. streetcar pilot project, a hell-bent undertaking that appears autopilot destined to be extended into permanency when the yearlong experiment concludes — technically hitting its anniversary this past Monday, an occasion marked by profusely glowing reviews by media, public transit activists, cycling zealots and bureaucrats.

They’ll try to blind you with metrics, the project proponents. I’m skeptical about how these numbers were collected, what they signify and their applicability to long-range planning.

To be clear, I DO NOT DRIVE. So I’ve no soft spot for automobiles. But I do live and work downtown, take the 504 just about every day and have life-lived anecdotal experience of King St., particularly east of Yonge.

That’s pathetically negligible for one of Toronto’s most crucial arteries, the busiest surface transit route in the city. Twenty-thousand new daily riders on the pilot route, roughly 84,000 boardings per day, a ridership jump of 12 per cent.

When you can get on a streetcar. Because two, three, four might have to go by before the commuter is able to board, so overcrowded have they become.

And that’s not because people have abandoned their cars, I dare say. It’s because of the intense overdevelopment of condos along King and neighbouring streets. Everybody wants to live downtown, a good thing because it keeps the city lively, increases the tax base and cranks the economic engine. But the density crush has been suffocating, to say nothing of streetscape ugly. Those condo colossi have swallowed up space as property owners have sold out to developers, jacking up retail rents for small businesses that are being forced out of the urban core, to be replaced by yet another Starbucks or Shoppers Drug Mart.

Just recently I noticed that a beautiful old building at the corner of George St. and King is scheduled for more condo redevelopment. My nearby local saloon has been shuttered. A sense of neighbourhood community is being lost in favour of towering, cold-shouldering buildings with zero esthetic appeal.

With an anal focus on purported metrics — keeping in mind that numbers can be spun six ways from Sunday — the urban visionaries behind the pilot project and their masters at city hall are not seeing what’s so clearly right in front of their eyes: the massive congestion and gridlock caused by denuding King of traffic, compelling motorists to divert at most intersections — just one block of rolling on four wheels allowed before turning right — and shoehorning in bicycle lanes so that a thoroughfare such as Sherbourne St. is now reduced to a single lane north and south.

Where do you think all that traffic is going? To surrounding streets clotted by vehicles crawling along by the inch, a funnel of cars made even worse by the water main replacement work on Adelaide St. E. The pedestrian takes her life in her hands trying to navigate Adelaide between Jarvis and Parliament, with cyclists commandeering the narrow space around fencing and traffic cones.

You know, all that streetscaping stuff, the Muskoka chairs around streetcar stops supposedly making the entire walk/commute experience more people-friendly — which hardly anybody uses — and the rest of the beautification bits, flower pots and art installations, have actually created added obstructions for cyclists, who have to weave around them, often into traffic.

Listen, I’m all for decongesting Toronto traffic but this strategy simply isn’t working. The downtown street grid is fixed; there’s no room to expand. If the city were truly serious about reducing jam, it would ban cars (except for delivery vehicles) from the downtown core during rush hour or explore other means of regulating flow, such as restricting traffic to local car owners or “rationing” space with a license plate restriction system — cars allowed in the area only on certain days of the week, depending on even or odd plate numbers. At minimum, the city could have banned all left-hand turns off King.

The streetcar priority boosters have also made short shrift of the business owners, especially in the Entertainment District, who’ve complained about a huge drop in patronage, and attendant staff layoffs, attributed to lack of street traffic and elimination of 180 parking spots on King. They’re not “whiners.” At least 11 restaurants have closed since the pilot project began, according to the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association. That’s not an itsy-bitsy consequence. Data released by the city claims an increase in customer spending of 0.3 per cent year-over-year between May and June for the area, versus 5.7 per cent for the area surrounding the pilot route and 3.8 per cent for the city overall. Those statistics are viewed dimly by King St. business owners, who counter that only one payment processor — Moneris Solutions Corp. — was used, and point-of-sale transactions included businesses on the PATH underground network.

Like I said, my numbers are bigger than your numbers.

At the eastern end of the pilot route, King has turned into a tumbleweed ghost town at night, almost spooky. I can hear my footsteps echo, the only sound the clack of streetcars, now empty, and gaggles of smokers outside bars. It’s Tombstone Toronto.

The next “key metric” update, for September and October, will be posted on the city’s website in the next week or so.

I’m not believin’. This fitful fix is in.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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