Anyone who lives in a major city knows that for transit to be successful, it must be reliable, frequent, fast and affordable. It must offer people a viable alternative to driving a car. This is especially true in downtown Toronto, where many of our iconic streetcar routes run along narrow streets with general car traffic.
These “streetcar streets” play important roles in the success of our city and especially our downtown — moving hundreds of thousands of people every day. They are some of our most vibrant streets lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes. And they help support the downtown economy, moving goods and getting people to and from their jobs.
Nowhere is this more true than on King St. King is the busiest surface transit route in the city, carrying 65,000 riders on an average weekday. King St. is an important east-west spine, passing through the largest concentration of jobs in the country. King St. connects the Financial District with revitalized former industrial areas on the shoulders of the core — Liberty Village, King-Spadina, King-Parliament, St. Lawrence Market, Old Town and Corktown — that have become vibrant, mixed-use urban neighbourhoods known for their cultural richness and creative industries.
We also know that areas along the King corridor will continue to see tremendous population and employment growth in the coming decades, leading to further demand for improved transit service, a better pedestrian and retail experience, and new public spaces.
But despite its successes, King St. isn’t working as well as it could, especially when it comes to providing reliable and efficient transit service.
Streetcars are often crowded and forced to crawl through heavy traffic congestion. Many people have given up entirely, and walk or bike instead. In some places along King St., the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate pedestrians and other important elements that make a great street: benches, trees, café seating, for example.
King St. needs to change. A rethink is overdue. We need a new, more holistic approach to thinking about our downtown streets: how we allocate space, how we prioritize different users and uses and how we design the street.
Other cities around the world are rethinking their downtown surface transit streets and transforming them into complete streets that are more than just corridors for movement. They are creating iconic, vibrant and attractive streets with inviting public spaces that help make their cities more livable and economically competitive.
One such example is Melbourne, Australia, named the world’s most livable city for the fifth year in a row in 2015. In the mid 1990s, with the help of Danish architect Jan Gehl, the city embarked on an ambitious plan to revitalize its downtown by creating great public spaces that cultivate public life. Melbourne has come a long way in a short period of time, something I saw for myself on a recent trip Down Under.
The city recently adopted Walking Plan 2014-17, which sets out the next chapter in its quest for liveability and competitiveness. An important thrust of the plan is to create what are called ‘High-Mobility Streets’ on corridors served by trams (a.k.a.: streetcars). This type of street will have high frequency streetcars and priority bus services, with excellent pedestrian access to and around stops.
Swanston St. was one of the first streets transformed into a high-mobility street and preeminent civic space. Where once cars and streetcars competed for limited space in the right-of-way, today the street is shared only by streetcars, bikes and pedestrians. It functions as a high-frequency public transit corridor capable of carrying 5,000 passengers in approximately 50 streetcars each direction per hour: a capacity at the lower end of LRT performance.
Essential vehicle access for deliveries, property servicing and access to off-street parking is limited to certain times of the day using a permit system. Streetcar stops are universally accessible, with paving and curb design supporting safer cycling. High-quality streetscape materials across the entire right-of-way — such bluestone paving, trees, street furniture and pedestrian-scale lighting — promote patio-style outdoor dining and active public life.
Here in Toronto, we are currently undertaking a comprehensive planning study of our downtown, entitled TOcore. As part of TOcore, we are launching a Visioning Study for King St. to start the conversation about reimagining our busiest surface transit street.
How can the street move people and transit more efficiently? How can we improve the public realm and create a great civic street? How can the street be redesigned to help businesses thrive and support economic vitality and competitiveness? What lessons can we learn from other cities, such as Melbourne, as we move forward? We want King St. to be a truly great street. Please join us as we start the conversation. By Jennifer Keesmaat - Chief planner for the City of Toronto.