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Every street can’t be everything to everyone

Yesterday I spoke about why Toronto shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss streetcars and light rail. Today, I’d like to talk about some of the hard decisions we need to face if we really want to get our city moving.

Toronto is a city of neighborhoods and small main streets–at least in the areas where our streetcars live. Streets such as King and Queen are only 4 lanes. And the problem we’re facing is that we’re trying to accommodate every single use case on them: cars, on-street parking, cyclists and streetcars. But in doing so, we’ve made the experience terrible for everybody. Streetcars move at a snail’s pace, drivers are frustrated by the lumbering streetcars, cyclists fear for their life driving by parked cars (doors can swing open at any time), and so on.

And with the rise of downtown shoulder neighborhoods such as Liberty Village, King West, the Distillery District and the soon to be complete West Don Lands, the strain on our east-west corridors is only going to get worse–much worse, in fact. Already the King streetcar is the busiest streetcar route in the city, moving almost 60,000 people per day. That’s more than the (under utilized) Sheppard subway line.

What I hope is clear to the ATC community though, is that the answer isn’t uniformly the car. We can’t have every single resident from Parkdale to Leslieville hopping into their car and driving downtown to their office at Yonge & King. It ain’t going to work. And so we’re going to need to make some difficult decisions about how we’re going to get our city moving on the backbone of transit.

Sure the downtown relief subway line (screw the politics I’m attaching it to downtown) would be the ideal solution to connecting our emerging shoulder neighborhoods, but that’s not going to happen overnight. And so how do we improve the efficiency of what we already have? First, we need to accept the fact that every street isn’t going to be everything to everyone at all times. We need to choose who we want to optimize for.

So here’s an idea that’s been floated many times before but never acted upon: let’s get rid of cars on King St and Queen St in the core during rush hour.

This would give our streetcars the room to efficiently move people across downtown, minimizing the dreaded “bunching up” that occurs as a result of traffic congestion. It would make transit a reliable choice and there are ways to pilot it. But let’s be clear: this is not about being anti-car. It’s about optimizing uses and getting people moving. Cars would continue to get priority on Richmond St and Adelaide St, and transit riders (as well cyclists) would get priority on King and Queen.

Of course, the Rob Ford viewpoint would say that we should be optimizing all streets for cars and getting the streetcars completely out of the way. But if that’s the approach we want to take, then we’re building the wrong kind of city. We shouldn’t be focused on intensifying and creating new inner city neighborhoods, because that only tips the scale in favor of transit. Instead, we should be focused on decentralization.

But that’s what not we’re doing. We’re intensifying our city to the point that we’re now faced with a number of difficult–yet enviable–decisions about how we’re going to live and how we’re going to move around in the future. We’re a city in transition.

Our mission here should be to figure out how to move people around the city as efficiently possible. Let’s put politics aside and recognize that time is one of our most precious resources. And when we put people in lumbering streetcars and debilitating traffic jams, we’re completely squandering that resource. It hurts productivity and it hurts our overall prosperity as a global city.

There’s a place for subways, streetcars, buses, bikes and cars in our city. So let’s just get on with making them all work.

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