streetcars saving time on king

I only have time for a quick note on the King Street Pilot, which prioritizes streetcars on the busiest surface route in Canada’s biggest city.

Perhaps I’d have more time to comment if I spent less time in transit.  We all spend too long getting from place to place in Toronto.

So it may have seemed insignificant when the Toronto Transit Commission announced the early success of their experiment on King Street.  By diverting as many private vehicles as was practical, rush hour trip times between Jarvis and Bathurst Streets, a distance of 2.4 kilometres, were reduced by about five minutes.

Five minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, and maybe it’s not.

It’s a lot when you consider the tens of thousands of people reliant on the 504 King streetcar.  And, it’s a lot when the five-minute reduction is multiplied over a year for a single streetcar rider.  Of the 365 days in a year, 104 days are weekends, 10 days are statutory holidays, 10 days are paid vacation, and another 10 days are absences for other reasons, which leaves 221 days of the year that an average commuter relies on transit.  Five minutes saved, each way, adds up to 2,210 minutes per year of recovered leisure time.

That’s 37 hours per year, equivalent to a full week of work.  It’s like getting an extra week of vacation, only it doesn’t cost workers or employers a penny more.  Now, multiply that number by the tens of thousands of people riding the 504 line, and the full scale of this saving comes into focus.  Hundreds, possibly thousands of years can be liberated annually by these means.

That’s why saving five minutes per trip seems like a lot.  Now, here’s why it’s not.

First, it could be a lot more.  Second, on balance, it might be a lot less.

It could be a lot more if the City had the temerity to attempt the experiment over the entirety of the 504 line, from Broadview subway station in the east, all the way to Dundas West subway station in the west (represented by the red line on the map below, courtesy of Transit Toronto).

504 King streetcars

Transit routes

If five minutes can be saved over the busiest 2.4 kilometers, how much more is possible when you include all the commuters who live outside the core, which is, obviously, almost all of them?  Maybe thousands of person-years of wasted time, annually, could be put to a better purpose.

When you think of it that way, a saving of five minutes per trip is less impressive.  Gains of ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes may be possible as the route becomes more popular as an alternative to overcrowded subways.

The Pilot’s achievement is diminished from another perspective too.  Drivers, who are being diverted to other east-west routes across the downtown, deserve consideration.  We don’t know how many they are, or how much their progress is being retarded by the prioritization of streetcars, but the resulting waste of their time has to be subtracted from the gains made by the streetcars.

You might have noticed that the scale of Toronto’s traffic congestion is measured in terms of lost time by all travellers, using all modes of transport; but, when public discussion of improvements occurs, users get pitted against one another.  The annual cost of traffic congestion is estimated at $6 billion per year, but what savings are achieved by accelerating one while decelerating another?  No one expects everyone to benefit equally, but before we congratulate ourselves for saving five minutes, let’s subtract the time we’ve added to someone else’s journey.

I’m not a detractor of the King Street experiment by any means, but I want to be realistic.  If we think it’s working, do more of it.  And, if we measure the net impact honestly, including the delays resulting for non-transit users, we might be motivated to design our solutions more thoughtfully.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, this might mean returning bike lanes to vehicular traffic on Adelaide and Richmond Streets, which are now picking up the overflow from King.  It might also mean a total rethink of pedestrian crosswalks to and from those alternate routes.  The point isn’t to win for streetcars against cars, or cars against bikes, or bikes against pedestrians; it is the net benefit of an integrated system, for the city as a whole, that matters.



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