On Friday, John Lornic made an interesting case that UberHop, the controversial new service launched by the San Francisco-based “ridesharing” business, is the kick in the behind that the TTC needs to take seriously the problem of getting across the downtown core.
Lornic makes an important point: UberHop will be susceptible to the same congestion that plagues the 504 King Streetcar, the TTC’s busiest surface route. The King car carries nearly 65,000 passengers a day, but congestion and overcrowded streetcars and shuttle buses along the line have made it difficult for commuters along the line. This is why private-sector alternatives, like the short-lived Line 6 shuttle bus, seem so appealing. Now Uber is giving the private jitney service a try, looking to fill a need in the marketplace for $5 a ride.
But there is a solution that the TTC has looked at and proposed — a King Street Transit Mall — but sunk by local opposition and City Council’s indifference. I wrote more about the idea on my blog.
Rapid residential growth, both east and west of the downtown core, have overloaded the 504 King Streetcar. With 64,600 daily riders, it’s the busiest surface route in the system. The city has done little to facilitate this highrise boom in neighbbourhoods such as Corktown and the Distillery District in the east, and CityPlace, Liberty Village, Niagara, and Queen/Gladstone in the west. Further west, the highrise condos built at Humber Bay Shores must either rely on a painfully slow and unreliable ride on the 501 Queen Streetcar, take an infrequent double-fare express bus, or ride a bus up to the Bloor Subway.
No wonder then, Uber, the controversial firm that has delighted passengers with cheap transportation, but put the livelihoods of taxi drivers in jeopardy, launched UberHop, a variation of its “ride sharing” service that offers flat $5 rides between neighbourhoods along the King Streetcar and the downtown core. From a purely capitalist viewpoint, Uber is filling a need that’s been left unfulfilled.
Of course, with UberHop, Uber is probably in violation of the TTC’s monopoly on public transportation within the City of Toronto. This is a law that’s been on the books since 1921, meant to protect the TTC from illegal jitneys and competition from private bus operators. It allows the system to cross-subsidize unprofitable routes that are necessary to form a complete network; private companies, without subsidies, would just cherry-pick profitable routes.
A subway, like the oft-proposed and oft-ignored Relief Line would be a fine solution to east-west transit congestion in Downtown Toronto, especially if the route extended west of Downtown to serve neighbourhoods such as Fort York and Liberty Village. GO Regional Express Rail (RER), and/or John Tory’s SmartTrack, could provide some relief to streetcars on King and Queen Streets, especially if the service levels, fares, and stations are convenient.
But the King Street Transit Mall is the low-hanging fruit that could not only provide some reliability to the King Car, but also make things a little harder for UberHop.
The transit mall was first proposed in 2001. Reserved lanes, painted in 1993, didn’t work. Police weren’t interested in enforcing the transit lanes, or ticketing cars and trucks illegally stopping or parking during rush hours, so the TTC wanted to try something more effective and permanent: it would ban all through traffic on King Street between Dufferin and Parliament Streets, while allowing deliveries, passenger drop-offs and other services in alternating curb lanes. Pedestrians would benefit from wider sidewalks, there would even be room for patios, greenery and programmed spaces. The result would be a reliable, efficient King Street for the majority of the street’s users – streetcar riders, and pedestrians. You can read more about it at Transit-Toronto, here.
TTC image illustrating the 2001 King Street streetcar right-of-way proposal. Image via Transit-Toronto.
The TTC’s ambitious, yet affordable, plan to improve King Street service was deep-sixed by city council. Merchants complained about the loss of parking, and the difficulties of deliveries and garbage collection. They feared a loss of customers. (Never mind many, if not most of the restaurants’ clientele arrived by foot or transit.) It never had a chance.
Again, in 2007, the TTC proposed a pilot project to improve operations on the King Streetcar during the summer months of 2008. It was a less ambitious proposal than the one pitched in 2001, which would only last during July and August, between Simcoe Street and Spadina Avenue. Again, local business owners and a car-friendly city council successfully opposed it.
Interestingly, last September, the city closed King Street between Simcoe and Peter Streets entirely for the benefit of the Toronto International Film Festival, forcing the TTC to split its busiest surface route into two. Even though TTC staff recommended against the closure, was Scarborough Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker moved the TIFF-friendly motion. While De Baeremaeker has been championing a Scarborough Subway, he and his fellow councillors decided that King streetcar riders weren’t deserving enough.
The City of Toronto planned and approved residential development along the King and Queen Street corridors and new office space downtown, but it has done almost nothing to help move these new residents and employees. UberHop is only the symptom; an ineffective municipal government is the problem.