Answers at last: why the King streetcar is so awful

Answers at last: why the King streetcar is so awful

(Image: Simon Carr/Flickr)

The King streetcar is the busiest of the TTC’s surface routes. Every weekday, some 60,000 passengers use the line, making it more crowded than the Scarborough RT and Sheppard subway combined. Despite transit riders drastically outnumbering motorists—approximately 20,000 private vehicles use the street on a typical weekday—the route during rush hour is a dispiriting, slow-moving, overcrowded mess.

So what’s the holdup? A newly released city staff report, commissioned in October to examine the feasibility of separated transit lanes on King, has some interesting answers.

The single biggest cause of rush-hour “delay” (defined as the streetcar moving at under walking speed) is “passenger service time”: the loading or unloading of people. Put simply, half of all stoppages are caused by people entering or exiting.

It might seem absurd to lump boarding and alighting times in with traffic and other delays, because handling passengers is, after all, the streetcar line’s entire reason for being. But just because stopping for riders is a necessity doesn’t mean the process is ideal. On King, riders must board through the front door, pay the fare or present a pass and sometimes collect a transfer. They have to do this one at a time, slowly.

The new streetcars, which are currently scheduled to appear on King in 2017, are expected to speed up the boarding process by accepting electronic Presto payments and allowing passengers to enter through any of the four doors.

The second leading cause of rush-hour delay, the study says, is traffic lights. Although many of King Street’s controlled intersections are fitted with special equipment for prioritizing public transit, about 30 percent of stoppages were caused by red lights. Several intersections without transit-friendly technology are among the busiest: Spadina, University, Bay, and Yonge. Giving priority to streetcars at these lights would lead to delays on the intersecting streets, the report said.

Surprisingly, traffic congestion seems to result in fewer delays. The report says the worst congestion delays occur heading west during the afternoon rush, when almost three minutes of the average end-to-end trip (Broadview to Dundas West station) are spent stationary or barely moving due to the sheer number of cars, taxis or illegally parked delivery vehicles on the street.

So, are separated lanes for streetcars the answer? The report is staying mum, for now. The study found that streetcars reach the highest speeds between Jarvis and Berkeley streets, where the track is reserved for public transit during rush hour, but similar lanes between Dufferin and John appear not to have the same effect. The 1.5-kilometre downtown stretch between John and Jarvis, where there are no reserved lanes, moved the slowest, topping out at around 10 kilometres per hour.

City staff will study other measures for improving service, including tweaking signal priorities, extending rush-hour reserved lanes and stricter law enforcement. A follow-up report is due in 2015.