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Edward Keenan: King Street pilot project has been a phenomenal success — and brought challenges, to be sure

Edward Keenan: King Street pilot project has been a phenomenal success — and brought challenges, to be sure
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In virtually any area of life, success almost always costs something, and creates new problems of its own. Becoming financially able to buy a house (hooray!) means you need to make mortgage payments (gulp) and have to take responsibility for things like roof repairs and furnace failures (boo). If you suddenly succeed at striking up a new romance, you might no longer have as much time for a hobby you enjoy. If your children are accepted to a great university program, you suddenly have to figure out with them how to pay the tuition.

Every silver lining has a dark cloud. Nothing new about that, and nothing particularly wrong with it either. The problems of success are, generally, better problems to have than the problems of failure. Drake might complain in his songs about all the fake friends that appear when you’re wealthy and famous, but it sure beats trying to scrape by in obscure poverty.

The city is learning this old lesson again with the King Street pilot project. Its success at improving transit travel has come with some costs, and may be creating some new challenges. The thing to do now is not to abandon what’s worked, but to try to minimize the costs, maximize the success, and see how you can address the problems.

First though, let’s appreciate for a moment the phenomenal success. In a city where transit proposals that will serve thousands of new riders traditionally come with decade-long lead times and price tags measured in 10-figure sums, a few quick, cheap changes to King Street has had a phenomenal result.

We’ve seen, and continue to see, evidence from the TTC and outside agencies of consistent improvements in travel times along the corridor and, as importantly, in reliability of service. These dramatic improvements have been pretty consistent in the months since the project was launched.

This has led to more riders — many more riders. The TTC interim CEO’s report this week says that in the first weeks of the project the agency saw ridership in the morning rush increase . The TTC actually expects ridership has grown even more since then, a projection backed up by persistent anecdotal reports of recent crowding on the line.

In time, we’ll have reliable numbers for ridership over a sustained period. But if even just this 25 per cent number holds true and is true throughout the day, it’s hard to overstate the level of success that indicates. It would represent an increase of more than 15,000 riders per day, to over 80,000 total riders on one streetcar route. For a change put together in months for an implementation cost of $1.5 million.

For comparison purposes: The planned $3-billion-plus subway extension in Scarborough is expected to carry, in 2031, about 15,000 more riders per day than the RT line there today carries (for a total of 64,000). In ridership terms, King Street may be seeing a Scarborough subway’s worth of passenger increase (and much higher total ridership) in just a few weeks, for .002 per cent of the cost.

So, OK, that kind of success does present challenges.

One of them is that the TTC — partly because of the ongoing profound inability of Bombardier to deliver new vehicles — doesn’t have enough streetcars to keep up with the demand. It is putting each new streetcar that arrives on King Street as soon as it goes into service. And this week they announced that all streetcar service on the Dundas and Carlton routes will be temporarily replaced by buses until Bombardier catches up — in the meantime those old streetcars will be diverted to more crowded routes, like King.

Another opportunity to marvel at just how messed up and frustrating the streetcar delivery has been. The TTC was supposed to have 148 new cars by now. It has 59. It’s an obstacle to dealing with the new capacity challenges the King pilot has created, but it looks like there’s a plan.

Another problem, a more puzzling one, is that restaurateurs on King, especially near the theatre district, have been very vocally saying that the pilot project has been killing their business. I think there are reasons to be skeptical of their diagnosis of the source of their problems, and their proposed solutions — but as I say it’s a more puzzling and complex challenge. I’ll discuss that in more detail in another column soon.

In the meantime, I think the thing to keep in mind is that when you’ve found a goose that lays golden eggs, you don’t kill it because the cost of feeding it presents a new problem. In adjusting to success, here and elsewhere, you want to address the challenges while preserving the gains you’ve made.

Especially when the gains are as astonishing as the ones we’re seeing on King Street’s streetcar travel.
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