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King of the Road

Ban on cars along 504 route in peak hours would ease commuter crunch

By Rob Granatstein
Toronto Sun

8:25a.m. King and Dufferin Sts.: Two 504 King streetcars, packed to the hilt, no room to breathe, have already inched by Lilly Leamon, heading eastbound to downtown.

She refuses to get on either car.

It’s Leamon’s regular morning ordeal. She declines almost any thought of jumping on board until a streetcar with some space comes by.

“It reduces my stress,” says the legal secretary, who rides the rails to King and Bay Sts.

There’s almost always one with an empty seat. The streetcars always pile up one behind another as traffic snarls any attempt to maintain their schedule.

Leamon’s been riding the 504 to work for 12 years. She says the ride has never been so brutal.

“That’s why I want to leave the area,” says Leamon, 36. “It’s getting too cramped. Even on the weekend, it seems to be worse.”

Within the streetcar on any given day toes are stepped on, elbows poke strangers, butts get rubbed together, seated riders are whacked in the head by knapsacks, and there’s the guy who hasn’t showered since Christmas who can’t get any closer without dating you first.

“I have a belief that we’re all traveling together so tightly and the anger is festering,” she says. “Eventually we’ll all eat each other alive.

“It’s TTC rage,” she says.

For many people on board, the ride to work ruins their day, then they spend much of the day dreading the ride home.

From the High Park area, where young, hip business types are piling on in record numbers, to the thousands of new riders who have just moved in to the booming condo-building zone around Shaw St., the 504 streetcar is seeing its ridership grow at a phenomenal rate in the city’s west-end.

The TTC can’t handle the pressure.

8:50 a.m. King and Shaw Sts.: Alison Masemann has watched three streetcars go by already. She’s still standing on the cold sidewalk, wind blowing dirt from the condominium construction sites.

Masemann has no choice, the doors didn’t even open. The streetcars breeze by. No one can get on.

She’ll be late for work this morning.

When she does get on, personal space is non-existent.

“I’ve had incidents where I literally can’t move because I’m up against a window on one side and four other people are pressed against me on the other side,” says Masemann, 27, a radio producer. “It’s cozy. I get to know my neighbours pretty well.”

Her pet peeve is seeing the back of the streetcar have enough space for a dance floor while riders at the front of the streetcar are holding their breath.

“People become so paranoid about getting to the door on time, they go insane when they have to get off the streetcar,” she says. “They seem to think they won’t be able to get out if they go to the back of the streetcar.”

8:55 a.m. King and Niagara Sts.: The 504 has hit the crux of its problem. Already full of people late for work, there’s no more room and dozens of people waiting in front of their apartment buildings for a trip in to work.

The road ahead is no better. King St. is notorious for drivers making illegal left-hand turns, double parking and stopping for no good reason, all on the trolley tracks.

From Bathurst St. to Church St. there’s no chance for the Red Rocket to fire up to cruising speed. So many obstructions, so few options.

The King streetcar is living up to its reputation: The most crowded, slowest streetcar the TTC has to offer.

There has to be a better way.

1 p.m. TTC’s Hillcrest Yard: Finding a better way is Mitch Stambler’s job.

His corner office overlooks the garages where mechanics are rebuilding old, broken down buses and streetcars for their return to the roads. The Bathurst streetcar breezes by as Stambler, the manager of service planning for the commission, leads a reporter through the nightmare that is the King route.

“We knew going into the summer of last year we were reaching the frustration point with the King car,” he says. “We knew ridership was going up. We knew people were pissed off that the service had bunches and gaps and irregular service and short turns and everything else.”

The TTC has not ignored the problem. On Feb. 18, the TTC added a 43rd streetcar to King St. — that’s 10 extra cars since September. ‘99. Seven of those are the large capacity double street cars deployed specifically to pick up people at the busiest spots during the busiest time of the day.

There’s no more room for streetcars. And there’s really no point to add more, Stambler says, because they would just be stuck in traffic. Signal priority, giving TTC vehicles a better chance to get through a light by sending a message from the streetcar to the box that will extend the green up to 15 seconds, has been added to 215 intersections across the city, including some on King St., at a cost of $8.5 million. The result of signal priority is quicker times through a route, meaning more people can be picked up. Rear door loading has been added to the King streetcar at some points to speed up stops. Supervisors have been added to the route to try to improve service. From September to November 2000, the TTC hired police officers — paid overtime because the shifts were outside regular duty — for a major by-law enforcement blitz between Bathurst St. and Sherbourne St. In the 10-week blitz, police nailed 7,200 violators for illegal left-hand turns, illegal parking or being stuck in an intersection.

“It’s just out of control,” Stambler says. “People routinely ignore all the traffic rules.”

But the TTC couldn’t afford to continue the $150,000 project any longer than three months.

“It was a big help to us, it helped us move through downtown much better, but it wasn’t enough,” Stambler says. “And if the money from the tickets were to flow back to the TTC we could afford to pay for officers all the time.”

He says there needs to be a transit police force enforcing city by-laws. That would make more room to vroom, but Toronto Police do not have officers available to handle the duty.

Even with all these measures, the King streetcar is at its maximum capacity.

“We carry more people on streetcars on King than are carried in all the cars, cabs and trucks combined,” Stambler says. “But unfortunately, or fortunately, ridership is increasing at a rate we can’t keep up with on King.”

The saviour, in the TTC’s opinion, would be banning cars from King St. through the downtown core.

“We carry more people than anybody else so we should get more space than anybody else.

“There are tremendous improvements we could make without building new subways and without spending tons of capital,” he says. “If we were just given better treatment on the road we could do a way, way better job.”

Turning King St. into a transit mall type route is being pushed by one of the city’s senior traffic advisers and the former chair of civil engineering at U of T.

“It’s easier to get people to spend $500 million than it is to get them to remove 15 parking spots,” says transit guru Richard Soberman. “We need aggressive ideas that are endorsed.”

He believes no turns should be allowed on any streetcar lines. He also believes the TTC should be the only way on the streetcar tracks downtown — no other vehicles should be allowed on the rails.

3 p.m. TTC’s Hillcrest Yard: Rush hour has already begun as Mitch Stambler turns to his list of other potential solutions.

He knows solving King St., like many of the other routes around the city, isn’t going to be accomplished by complaining about the traffic.

The Red Rocket has to fix itself at the same time.

Here’s how Stambler is planning to get that accomplished, beyond exclusive use of King: Dundas W. and Broadview stations, the turnaround points for the King car, will be fitted with by-pass tracks in 2002 so streetcars can pass each other.

“We’re screwing ourselves at our own terminals,” he says. “We’re bottlenecking our own streetcars with other streetcars.” Expand proof of payment, like on Queen, to other routes. Remove seats from the back of streetcars. Where there is a pair of seats on both sides of the aisle behind the back doors, remove one seat per row so more people will move to the rear. Coupling streetcars — attaching two streetcars — together with a bar will add capacity to the route while not needing another driver. Expand the definition of rush hour. “The worst time for us is 3 to 4 p.m. It puts us behind for the entire afternoon rush,” Stambler says in explaining why parking restrictions must be expanded. “It’s going to be a difficult pill to swallow. But it costs almost nothing.”

“We can do amazing things if city council wants us to,” he says.

4 p.m. Toronto City Hall: Rush hour is picking up steam as councillor Brian Ashton discusses how moving cars off King St. could improve life for the theatre and restaurant district. It could be more tolerable, less hectic and more walkable.

“I’m all for it,” says Ashton, the chair of the TTC. “Let’s pilot some products. It’s like new underwear — you don’t know if it’s going to itch until you wear it.”

But he is aware removing parking and restricting cars would be quite a debate. “It could get heated,” he says. “But not to talk about it is to miss an opportunity.”

Councillor Joe Pantalone’s ward includes the most problematic area of King St. — and the TTC’s focus — the area from Bathurst St. west to Sudbury St.

He says the idea of transit only lanes or restricted use of King St. has been tried before — and failed. He believes money needs to be pumped into the system — mainly from the province — for it to work.

Pantalone, who calls himself a great transit supporter, needs details on a restricted King St. or longer rush hour periods. He wants facts to present to the retailers along King who come to him when the parking in front of their stores is removed.

“Show us how much service is going to improve and give the commitment,” he says. “And the TTC better live up to those commitments.

“I’m prepared to seriously look at that and possibly support it.”

Dave Kaufman, the city’s general manager of transportation services, believes the TTC has to look at itself instead of restructuring the city.

“The TTC’s biggest delay is loading and unloading,” Kaufman says. It should look at automated fares, proof of payment expansion, and other ways to minimize loading times, including having fewer stops along the route.

4:45 p.m. king st. west of john st.: Lines are forming at the TTC stop next door to the Princess of Wales theatre as streetcar after streetcar is stuck in a line with cabs, cars and trucks.

Across the street at Le Saint Tropez, restaurant manager Paul Forshaw takes a minute to ponder the loss of parking spots on the street right outside his restaurant. He doesn’t think it would hurt his business.

“Our clientele are loyal,” he says. “And you have to be here pretty early — or be lucky — to get a spot on the street.”

He even thinks it could be positive for the street to have fewer cars. It might help the ambience in an already popular area.

George Halpern, manager of the 309 bar on King, says no parking would make no difference.

“Most of our customers aren’t parked on the street,” he says. “Most customers are tourists, theatre-goers, or coming for a long dinner,” he said.

But Stella Arvanitis says there’s no parking lot that’s close to her Marathon Outdoor Adventure store, west of Peter St. Her business heats up when parking is allowed after rush hour at 6 p.m.

“I’m afraid if they extended it past six it would hurt our business,” she says. “We’d probably have to extend our business hours.”

She puts the blame for King’s problems squarely on illegally parked cars, cabs and delivery trucks.

5:15 p.m. King St. and Victoria st.: Lilly Leamon has walked from Bay St. to the first stop east of Yonge St. for her return trip to Parkdale. It’s the only way to get a seat.

“I have a nicer ride home,” she says. “When I’m on the streetcar home, that’s when the tiredness hits. My patience stops.”

Her trip home will crawl through the downtown core, picking up passengers, but not steam, until at least Bathurst St. It’s good to have a seat.

5:40 p.m. King St. and Shaw st.: Edna Marin is only part way home. She’s already had to shove her way onto the streetcar.

She feels stripped of her dignity.

“You’re so close that you’re invading other people’s privacy,” says Marin, 27, who is on her way to pick up her child from daycare. “You don’t get this close to your friends.”

She’s stuck waiting for the Ossington bus to take her on the next stage of her voyage. The ride to and from work is a daily frustration.

“If I could have a car I’d definitely have one.”