A year into King Street pilot project, it's not clear if metrics or politics will decide its fate

As it marks its first anniversary, an experiment in giving transit, pedestrians and cyclists priority on a main downtown thoroughfare remains a polarizing and politically charged pilot project.

One year ago Monday, the city closed King Street to through traffic, except for TTC vehicles and emergency services, between Jarvis and Bathurst streets. 

The trial run has been celebrated in some circles and denounced in others, drawing divisions among many who spend their days in the area. 

"It's quite pointless to be honest," said Erica Karbelnik, 29, a chef who lives and works along the test corridor. "Streetcars are still backed up and they are still packed, especially at five o'clock."

She's been left waiting more than 30 minutes for a spot as streetcars too full to take on more passengers rolled by, she said. 

"I don't think it's improved anything. I think it's just been a waste of tax dollars, to be honest. Sorry to put that harshly, but that's how I feel," said Karbelnik.

Others, like Don Hutton, say the stretch of King Street under study is much improved. Most especially for pedestrians, thanks to a renewed streetscape that features art installations and seating. 

"If anything it's nicer to come down here," said Hutton, 35, who works as a professional dog trainer.

Evan Mitsui/CBC

"Yeah, I'm in favour of it. I always hear that argument about how it's affected businesses poorly, but you hear that whenever you put in like bike lanes or you do whatever restricts car access and parking."

City staff have so far declined to comment publicly on the future of the experiment, saying instead they will wait for the pilot project to run its course through to the end of December. 

"Staff are expected to bring a report that includes details related to the King Street Pilot to an upcoming meeting of the executive at city council," said Eric Holmes, a spokesperson with the city, in an email. 

Data for September and October will be available in the coming weeks, says Holmes. However, a timeframe for when November and December data will be available has not yet been determined.

The city's chief planner, Gregg Lintern, wants the timeframe of the $1.5 million project to be extended to give staff time to properly analyze the data. 

"We've got to finish with all that data collection and get a really good solid analysis undertaken so we can give some good advice to council about whether or not this should become permanent and how it could be employed — in some way, shape or form — in other areas of the city," Lintern told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Monday. 

TTC says pilot has improved reliability

From the Toronto Transit Commission's perspective, the pilot project has been a resounding success.

"There were three things that the TTC said it wanted to measure: ridership, reliability and travel time. And those three measures, from a transit perspective, were what we wanted to see improvements on, and we have seen improvements in all three," said TTC spokesperson Brad Ross.

Ridership data before the pilot indicated 72,000 riders a day on the 504 King car, which is the TTC busiest surface route in the entire network. The latest figures indicate that's  grown to 84,000 boardings, a 12 per cent boost in all-day ridership, according to Ross. 

As for travel time, the trip during peak traffic hours eastbound between Bathurst and Jarvis streets before the pilot was about 15 minutes and three seconds. Ross said that figure has been reduced to 14 minutes.

"And so you may think, well, that's only a minute and point three seconds. It actually makes a significant difference over the course of a route, because that means that reliability then improves. We've seen a reliability improvement of about 82 per cent," said Ross.

Philip Lee-Shanok/CBC

"Yes, it's crowded in the early morning peak, especially through Liberty Village and eastbound toward the downtown core. Absolutely. But it's a vast improvement to what it was and we continue to work on making it better," he said.

TTCriders, a transit advocacy group with close ties to unions, recently held a Twitter forum on the topic. The organization said the pilot project has made its members commutes more reliable. 

"The King Street Pilot Project has dramatically improved the quality of the ride for me between my home, which is off Roncesvalles, and work, which is downtown," said John Richmond, TTCriders member and regular King streetcar user.

 But he agreed that the ultimate success or failure of the project has become politicized.

"Transit is always a political issue by its very nature," Richmond said. "I think a lot of the public understand there are vested interests and change is difficult."

Lintern pointed out that the project has had a "very limited impact" on downtown drivers. 

"The traffic impacts have been absorbed in the background traffic of the city's downtown," he said. "That's also very positive for the battle on congestion that is so much on top of people's minds."

Disagreements about data

But along with forcing drivers to turn right at the end of each block, the pilot project has also meant the loss of 180 parking spots on the street. Some King Street business owners say that, on top of traffic restrictions, has hurt their bottom line.

Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, said members felt the impact immediately and some never recovered. Eleven restaurants in the area have closed since the pilot began, according to Elenis. 

"Some of them chains, some of them independent restaurants. So that also has to be looked at ... eleven restaurants, in an area that used to have dynamite business before, are gone. It is totally not a success story."

Over the past year, the city ran promotions, including two-hour free parking, free lunches and a competition to build street art installations.

Michael Charles Cole/CBC

The city also released customer spending data showing an increase of 0.3 per cent year-over-year between May and June.

"The change that we've seen in the first six months of the pilot project timeline has been very similar to the economic life of the area in the last six months before the pilot started," said Lintern. 

But Elenis argued that conclusion was misleading. The data came from only one payment processor — Moneris Solutions Corp. — and not only included businesses in the pilot area but also transactions done by businesses on the PATH network within the study area.

He is not the only person who has concerns about the quality of the data being provided.

Robin Lobb is executive director of the Toronto Entertainment District Residents Association.

"Crucial minutes have been saved for what will be millions of riders and no one can argue with that data," Lobb wrote in a statement to CBC Toronto.

Oliver Walters/CBC

"[But] a year of the change has revealed serious differences in views on data integrity as diverse stakeholders wielded reports with varying success."

And there is another issue that has dogged the pilot, as well. It's still quite common to see drivers break the rules and continue right through the intersections.

Toronto police traffic services report that since the pilot project began they have handed out 8,574 tickets for either "disobey sign" or "proceed contrary to sign at intersection." Both potentially carry a $110 fine and two demerit points on conviction.