City grapples with King St. traffic
by Mike Beggs
The Toronto taxi industry had to settle for a partial exemption from the rules of the City’s upcoming King Street Pilot Project -- and words of praise from Mayor John Tory -- at Council on July 6.
In the pipeline for some time, the Pilot is designed to ease the gridlock along King Street, between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue, by turning it into a true “transit-priority” street. During the Pilot: traffic will be reduced from two to one lane in each direction along this 2.6-kilometre stretch (with the curb lane reserved for areas for loading, deliveries, cabs, and public space); cars will not be allowed to make left turns, and can only travel one major block before having to make a right turn; and some 180 parking spaces will be removed.
A Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) Staff report observed that King Street is the busiest surface transit route in the entire city, moving more than 65,000 riders on an average weekday, compared to only 20,000 vehicles.
“But King Street is not currently working well for transit,” it reads. “Streetcar service can be slow, unreliable, and erratic, with unpredictable travel times, especially during the rush hours, but also during some late evening and weekend times. People end up having to plan for the slowest trip. Along some parts of King Street, walking is sometime faster.”
The TTC’s chief executive officer Andy Byford said setting up this transit priority corridor would be beneficial in terms of journey time (along the busy 504 King St., and 514 Cherry St. lines), punctuality, throughput, and increased ridership.
Council voted 35-4 in favour of the Pilot.
“I think everybody agrees, King Street in its present form is dysfunctional. So to me, doing nothing wasn’t an option,” Mayor John Tory stated.
But in a last-minute concession to the cab industry and its supporters on Council, he came forward with a separate motion to exempt taxis from the Pilot restrictions between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., and to add approximately double the number of existing taxi stand spaces along King Street during the trial. This passed in a 38-1 vote.
While conceding that the City had not consulted with the cab industry early enough in the Pilot planning process, the Mayor suggested it had “come some way” in the past month or two.
“There’s no question in my mind, and I think many of the minds in this room, that the cab industry does represent an important part of the overall transportation system to get people around, especially at that time of night in that part of town,” he said.
He noted the exemption will facilitate cabs being able to help, “safely dissipate people from the night life activity on King Street West.”
This amendment came despite the objections of Byford, who argued that taxis are not part of the City public transit system (because they don’t carry near the volume of streetcars and buses) and warned that giving cabs a full exemption, “could undermine the transit-first objective of the pilot.” Staff reported that of the 20,000 vehicles utilizing King Street during the day one-quarter to one-third are taxis, and that can increase to 38 percent between 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on a Friday night when they’re getting people home from the night clubs.
Upon viewing a Staff report in May, taxi industry leaders requested to meet with the City on this issue. They argued that the Staff proposal would seriously impact on drivers’ ability to pick up flags on one of the city’s busiest streets.
Beck Taxi operations manager Kristine Hubbard maintained that taxis should be treated like streetcars and be allowed to pass through intersections, instead of being forced to turn right at the end of each major block. She noted that Beck dispatches almost 50 cabs to King Street each day between and 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., alone.
And she advocated that taxis ARE public transit, and are among the first called to help move people whenever the subway or streetcars go down.
After the vote, Toronto Taxi Alliance spokesman Sam Moini emphasized that the taxi industry “got something” from its intervention on this matter, with Staff recommending they receive no exemption whatsoever.
“We’re a little disappointed. We were hoping to get a full exemption. Unfortunately, the votes were not there,” he says.
“(But) I think late at night it will definitely benefit the drivers, because they’re the only ones who have access to that street – and it’s going to be quicker for passengers…We get double the cab stands during the trial, and at least taxis are the only ones getting the exemption.”
Moini welcomed the Mayor’s compliments about the cab industry.
“I think, at this point we have to work with our politicians, no matter what they’ve done in the past. And any time anybody says something positive about the taxi industry, I’m grateful,” he tells Taxi News. “(The Mayor) said we are a vital part of the transportation network in this city, and that he will work with us moving forward.”
But Lucky 7 Taxi owner Lawrence Eisenberg suggests the partial exemption amounted to little more than an olive branch from the City, in the wake of its preferential treatment for Uber over the past four years.
“That’s going to be an absolute disaster,” he says, of the Pilot Project. “You’re not going to be able to get out on King Street. You can only go one block. How is anybody going to get a cab?”
Previously a taxi driver for more than 40 years, Uber X driver Louis Seta agrees.
“What’s going to happen is, streetcars have priority on King St. but in the end it’s going to make it even worse,” he predicts. “If the streetcars have the right of way, how are the cabs going to (get through)? And what happens when the streetcar breaks down and there’s a lineup of streetcars in both directions, and the tow trucks are coming? It doesn’t matter once a blockage occurs whether the taxis are exempt or not, they’re stuck.”
And he feels the Mayor’s comments were nothing to bank on. “He’s not going to give them anything.” Seta adds. “He’s just telling them what they want to hear.”
From his vantage, veteran Mississauga plate owner Peter Pellier, likewise, viewed Tory’s praise as, “honey-tinged political speak.”
“The taxis should have been exempted 24x7,” he asserts. “To me, taxis are an adjunct to any transportation system, and should be fully exempted from these regulations. The partial exemption, that’s useless -- the worst problem is the day-time traffic, and the cabs don’t get any breaks (then).”
“It’s like finally granting cabs the right to use HOV lanes -- that was a no brainer. They don’t really care about the taxi industry. “
The Pilot Project will be launched in the late fall and run for a minimum of 12 months.