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A streetcar makes its way through traffic along King St., sections of which are slated to go car-free in a pilot project.A streetcar makes its way through traffic along King St., sections of which are slated to go car-free in a pilot project. (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star) | Order this photo

Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, published in the Star on Wednesday, about the kickoff of a plan to change how King St. works. Its title was: “It’s time to reimagine Toronto’s streetcar King.”

I disagree. The time to reimagine King St., and change how it works, was 20 years ago. But since we didn’t do it then, as the saying about planting trees and investing goes, now is the second best time.

Imagine a King streetcar line — which today carries 65, 000 passengers, more than the Sheppard subway or the Scarborough RT — where, instead of jam-packed vehicles inching along in traffic, they zoom along in lanes of their own.

Imagine those streetcars get traffic-signal priority, so they almost never have to stop at red lights. We could ramp up service to every minute or two as more streetcars get delivered (someday), making it a real alternative to using the subway into downtown — a genuine “relief line” that costs pennies for every subway-tunnelling dollar.

Imagine that streetcar travelling through some of the fastest-growing, busiest neighbourhoods in the city. Parkdale, Liberty Village, the bottle-service district, the Theatre District, the Financial District, St. Lawrence Market, Corktown — now imagine those places using King as a gateway high street or a town-square centre: wide sidewalks for strolling, patios for dining, chairs and benches for people-watching. Imagine it like a daily revolving street festival in the city’s corridor, with the highest concentration of jobs, a higher and higher concentration of homes and among the most thriving concentrations of bars, restaurants and cultural attractions in the city.

Imagine it as a safe and effective biking corridor, a route that means many of the people living in the neighbourhoods along it — those already most likely to consider cycling a real, attractive option — can forget the car and the Metropass and use two wheels to get to their jobs, their homes and their social lives.

There are logistics and details that you’ll have to fill in: motor vehicle lanes and routes for local traffic and deliveries, maybe for cabs; how the traffic flow on the pedestrian and streetcar corridor will work at all the vital intersections it travels through; exactly what kind of street we want it to be, exactly what kinds of downtown neighbourhood spaces we can use it to create.

Now, imagine it quickly. Because as was first reported here earlier this year, the plan is to start transforming King St. with a pilot project as early as next spring. And the public “Visioning Study” to determine what it should look like kicked off this week.

Can you imagine it? I almost can’t. I mean, clearly, I can call the ideas to mind. But it’s like a mirage whose focus dissolves when I try to see it as reality, or like a dream whose details recede out of reach as the grind of real waking life begins.

Because this is Toronto, where the best time to do this would have been 20 years ago, and where people have been saying, seriously, that we should do something like this for decades. And this is Toronto, where for decades proposals like this for King St. have been watered down or shot down by those afraid of change. And this is Toronto, where bold, wonderful ideas, especially ones that might take any inch of existing road space from car and truck drivers, get ground into dust. This is Toronto, where no transit project comes easy, or quick, or cheap, if it comes at all.

Keesmaat points out they have been doing things like this, to great success, in other cities such as Melbourne, Australia. The Pembina Institute has been running a series of blog posts about the concept and offers examples of how they’ve built transit corridors in San Francisco, Portland, New York, Vancouver and Wellington, New Zealand. Toronto has recruited some of the best urban design and planning agencies in the world to help.

Can we do it here? Make one of our busiest transit routes a good transit route? Make one of our best streets a great street?

Obviously we can. But will we do it here?

This is Toronto, where counting the streetcars before they rattle into service is always a sucker’s bet. I will believe it when I see it. But in the meantime I’ll imagine it — and perhaps if we all imagine out loud, we can make this long-dreamed vision a reality.



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