TORONTO - A complex new project aimed at tackling transit woes along a bustling street in Canada's most populous city got its first real test with commuters Monday, drawing mixed reactions from motorists and transit users.
The King Street pilot project in Toronto has banned cars from travelling straight through a busy stretch of the downtown road cutting through the city's financial and entertainment districts, with only a few exceptions.
The project — which launched Sunday and will run for a year — aims to give priority to streetcars along what is the busiest surface transit route in the city. The thoroughfare, where streetcars travel in the centre lanes, has been plagued by slow travel speeds and overcrowding.
During Monday's morning rush hour, transit users and drivers expressed varying opinions on the new rules in effect.
For one regular commuter, the project seemed an initial success.
"I think it's great, I really do," said Eve Lyons, who either walks a two-kilometre stretch along King Street or takes the streetcar to work every weekday. "This will take me about eight minutes now, rather than 20, 25 minutes."
Lauren Irwin, another commuter who takes the streetcar to and from work, was also optimistic about the project.
"I think it might make it a little bit faster, if today is an example," she said. "Less car traffic the better. More people should take public transit."
For some drivers, however, the changes appeared unexpected and caused confusion.
Jake Frachette sat dejected in his car after being pulled over by a police officer on the street after he drove through a busy intersection.
"Honestly, I had no idea about this," he said. "I guess it's good for commuters, I don't know, but it's also kind of annoying."
It will take time for drivers to grow accustomed to the new rules, police acknowledged.
Const. Clint Stibbe, with Toronto police's traffic services, said they issued warnings to dozens of drivers during Monday morning's rush hour commute.
Police are giving drivers a week's grace before they start handing out tickets — $110 and two demerit points — for going straight through many intersections on King Street in the downtown core, he said.
Motorists are largely only permitted to drive one block before having to turn right, and there is no on-street parking in the pilot area. Taxis are allowed to travel through the intersections only between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Left-hand turns are also banned on the stretch of King Street where the pilot project is taking place, between Jarvis and Bathurst streets.
"The way I'm looking at it, if you're at a light, make a right," Stibbe said.
For the Toronto Transit Commission, the pilot project was much needed.
"This is all about giving the 65,000 people who ride the streetcar every day priority versus 20,000 cars on the street every day," said TTC spokesman Brad Ross. "In some cases you can walk faster than by taking the streetcar and that's not right."
Inspiration for the project comes partly from Europe, Ross said, where several cities have streetcars with dedicated rights of way, he said. The challenge in Toronto is it's one of the few cities in the world where streetcars share the road with vehicles, he said.
The goal of the project, Ross said, is simple.
"It's about making the corridor transit and pedestrian friendly," he said. "We advertise a streetcar every four minutes, so we should have a streetcar arrive every four minutes."
The TTC will prepare a full report at the project's conclusion and take it to their board and then city council with recommendations.
Murtaza Haider, a transit expert and professor of management at Toronto's Ryerson University, praised the project.
"Without such pilot projects, we'd all be speaking hypothetically. I commend the city for taking the plunge and doing it and they're doing it correctly, collecting data before, during and after," he said, adding that he is performing his own research on the project.
Haider is skeptical, however, of the project's ability to change transit users' commutes drastically.
"We may find that almost nothing's changed, which, I think, is the most likely scenario," Haider said. "But the only way to know is to do it."