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New York City following Toronto’s lead with its own version of the King Street pilot

New York City is taking a page from Toronto’s transit book with a plan to limit vehicle traffic on one of its busiest streets, drawing inspiration from what began as the King Street pilot.

The Toronto project became permanent in April, and while it’s come a long way from the early days of protests and push back from some local businesses, general manager of city transportation Barbara Gray acknowledges it’s still a work in progress.

Partially dismantled shells of transit shelters still sit on the wrong side of the street, she admits. But the plan is to remove those by October, Gray says.

“The first priority was on transit speed and reliability … and I think what we learned is if we did that, people would come,” Gray said.

Former Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford, who now holds the top job at the New York City Transit Authority, is banking on just that.

‘Streetcars were hopelessly mired in traffic’

Speaking to CBC News from New York on Thursday, Byford recalled standing in the King Street and University Avenue area some years ago and realizing there had to be a change.

“Our streetcars were hopelessly mired in traffic, crept along at a snail’s pace and something radical had to be done.”

The idea was to get people and streetcars moving faster along one of the city’s busiest transit routes. Byford says at first he wanted to eliminate all personal vehicles from the street. In the end, cars were allowed to drive a short distance, but are forced to exit soon afterward or risk getting ticketed.

On New York’s busy 14th Street, says Byford, the situation isn’t very different from King Street before the pilot.

“You could walk more quickly than you could go on the bus,” he said.

Naturally, New York transit officials decided to send a team up to Toronto to see how King Street was faring, he said. And while the transformation there may not yet be entirely complete, Byford says it has met key performance indicators that were set out at the start of the project: to increase ridership and reduce journey time.

“I take satisfaction that that radical proposal has in fact worked, and credit to the TTC workers and the City of Toronto,” he said.

The 14th Street project isn’t without its challenges, though. A legal challenge is underway in New York around whether the city should be able to require people to turn off of the street after one block.

‘Not everybody was happy’

It’s a challenge all-too familiar to Gray, who says a key part of the moving the vision for King Street forward was to engage with the businesses and BIAs.

“Not everybody was happy … but I do think that people are seeing the value of making King Street an extension of their business,” she said, adding 12,000 additional transit riders have come to King Street over the course of the pilot.

Cyclists and pedestrians who spoke with CBC News say there’s still work to be done. Some say they’ve almost been hit by streetcars, still have to dodge vehicle traffic and pedestrians.

Gray says changes are coming that should help.

“We will soon light up signs that show the turn restrictions. Those make it a lot easier for drivers to do the right thing,” she said, adding police are still patrolling the area.

“I think what you’re going to see between now and when the snow flies in the winter time is increasingly more improvements to King Street that really add to the vibrancy.”

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