King Street: a mess of Uber proportions


One of the most frustrating things about living and working in central Toronto is having to rely on streetcars for east-west travel. This isn’t the fault of the streetcars; when free of traffic, they’re a smooth, fast and comfortable way to get around. But trapped in the quagmire that is downtown traffic, streetcars are painfully slow. They’re stuck behind left-turning cars and trucks. Cars plugging the curb lane, legally or not, force all traffic into the streetcars’ path. Replacing streetcars with buses isn’t a solution either; not only would more buses (and drivers) be required to match the each streetcar’s superior capacity, but buses would be forced to weave in and out of the curb lane around taxis, parked cars, delivery vans and other obstructions.

Rapid residential growth, both east and west of the downtown core, have overloaded the 504 King Streetcar. With 64,600 daily riders, it’s the busiest surface route in the system. The city has done little to facilitate this highrise boom in neighbbourhoods such as Corktown and the Distillery District in the east, and CityPlace, Liberty Village, Niagara, and Queen/Gladstone in the west. Further west, the highrise condos built at Humber Bay Shores must either rely on a painfully slow and unreliable ride on the 501 Queen Streetcar, take an infrequent double-fare express bus, or ride a bus up to the Bloor Subway.

No wonder then, Uber, the controversial firm that has delighted passengers with cheap transportation, but put the livelihoods of taxi drivers in jeopardy, launched UberHop, a variation of its “ride sharing” service that offers flat $5 rides between neighbourhoods along the King Streetcar and the downtown core. From a purely capitalist viewpoint, Uber is filling a need that’s been left unfulfilled.

Uber has been taking advantage of a city unwilling to regulate Uber’s “ride sharing” [I hate that term] service, a situation that’s unfair to taxi drivers, especially those with ambassador plates, who must be licensed, insured, and regulated by the city. Yes, it can be hard to be sympathetic to taxi drivers: they often refuse short rides, they pretend that their credit/debit machines don’t work, they are known for not picking up persons of colour. Customers love the convenience of hailing a cab from their phone and paying without hassle through an app.

Now, with UberHop, Uber is probably in violation of the TTC’s monopoly on public transportation within the City of Toronto. This is a law that’s been on the books since 1921, meant to protect the TTC from illegal jitneys and competition from private bus operators. It allows the system to cross-subsidize unprofitable routes that are necessary to form a complete network; private companies, without subsidies, would just cherry-pick profitable routes.

The TTC has not been able to fill a need. But like the failure to regulate Uber, and offer some fairness to taxi drivers, the City of Toronto is largely to blame. Underfunding the TTC, prioritising suburban projects, chasing pipe dreams like SmartTrack, has helped to create this mess on King Street. Yes, the TTC often suffers from poor management of surface routes, but it has been trying to come up with short-term solutions to King Street. Yet the city has stood in the way.

The Waterfront East streetcar, planned to facilitate development of Queen’s Quay East (and serving Corktown South and the Distillery District), is still unfunded, as is a plan to build a new Waterfront West LRT. But an unnecessary and pricey three-stop Scarborough Subway? Why not!

On King Street, the TTC now runs a supplementary 504 bus service, and will likely be introducing a new supplementary streetcar line, Route 514, between Dufferin Street and the new Cherry Street loop. This won’t solve any traffic problems; it might just add a few hundred more seats during the busiest times of the day.

A subway, like the oft-proposed and oft-ignored Downtown Relief Line would be a fine solution to east-west transit congestion in Downtown Toronto, especially if the route extended west of Downtown, serving neighbourhoods such as Niagara-Fort York, Liberty Village, Parkdale and Brockton. GO Regional Express Rail (RER), or John Tory’s “SmartTrack” could provide some relief to streetcars on King and Queen Streets, but trains would have to be frequent enough, stop in convenient locations, and have fares that are comparable with local transit. The cost to ride the half-hourly GO Train from Exhibition Station (adjacent to Liberty Village) to Union Station is, by far, the most expensive ride per distance traveled in Greater Toronto’s bus and rail network. Any regional rail-based solution has to account for this.

But there are short-term fixes that could help improve east-west transit. Back in 2001, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) proposed major changes to King Street. Reserved lanes, painted in 1993, didn’t work, and the police weren’t interested in enforcing the transit lanes, or ticketing cars and trucks illegally stopping or parking during rush hours, so the TTC wanted to try something more effective and permanent: it would ban all through traffic on King Street between Dufferin and Parliament Streets, while allowing deliveries, passenger drop-offs and other services in alternating curb lanes. Pedestrians would benefit from wider sidewalks, there would even be room for patios, greenery and programmed spaces. The result would be a reliable, efficient King Street for the majority of the street’s users – streetcar riders, and pedestrians. You can read more about it at Transit-Toronto, here.




TTC image illustrating the 2001 King Street streetcar right-of-way proposal. Image via Transit-Toronto.

The TTC’s ambitious, yet affordable, plan to improve King Street service was deep-sixed by Mel Lastman’s City Hall. Merchants complained about the loss of parking, about the difficulties of deliveries and garbage collection. They feared a loss of customers. (Never mind many, if not most of the restaurants’ clientele arrived by foot or transit.) It never had a chance.

Again, in 2007,  the TTC proposed a pilot project to improve operations on the King Streetcar during the summer months of 2008. It was a less ambitious proposal than the one pitched in 2001, which would only last during July and August, between Simcoe Street and Spadina Avenue. Again, local business owners and a car-friendly city council successfully opposed it.

But for a week in September, the city closes King Street entirely for the benefit of the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF hijacks the whole street for its own benefit, while the TTC and its customers are left inconvenienced. While TTC staff were against the closure, it was Scarborough’s Glenn De Baeremaeker, who championed the subway, who whines about how Scarborough “deserves” a subway in the absence of facts, and whose motion sunk a fully-funded LRT expansion, moved the TIFF-friendly motion. In his mind, I guess, King streetcar riders weren’t deserving enough.

I’m not a fan of Uber, though I grudgingly acknowledge that it has done exceedingly well identifying a problem in the marketplace and coming up with a solution, whether taxi drivers, plate owners, and municipal governments like it or not. Meanwhile, the city planned and approved residential development along the King and Queen Street corridors, and new office space downtown, yet has done almost nothing to help move the new residents and employees. UberHop is the symptom; an ineffective municipal government is the problem.

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9 Responses to King Street: a mess of Uber proportions

  1. A different view says:

    The city is largely to blame? No. The funding structure that makes Toronto’s tax dollars barely touch the city is to blame. You blame ineffectual municipal governance, when the province and the federal government rely on Toronto as one of their main generators of population and gdp growth without investing nearly enough back. Also, what is your issue with Uber?

    Numerous issues with Toronto’s cab system have been brought to light because of them appearing–for example refusal to take club goers home for less than an illegal flat rate charge. Refusals of service. Reckless driving (something they have been caught doing on purpose around Uber drivers to “teach them a lesson”).

    That girl who was shot as a bystander in a gun fight outside of musik night club last year? She was refused service by a cabbie who said she wasn’t going far enough to merit taking her home.

    Uber is a symptom of the ineffectual management of monopoly operations both within the TTC and the cab companies. At the point where an uber takes $20 for an hour of driving, and the TTC takes nearly the same amount for four people to go one way on the subway–which do you think people would prefer? The TTC needs to stop starting projects it does not have the funding to complete, and to focus on maintaining what it does have.

    How people are going to be planners and study the Places to Grow Act, and The Big Move which are provincial regulations and then shift the blame back on the municipality is beyond me.

    Canada doesn’t have proportional representation so we end up with candidates we didn’t vote for. Canada doesn’t have proportional wealth distribution, so we end up with not enough funding where the majority of people live. Big surprise.

    Don’t blame the city.

    • I don’t care much for anonymous comments, especially when they’re somewhat hostile, like the above. But in the interest of a fair and lively debate, I’ll approve this and respond.

      I’m not sure you fully read my post, “A different view.” I explained why I find it difficult to sympathize with cab drivers, and why I understand Uber’s popularity – I’ll quote from this post’s fourth paragraph:

      “Yes, it can be hard to be sympathetic to taxi drivers: they often refuse short rides, they pretend that their credit/debit machines don’t work, they are known for not picking up persons of colour. Customers love the convenience of hailing a cab from their phone and paying without hassle through an app.”

      But Uber drivers aren’t licensed, insured, or regulated. Cab drivers had to jump through many hoops to do so. Uber pretends to be a “ride sharing” service, in order to get around these regulations. That’s my problem with Uber.

      And yes, the city is largely to blame, though you’re right that the provincial and federal governments have been short-changing Toronto for decades. But the city could have done something about the King Streetcar and its passengers but implementing the transit mall, or even a trial project. They could have made the Downtown Relief Line a top priority, instead of a Scarborough Subway or Tory’s half-baked Smart Track. Metrolinx and the province are largely building transit based on the wish-lists of municipalities. The city chooses again and again to put car drivers before transit – the recent decision to build the more expensive “hybrid” Gardiner East replacement, rather than the less-expensive, yet more beneficial, Boulevard option.

  2. Gary Graham says:

    Hi Sean
    Just like Professor Margret Kohn said ” downtown cognoscenti” are only concerned about their own well being and downtown interest.
    73% of Toronto ( Ford & Tory ) voted for a Scarborough Subway Extension.
    Enjoy your walk everywhere and bike commuting culture. We treasure our mobility.
    The Subway is a high speed trunk line to park at or be dropped off.
    Thanks Gary

    • Hi Gary,

      Actually, I am very fortunate to be able to walk to work. I have no self interest when I advocate for a Relief Line subway, the longer and more useful Scarborough LRT, or a King Street transit right-of-way.

      I don’t feel much like debating Margaret Kohn’s unhelpful and needlessly provocative column, but she provided no real evidence of a need for a subway that would cost $2 billion more than the approved, financed and “shovel ready” LRT replacement. I suggest you read Ed Keenan’s response:

      The relief line really doesn’t serve the “downtown cognoscenti” but commuters from the inner suburbs and to a lesser extent, residential districts to the east and west, who must crowd aboard stuffed subway trains and streetcars.

      Thanks for reading and responding.


  3. Kevin Reidy says:

    I think the some of the problem is due to lack of foresight. The city (or maybe metro if we go far enough back) should have insisted on a setback for all those new buildings in Liberty village, etc
    This would have allowed for the widening of King Street and the creation of a dedicated streetcar line. Obviously there would have been gaps but they may have disappeared over time with new construction. Even if the construction wasn’t on King Street proper but on a side street, there could have been a requirement to provide short-term parking. That would serve the businesses around the corner on King Street who might find parking in front of their establishments restricted. Another area they could have dealt with is the financial district where all the big “bank towers” are located. Many of these have plazas, underground loading docks, etc. but we the curb lane occupied by taxis waiting for potential passengers, delivery trucks, couriers etc.

  4. Dan Lee says:

    When the municipal government spends $75 million in LRT cancellation costs, switches to a billion+ BD-extension, approves $30 million on new fare gates for Presto, but doesn’t put money in basic maintenance (for example, it would cost $20 million to fix the streetcar switches instead of having drivers get out with a broom when it snows to see if the switch is properly set), it’s tough to swallow the government’s (both municipal and provincial) “we don’t have any money” pill.

    Yet there is always plenty of money available when it comes to a pet project, this is very apparent on the provincial level (Greg’s Vaughan subway, UPX, Presto) but occurs on the municipal level as well (Mel’s Sheppard line, Ford’s Scarborough line). More money will not fix the real issue – the complete absence of good governance.

  5. Ted Syperek says:

    Thanks for a good article. I found it via Ed Keenan’s musing about Uber. And here is Lloyd Kahn on a similar kick (

    Good government and honesty – we have been yearning for these things for thousands of years, but our cities still endure. Maybe Uber will go big time and get into providing a more efficient alternative municipal government structure. They seem to be heading in that direction. Corporate takeover of a municipality – can it happen?

    cheers, Ted

  6. andy says:

    I would like to talk to someone further about viable options for King and Queen.

  7. Pingback: 2015’s unfinished city business: mayors’ transportation plan | FAST

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