How TIFF lost the plot

IMG_4193-001.JPG504 King Streetcar diverting onto Spadina on Thursday, September 5

For the sixth year in a row, King Street between University and Spadina Avenues was closed for four straight days. This closure was for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) “Festival Street,” which took place between Thursday September 5 and Sunday September 8. In addition, King Street was closed during the afternoon rush hours the following Monday and Tuesday for “Red Carpet Events.”

TIFF has been recognized among the world’s most important film festivals, and one where the public has the opportunity to take part (albeit at increasingly inaccessible prices for many screenings). It offers tremendous economic and cultural value to Toronto. It compliments and helps to support many other annual film festivals, such as Hot Docs and Inside Out.

But TIFF’s clout and influence has also led to entitlement, with “Festival Street” being the most disruptive result. While King Street is closed off to traffic during the film festival, it has severe effects for the 84,000 daily riders of the 504 King Street, as well as riders on the busy 501 Queen and 510 Spadina cars.

IMG_4191-001.JPG
501 Queen and 504 King Streetcars stuck in traffic westbound at Queen and Spadina

Several major TIFF screening locations are located on or near King Street West, including Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and two blocks north, the Scotiabank Cinemas. Industry parties and galas are held at nearby hotels and restaurants. It’s natural that King Street would be a hub of activity for the film festival. But it is also the third busiest transit route in Toronto, after the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth subways.

The King Street Pilot, which began in late 2017, prohibits through motor vehicle traffic on King Street between Jarvis and Bathurst Streets through the downtown core, though all vehicles are permitted to use King Street for short segments. Despite spotty enforcement, the pilot project allowed the TTC to operate much more reliably through the busy corridor, with an increase of capacity and ridership. In early 2017, daily ridership on the 504 King was 72,000. By March 2018, it grew to 84,000. In April, council voted to make the pilot permanent. This will allow for streetscape improvements along the corridor and wider sidewalks, with improved physical measures to further restrict through traffic.

A lot of political capital went into making King Street work better, so it is disappointing to see all that advocacy for a proper transit corridor go to waste while TIFF is in town. Torontonians are promised each year would be the last year streetcar service would be wrecked for TIFF, but every mid-August, we find out otherwise. 

IMG_9955Route 504 King Diversions during “Festival Street” for 2019

The 504 streetcar, currently operating as two branches (504A between Dundas West Station and Distillery Loop and 504B between Dufferin Street and Broadview Station), was changed significantly during the four days in September. The TTC provided a confusing map (see above) illustrating the diversions for the 504 and 508 streetcars, and the 304 night service (where a special shuttle bus would also be provided).

The 504B, which provides overlapping service with the 504A in the rapidly growing Liberty Village and King West districts, would loop around downtown, via York, Queen, and Church Streets. Route capacity to Liberty Village was effectively cut in half. Queen Street would be crammed with streetcars, with backups at intersections at Queen and Spadina and Church and King, as streetcars made their turns, fighting their way through traffic congestion.

IMG_0074.jpgSign indicated a closure Sept.5 to 8 for “Festival Street” but did not warn of closures on the afternoons of Sept. 9 and 10. Photo taken on Sept. 9.

The same congestion manifested again during the afternoon rush hours of Monday September 9 and Tuesday September 10, without the same amount of warning. Streetcars once again diverted via Queen, York, and Church, with TTC guides at stops providing information to passengers on where to find their streetcars.

On Tuesday, it took ten minutes for a 501 streetcar to get from Bay to University Avenue, with the TIFF closures being a significant reason for the delay.

So why close King Street to streetcars, anyway?

In 2013, the year before “Festival Street” began, King Street was closed to all traffic, with the exception of streetcars and TIFF vehicles, with police and security enforcing the closures. Barricades along the curb lanes allowed for ticket-holder and rush queues and contained fans and curious onlookers. Streetcars had to move slowly in front of the Princess of Wales Theatre (as there were stargazers looking to see celebrities like George Clooney), but it worked.

While “Festival Street” makes it easy for TIFF operations in front of its main venues (red carpet photo-ops and screening queues, it’s primary purpose is for sponsors to display advertisements and set up booths, such as the L’Oréal cosmetics promotion.

IMG_4176-001.JPGStreetcar tracks occupied with movie posters and advertisements

Pedestrians walking through King Street are warned of filming, and told that by entering, they consent to their personal information and image to be used by TIFF and its partners in perpetuity, even if you’re walking to Spadina Avenue to get your diverted streetcar. This is, in effect, the privatization of a public space.

IMG_9988.jpgThe disclosure notification for TIFF’s “Festival Street”

To me, the most frustrating vendor booth on King Street was the sponsored Lyft booth. While thousands of transit commuters are disrupted, TIFF is promoting a competing ride-sharing company.

IMG_9995.jpgThe irony of disrupting thousands of commuters transit with a sponsored booth for Lyft

On Monday, streetcars were being diverted during the afternoon rush hour for a “Red Carpet Event” at the Princess of Wales Theatre. I thought that this could have made a great streetcar reservation, as done in 2013. Instead, pedestrians were directed to the south sidewalk, and there, diverted to get around fans looking for a glimpse of Meryl Streep.

IMG_0075.jpgThis could have made a great streetcar right-of-way

IMG_0078.jpgEven pedestrians are detoured at the whims of TIFF

TIFF’s entitlement when it comes to its annual take-over of King Street makes it clear that it can be a better community citizen. I am sure there are compromises that can be made that would ensure the tens of thousands of streetcar riders pass unencumbered, while maintaining TIFF’s operations during the busy time. There’s no excuse for the advertisers to take over King Street, and there’s no good reason why the 2013 compromise can’t be enacted today to maintain safety and security as well as the public right to use the street. But TIFF is very influential and lobbies hard for getting what it wants from the city. (Mayor John Tory’s sister, Jennifer Tory, is chair of TIFF’s board of directors.)

TIFF started out as a film festival that would be accessible to the public with open screenings, question-and-answer sessions, and opportunities to spot movie stars. But by taking over King Street and making life more difficult for many Torontonians, it has lost the plot. Itruly hope that 2019 will be the last year for this nonsense, but I won’t hold my breath.

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