05/14/2013 02:59 EDT | Updated 07/13/2013 05:12 EDT

St. Clair Avenue Right-of-Way? "It's Great"!

St. Clair Avenue right-of-way? "It's great"!

While having a coffee with a friend at one of the terrific new cafes on St. Clair Avenue West, I decided to do an informal and unscientific survey of people's opinions about the St. Clair Avenue right-of-way. "It's great!" was the common refrain.

When I probed a little deeper, people spoke about the wonderful rejuvenation that has occurred on St. Clair. Excellent new restaurants, cafes, shops and an incredible sense of street life and community have emerged in a neighbourhood that 10 years ago had a large number of small businesses that were struggling to survive. For them, the investment that the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission made to create the St. Clair right-of-way has been a roaring success.

Opportunity was knocking

While rejuvenation was hoped for, it wasn't the main purpose of the right-of-way. The main purpose was to take advantage of the opportunity that the required replacement of the rails on St. Clair offered to significantly improve transit.

The St. Clair Avenue right-of-way is not, as some believe, an LRT. Its stops are simply too close together to provide the kind of rapid transit service an LRT can provide. It is, however, a reserved right-of-way streetcar - an incredibly important step to providing reliable, on-time and rapid public transit for the residents living in the vicinity of St. Clair Avenue.

Why is a right-of-way so important? In a single word -- efficiency. Adding a curb that keeps cars out of the streetcar right-of-way eliminates the biggest obstacle to transit efficiency, which is that one person in a car turning left delays a streetcar of over one hundred people.

These types of delays, when aggregated over the course of a transit line, result in a phenomenon all regular transit riders know and loathe: a lack of on-time, on-schedule service, to the point where streetcars that are scheduled to arrive 7 minutes apart will arrive 28 minutes apart in groups of four.

This unreliability is probably the biggest single reason that people who can avoid bus service in Toronto do -- and why many people grumble about streetcar service, particularly in rush hour. The old adage "there's never a bus when you need one, and when you don't there are two" is all too true.

The right-of-way facts

So much has been written about the right-of-way that it's important to clarify the facts. In 2004, the TTC determined that it was time to replace the rails on St. Clair. This is a regular process that is scheduled to happen approximately every 20 years. This provided an opportunity, at a relatively low cost, to significantly improve the transit experience of St. Clair Avenue riders while minimizing disruption, by adding a curb at the same time.

By doing this work together, significant cost reductions were achieved, and disruption to the community minimized -- the road would have been torn up anyway to replace the rails.

But there were delays. Some merchants battled the process in court -- and the City of Toronto made some key project management mistakes. These included entering into too many small contracts with too many suppliers and not coordinating work well enough between Toronto Hydro, the parking authority, the roads department and the TTC. The fact is, however, that almost all of the disruption would have occurred any way, even without the building of the right-of-way, as replacing the rails was a massive project in itself.

The results are in

The results confirm the reason the project was undertaken in the first place. For a relatively small additional amount above the already required $60 million cost of replacing the rails, St Clair transit riders now enjoy a much more reliable transit experience. In addition, the investment has created a mini-boom on many parts of St. Clair and rejuvenated the neighbourhood. And with the improved service, more people are choosing to ride the streetcar on St. Clair and leave their car at home -- a result that benefits car drivers as well, as does any rapid transit project.

Is there inconvenience to drivers? Yes, in some places drivers have to do a U-turn in order to access the local street. But the benefits to the transportation network as a whole significantly outweigh this minor inconvenience. Ridership is up on St. Clair, transit is better, and the community is being rejuvenated. Best of all, public funds were expended in a very efficient manner, taking advantage of opportunities where they arose.

With the difficult construction process now behind us, and a beautiful neighbourhood emerging, it's no wonder I keep hearing the same two words when people talk about St. Clair: "It's great!"

Early Spring along St. Clair West in Toronto