Today, July 27, 2007, marks the tenth anniversary of the Spadina streetcar/LRT. Despite the transit crises of past weeks, we celebrate an important birthday for the Spadina line and for our transit system.
I started writing this piece for the Jane’s Walk series back in late April, but there was just too much else going on, and it didn’t get finished in time.
Without Jane Jacobs and the many who fought beside her, there would be no Spadina streetcar, the heart of the Annex would be an expressway, and the renaissance of Spadina south from College would not have happened. Indeed, had the road designers had their way, Dundas would be widened out to six lanes through downtown to the DVP, and much of Chinatown would be arterial roads bereft of late 19th century architecture.
The many condos whose populations fill the King-Spadina-Front area would not be there because western downtown would be like so many other expressway cities, a sterile land of interchanges and new office blocks, but no people.
You can read more about the Spadina and other expressway plans on Transit Toronto’s site in the article by Sean Marshall.
Last year, June brought the 35th anniversary of the expressway’s death and a celebration by spacing magazine at Spadina House. That building, visible in some photos of the event, would have been demolished for the expressway’s interchange with the Crosstown Expressway.
Before Toronto’s streetcars were electrified, Spadina was a busy horse car route, so heavily loaded that tired horses had to be changed off regularly, a 19th-century variation on a fuelling stop.
Not long after the Toronto Railway Company took over in September 1891, the “Belt Line” route was inaugurated running via Bloor, Sherbourne and King as an amalgamation of the Spadina and Sherbourne routes, plus a part of Seaton Village. When the TTC took over, it was split off again as a separate route.
The Spadina car ran with double-end equipment from a crossover north of Front (roughly opposite Clarence Square) to a crossover at Bloor. In those days, Spadina ran straight north to Bloor rather than dodging to the west, and the crossover was roughly where the parkette on the SE corner lies today plus a bit of the northbound roadway.
For a time, the Spadina line ran over the “new” Spadina bridge at the railway lands to Fleet Street which met Spadina roughly where the Gardiner Expressway and Lake Shore Blvd are today.
The main part of the route was on a private right-of-way parts of which were lined with trees.
Many of the buildings in this area date from Toronto’s 1880s building boom of the 1880s that established Spadina’s importance in the growing city, especially for generations of immigrants.
Spadina has always been a busy commercial street. Just to the west between College and Dundas lies the Kensington Market that has not been destroyed by street widenings or other modern improvements. It survives in our anti-pedestrian era where no self-respecting shop can exist without at last a dozen parking spaces. Whether it can withstand the onslaught of gentrification remains to be seen.
North of College, we have another Toronto anomaly, a traffic circle around Knox College. If the expressway had been built, this troublesome edifice would have been demolished in the interest of speedy traffic flow.
An historical footnote: the crossover track remained on Spadina south of King buried under asphalt for years after service ended in 1948. The TTC mined the track for use at Humber Loop where the underpass to the Lake Shore ran with single track operation through the fall and winter of 1973/74 during bridge construction above. (The crossover for the other end came from Dufferin Street north of King, and, amazingly, the TTC put it back into the street where it remained until the King/Dufferin intersection was rebuilt.)
Although service on the Spadina route lasted until 1948 when the last double-ended cars were retired, the Harbord line continued running there south to Dundas until early 1966. With the opening of the Bloor Subway, the Harbord car became the Wellesley Bus. I was part of a merry band of railfans who rode many last trips that February night including the last Harbord car west from Pape and Danforth to Lansdowne Carhouse.
As an activist, my involvement with Spadina came in 1973 when the Streetcars for Toronto Committee proposed converting the line back from bus to streetcar operation. I must admit that I was a bit of a skeptic on this front, but Howard Levine, another SFTC member, convinced me that this would work. We proposed the line (including a loop at Adelaide, King and Charlotte that would wait three decades to be built) to favourable reception, in principle, at the TTC, but the project quickly ran into stiff opposition.
- Merchants complained about lost spaces with the conversion from angled to parallel parking.
- The TTC proposed removing several stops on the existing bus route claiming that the streetcar’s main purpose was to serve the expected development at “Metro Centre”. That development took decades to appear, and the primary demand is still north of Dundas Street.
- Council members misleadingly presented the right-of-way as a barrier down the street that would prevent pedestrians from crossing. The TTC didn’t help by emphasizing the fast service on a limited-access right-of-way.
- The Ontario Transportation Development Corporation published a GO-Urban photo mockup showing elevated trains on a “slender” guideway on Spadina at Harbord, and this totally confused people about what technology was on the table.
Spadina went onto the back burner, but the idea didn’t completely die. The Harbourfront line had the honour of being our first new streetcar line and opened in 1990. Harbourfront had its problems, many of which are unsolved to this day. Alas, the track was not built to the new standards, and as we have recently seen, it is falling apart and very noisy in places. Just the sort of thing to endear streetcars to the neighbours.
The access track on Spadina from King to Queen’s Quay saw only carhouse moves until the full Spadina line opened seven years later.
Once in operation, the Spadina line took a while to become established, but ridership grew because, for once, the amount of service on the street actually exceeded the demand most of the time. You could never accuse the TTC of overserving Spadina when it was a bus line.
Gradually, the link to the waterfront changed riding patterns. Instead of empty buses southbound at Dundas, the streetcars started picking up riders bound for Queen’s Quay, something that never would happen with the bus, if only because so few of them actually went that far south.
Pedestrian behaviour changed on Spadina too. With the protected right-of-way in the middle of the street, even on a frequent headway there was lots of room for pedestrians to get through. What was once impossible, or at least foolhardy, a mid-block crossing of Spadina, is now fairly common, and the expected barrier is actually an aid to pedestrian traffic.
The loading pattern for Spadina has changed so much that the Sunday morning service, at one car every 2 minutes, is more frequent than the morning rush hour. Demand on the line cries out for all-day, all-door loading with longer, low-floor cars, but that won’t come until a new generation of streetcars.
There remain problems with the traffic signals where “priority” means that automobiles go first, then the streetcars. The TTC and City are supposed to be working on this, but we’ve heard that story for nearly two years now.
Spadina isn’t perfect, it’s certainly not fast (no transit service in a dense corridor like Spadina could be), but it is carrying lots of riders with the potential to grow that the old 77 Spadina bus never had.
We can kvetch about the line tomorrow, but today’s a day for celebrations.
Happy Birthday Spadina Streetcar!
[For a detailed history of the Spadina line, please see James Bow’s article on the Transit Toronto site.
[If you want to get lost in the City Archives for a while, go to their page, select “Items that have been scanned”, enter “Spadina” in the keyword field and search. You will be there for a while.]