Poor Research Sinks Bus Advocate

It’s unusual for folks like me who run a blog to reply to a letter that has not yet been seen by most of the public. However, there are times when advocates need to jump in with both feet.

[I have omitted the writer’s name here because the problem lies with misinformation and selective use of data, not with the writer himself.]

Yesterday, the following email went to several politicians at the City and Queen’s Park, as well as the Toronto Star and Transit Toronto.  James Bow at that site passed it on to me, along with follow-up exchanges between him and the author.

Here is the original letter:

Subject: Historical perspective on Streetcars and Buses

Date: Sat, 29 Apr 2006

To make Toronto better, the city needs to convince the TTC to end its love affair with the streetcar as it is truly an obsolete relic from the past.  The superior alternative is to expand the bus service using electric, hydrogen, or hybrid engines to reduce emissions, and immediately cease all new streetcar expansion, gradually retiring the streetcar service.  The Orion VII Low-Floor Hybrid buses recently purchased by the TTC for example use 25% less fuel and generate 40% less greenhouse gases than current buses.

Streetcars are much more expensive to run and maintain due to track maintenance and repair of overhead power lines.  In fact, every engineering report ever written acknowledges the extra cost of the streetcar service, an extra cost that is not justified when the TTC is supposedly pursing a policy of fiscal restraint.

No longer should we accept the tired old line from the TTC that streetcars carry more passengers than buses, and have no exhaust.  Streetcars may carry more passengers at peak times, but this is nothing that could not be over come with the use of an extra bus.  Moreover, when a streetcar runs at non-peak times you are using much more electricity than a bus at equivalent capacity.  The pollution excuse has really “exhausted” my patience because we all know that the electricity in the lines must come from somewhere, and these days that somewhere is likely one of the coal-burning power plants in Ontario or in the United States.  Few people know that streetcars generate 3.5 times more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per passenger kilometer than a standard bus, and even more compared to newer high efficiency buses.  VOCs are known to have human health effects ranging from carcinogenicity to neurotoxicity, and they contribute to the formation of ground level ozone.

Finally streetcars are less agile, blocking traffic when picking up large groups of passengers, whereas buses can move in and out of traffic allowing vehicles to pass at stops along the route.  Buses are much more flexible in that they can be deployed on any route, at any time, without consideration to the limited track system.  And the tracks and overhead electrical lines required to run the streetcars are just plain ugly.

I urge the citizens of Toronto to imagine a city without ugly tracks and power lines criss-crossing our beautiful streets and sky-scapes.  Cost savings and increased efficiency of the public transportation system lay at the end of the road should we be forward-thinking and finally break free of the shackles of the streetcar.  For those of us who enjoy reminiscing, we could always keep a few streetcars running near the waterfront and offer free streetcar rides to children whose parents will tell stories of a time when streetcars lumbered around our busy streets.  Maybe, we could even have a horse and buggy route for further historical perspective.  Wake up Toronto, it’s time to send our streetcars to the scrap yards and history books.  It’s time to move on!

I’m only going to hit the high points:

  • The writer makes no distinction between electric, hydrogen or hybrid buses.  There’s a big difference.  Only hybrid buses are under consideration here because we got rid of our trolleybus network (for natural gas buses, remember those?), and nobody has managed to make a commercial hydrogen fuelled vehicle.
  • There is no question that the new hybrid buses are cleaner than the vehicles they will replace, but they cost 50% more to buy.  Also, diesel buses are a lot cleaner than they used to be, and the relative advantage of alternatives is not as great as it was a decade ago.
  • The reference to extra costs of streetcar operations claimed here are taken from a report that used TTC data from an era where the track was falling apart due to bad design and construction, and the overhead reconstruction was barely underway.  Any industry that neglects its infrastructure, or even worse builds for the short term, is going to be hit with huge costs.  That’s what happened to the TTC streetcar system, but the situation is now under control thanks to the reconstruction program that will be completed in 2008.
  • The claim that streetcars generate 3.5 times more VOCs than buses per passenger km is, putting it mildly, not supported by the very source material cited by the writer in followup correspondence.  (See the postscript below.)  In brief, the source he cites is selectively quoted by him, and that paper has, in turn misquoted its own primary source, Environment Canada.
  • The “agility” of buses is a favourite complaint of motorists.  However, on the narrow downtown streets, buses tend to have problems pulling out of traffic and manage to block lanes at busy stops.  Moreover, the number of buses needed to carry comparable loads to streetcars would greatly add to congestion.
  • On the matter of aesthetics, I will take track and overhead over bus exhaust any day.  Yes, some streets like St. Clair and Dundas are still falling apart thanks to the badly built old track.  This is not the case on Carlton, Queen, King and Bathurst where most of the track has been rebuilt to new standards.
  • The remainder of the letter is not germane, and is a rant against old technology rather than a substantive argument.  Frankly, it colours what went before by appealing to emotion rather than to fact.

In follow-up correspondence, the writer cites a TTC report on streetcar expansion stating that no route is suitable because there are none with demands above 3,000 passengers per hour.  This was written nine years ago when the TTC and the City were not aggressively pursuing LRT technology and riding had stagnated.  Now that the transit system is growing again, we need something more than buses, but less than subways to handle intermediate demands.  That is an integral part of the new Official Plan.

If we were really interested in reducing energy consumption and pollution, we might turn our attention to subway lines.  The cost in energy and pollution per passenger km to build and operate an underutilised line like Sheppard is horrendous.  It may get the buses (or streetcars) out of motorists’ way, but at what cost?

Finally, our writer states (I am not making this up)

“… diesel fuel is there for the taking in the ground and requires no energy to produce it”.

I have never seen such complete drivel in over 30 years of transit advocacy.  Diesel fuel is not a raw material and requires significant effort, cost and energy to refine and transport to market.  Moreover, new sources of petroleum-based fuels are getting more energy-intensive to produce (notably fuel from the Tar Sands).

It would be nice to just stick a straw in the ground and pump directly into a bus, but things don’t work like that.


The cited source material for the VOC pollution claims is from the Transportation Association of Canada at this link.

There is a chart on page 3 that compares the emissions of various modes. It is preceded by this text:

Contribution by Mode

When measured in terms of emissions per passenger kilometre, a measure that allows comparisons acrossmodes, passenger cars emit nearly three times as much CO2 and NOx as a standard urban bus assuming typical load factors.  Even at load factors as low as six passengers per bus, a bus consumes less fuel and produces fewer emissions per passenger-kilometre than a car carrying a single occupant. Transit options that rely on electrical power generation produce even less emissions — such as subways, light rail vehicles, trolley buses and streetcars.

Strangely, there is a chart that shows rail emissions for VOC at a level much higher than buses, and this is the data our author relies on.  However, this chart is itself supposedly based on a report from Environment Canada.  The table in the EC paper shows no or vanishingly small VOC per passenger km, and I have no idea of how the folks in the TAC managed to generate the graph they have.  You can find the info in Table 2 within the document here.

In that table, values are shown for “business as usual” emissions for various types of transport in 1990 and projected for 2030 assuming known improvements in technology without any heroic measures to change usage patterns.  One point even the TAC makes is that emission controls should apply not just to ordinary passenger cars but to SUVs which are now exempt because they are “trucks”.  By any measure you care to name, public transit has a huge environmental advantage over private cars, and electric vehicles have an advantage over alternatives.

We have seen this type of attack on electric vehicles before during the debates on trolleybuses versus natural gas.  A cabal of

  • TTC staff who preferred buses over anything else,
  • a bus builder who wanted to use the CNG buses as a way to get an untendered contract,
  • a branch of the Ministry of Transportation looking to justify its existence in the alternative fuel business, and
  • the natural gas lobby, then awash in a surplus of product

combined to push through CNG buses as an environmentally friendly alternative to trolleybuses.

We know better now, but it was a situation that gave everyone what they wanted (except the trolleybus advocates).

Let this be a notice to anyone who tries this ploy again on our streetcar system.  There are excellent reasons to keep the streetcars and it’s time to stop pushing bogus and misleading campaigns against them.

9 thoughts on “Poor Research Sinks Bus Advocate

  1. It always amazing when someone comes up with the theory that to get power to streetcars there is more polution caused, by the generating plants, than buses would ever emit. 

    Funny that I never hear that stoves, curling irons, electric lawn mowers, mining operations, petroleum refineries, etc, might use just a bit of the same generating plant output.  One dosen’t hear that these uses should be done away with.

    The mentality of these people seems to be

    “I will use all the electrically driven products that I want, but streetcars block my car and to get rid of them would save power!”


  2. Streetcars would operate much better if they had their own right of way…. period!

    Steve:  It would be wonderful, but on a network of mainly four-lane streets with off-peak parking, we are never going to see rights-of-way on most of our streetcar lines.  We need to learn (or re-learn) how to manage them properly rather than using the traffic as an excuse to do nothing while service gets worse and worse.


  3. Still the author makes a valid arguement regarding the TTC report on streetcar expansion which I have also read.

    Has the TTC reversed it’s opinion since publishing the report that reccomends at lesat 3000-3600 passengers per hour per direction before streetcars become a better economic option?

    Steve:  We need to put this in the context of decisions on existing lines, planned system expansion, and projections for future growth.

    First off, a demand of 3,000 per hour is roughly equivalent to a bus headway of 1 minute, using the TTC’s Service Standard of 50-55 passengers per vehicle as the peak design load.  (60 buses per hour at 50 each:  a bus can hold more, but you design the service based on a standard average load.)  However, a headway of 1 minute is very difficult to operate on street with buses.  They tend to travel in packs and have significant impact on intersection operations because the service headway is more frequent than the traffic light cycle of (usually) 80 seconds.

    The corresponding headway for a standard streetcar service would be 40 cars per hour (90 second headway) for CLRVs, or about 2’10” with ALRVs.  At these headways, multiple unit operation wouold make sense.

    Today, the only lines with service in this range are King (30 cars/hour, some of which are ALRVs, morning peak only) and Spadina (also 30 cars/hour, PM peak).  However, the built infrastructure is already in place on existing lines and the capacity remains to improve service if only the TTC would do so.  We have to remember that service cuts of the past 15 years cost us from 20 to 40 percent of the pre-1990 service, and restoring this would bring more lines into the borderline territory where bus operation would be difficult.

    New routes such as the proposed lines in the eastern waterfront have projected demands that are definitely in streetcar range, especially when you consider the combined headways where routes will overlap.


  4. I am a bit confused about the headway calculations since the TTC website (http://www.toronto.ca/ttc/pcc_historic_charters.htm) lists 65 as the max capacity of the CLRV streetcar (46 seats + standing).  40 CLRVs would require 75 passengers per streetcar to achieve 3000 per hour.  How is this possible?

    Steve:  The page you cite here is the one for streetcar charters.  The TTC does not want a crush load on a charter for safety and comfort reasons.  For planning purposes, (see http://www.toronto.ca/ttc/pdf/service_improvements_2005.pdf), the vehicle capacities are based on average load over the peak hour.  For CLRVs, this number is 74 even though a crush load on one of these vehicles can reach 100.  However, you cannot plan service based on sustained crush loads because stop dwell times go way up and comfort goes way down.

    40 streetcars per hour is easily achieved, although if a service reaches this level it should probably be operated with larger cars (ALRVs have a planning capacity of 108) or with two-car trains.  Either way, the headway would go back up over two minute, the current peak service on Spadina.

    Historically, there have been streetcar operations in Toronto with very high capacities, although I would not suggest this mode of operation for new high-speed routes.  The service on St. Clair between Oakwood and Yonge was 60 cars per hour (20 to Rogers Road, 20 to Keele and 20 to Lansdowne) in the mid-1960s.  The Bloor-Danforth streetcar line ran with two-car trains a minute apart until it was replaced with the subway line.


  5. Thanks for the clarification.  Do “double” buses also exist?  If so, could we not use a double bus anyplace we currently use a streetcar or double streetcar?  Why bother with the tracks and wires?

    Steve:  Yes, there are articulated buses, but they have not been wildly successful here.  Their capacity is about that of a CLRV, not an ALRV, and they cannot run in trains.  We “bother” with the tracks and wires in order to run larger capacity vehicles.


  6. Nice to see someone else out there with some sense.  I’d also like to mention that the streetcars DO create street level pollution by blocking two lanes of traffic every time they stop.  Dozens of cars are stuck idling, and the few that can squeeze by when the doors close must accelerate hard.  Don’t even mention the chaotic traffic jams caused when they break down (which happens quite frequently). I ‘ve lived here about a year and a half, but it only took about a week to really see how inefficient, outdated and costly the streetcar system really is.

    Wake up city hall, get rid of these outdated monstrosities!

    Steve:  On two-lane streets (most of the streetcar routes), buses often cannot pull into the curb properly (especially during winter when snow blocks part of the curb lane) and they wind up stopping all traffic.  The replacement ratio of vehicles would be at least 1.4:1 (for CLRVs) and so you would have many more buses interfering with traffic than the streetcars that run today.

    As for breakdowns, the CLRVs have their problems, one of which is the antique and temperamental electronic equipment.


  7. I think another key point here is that buses do not appeal to most people like streetcars do. Any streetcar line that is converted to bus operation is practically guaranteed to lose ridership. So if we were to replace all the downtown streetcar routes with standard bus operation, I’m sure the TTC would see a dramatic drop in ridership. This, of course, is the opposite condition we are trying to create in Toronto.


  8. After I read this on this day, one year after it was published, my comment on this posting: That letter and its dubious arguments sounded rather like a letter to the editor I read from October 2005 in the Toronto Star in which a local resident suggests that we “get rid of every streetcar”, with much of the same talking points parrotted. Imagine if streetcars were kept in, say, my home of Ottawa or in Los Angeles, and an irate resident demanded that all the streetcar routes be permanently abandoned and, as some would say, “bustituted”.

    Furthermore, the author implies that streetcar electricity would come from coal-burning power plants; he ignores that the C-Train in Calgary (which I rode on my visit to Alberta 4 years ago and found worth riding, though crowded) is wind-powered (and actually gets its wind power from a plant close to Lethbridge, located south of Calgary, even if many oil companies have their offices there and it happens to be the home, but not the birthplace, of our current Prime Minister!)

    And, as someone who, not to get off the subject here, vigorously supports expansion of alternatives to fossil fuels (with my emphasis on renewable energy), I am sure that there is an encouraging future for it ahead, and we should promote it more as a solution to fight global warming. The claim that streetcars cause pollution is as false as when Ronald Reagan said that trees caused more pollution than automobiles. (At least George W. Bush didn’t say that yet!)

    To say that streetcars are a 19th-century technology and are environmentally unfriendly is as misleading as saying that there was an absolute link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks (which the Bushies have repeatedly attempted to exploit as a justifcation for the disaster now happening in Iraq), or as misleading as saying that urban sprawl is good for the environment and is not responsible for a decline in open space.


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