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.