What’s Up On St. Clair? (With A Glance at Spadina)

Today’s Star has an article about the ongoing woes of construction activity on St. Clair.  I will leave you to read the text yourself, but there are a few important points that deserve comment.

The intention of the right-of-way is not to save time, it is to make the service reliable.

Well, yes, but saving time wouldn’t hurt either.  Indeed, if the service is reliable, then people would not have interminable waits for a car that eventually shows up as a pack.  This will probably save more time than anything else.

This is an important issue when we talk about suburban LRT networks.  If they can’t make trips significantly faster (either through reliable, frequent service or speedier travel), then we’re not really building LRT (with the emphasis on the “R” for “rapid”).

Five minutes will be saved on a round trip from Yonge to Keele and back.

Er, didn’t this used to be a one-way saving?  Did the writer get it wrong, or has the TTC backed down even further on the benefit of the exclusive lanes?  Let’s be generous and say it’s one-way.  This represents roughly a 15% improvement in running time.  What does this do to the frequency of service (assuming we keep the same number of cars)? 

If we go back to 2003 when the line was still running with streetcars and before the schedules were padded to allow for the atrocious condition of the track, a round trip took 64 minutes peak, 62 midday weekdays and 72 on Saturday afternoons.  What this tells me is that congestion is worst on the weekend, and there will be substantially greater savings then than in the rush hour. 

Calculating the real benefit of improved running times is tricky because the 2003 schedules already included substantial padding (“recovery time”).  For midday service, that 62 minute running time turns into 10 cars on a 7 minute headway (70 minutes).  On Saturday, their is an extra 10 minutes for recovery time.  Will this be clawed back as part of the saving of more reliable service?  If so, there is as much to be gained here as there is in avoidance of traffic congestion.

I would appreciate my regular TTC readers enlightening us all on their plans for schedules on the “new” St. Clair.

Elsewhere in the article, drivers are aghast at the loss of crossings at some intersections.  (Some of this is the transient effect of construction, but some is permanment.)  This is not unlike the situation on Spadina where turns are not permitted in many places. 

The problem on St. Clair, however, is that the plans presented on the City’s website and at public meetings were a moving target.  We never actually knew what would be built until the construction crews showed up.  Indeed, based on one set of plans, I advised someone that, yes, their intersection would remain open only to find later that this was no longer true.

Oddly, there is no sign of the public participation process for Phase II of this project from Vaughan Road westward.  Has this been held down to avoid contention in the Mihevc/Sewell electoral battle?  Councillor Mihevc talks a good line about how he has saved his neighbourhoods from the worst of the City road planners’ machinations, but I won’t believe it until I see the final plans (assuming we ever see “final” plans). 

Moreover, a Councillor who is also a TTC Commissioner needs to realize that his constituency does not stop at ward boundaries.  If improvements could have been made in Councillor Walker’s ward (the easternmost part of the line), then Mihevc should have been fighting for them too.  Instead, we got the ridiculous road widening at Yonge Street. 

Finally, the article states that construction will finish in 2008.  Is this more fine TTC/City planning where projects drag on forever, or is it a side effect of delays in the design phase?

I have long been a supporter of the idea of a St. Clair LRT scheme, but even more than on Spadina, it is turning out to be a textbook example of how not to run a project.  If this is the best the TTC can muster, any hopes for suburban LRT expansion might as well go in the wastebin.


A friend wrote to me recently asking about comparative running times for the Spadina bus and the streetcar line.  Back in February 1996 the round trip from Spadina Station to Wellington was 33 minutes compared with 28 to day for the streetcar which turns one stop further north at King.  However, as I have discussed elsewhere, if the streetcar had real transit priority, we could probably save an additional 2 minutes each way for a round trip of 24 minutes.  That’s a real saving.

What really stands out is a comparison of the frequency of service.  There are far fewer vehicles during the peak, partly because the streetcars are bigger and partly because they don’t take as long to cover the route, but look at the offpeak comparisons.

  • AM Peak:  Bus 1’30”, streetcar 2’30”
  • Midday:  Bus 2’38”, streetcar 1’53”
  • PM Peak:  Bus 1’50”, streetcar 2’00”
  • Early evening:  Bus 4’00”, streetcar 2’00” (!!)
  • Late evening:  Bus 8’00”, streetcar 7’00”
  • Saturday afternoon:  Bus 1’42”, streetcar 2’00”
  • Saturday early evening:  Bus 8’00”, streetcar 2’50” (!!)
  • Saturday late evening:  Bus 10’00”, streetcar 7’20”
  • Sunday afternoon:  Bus 3’20”, streetcar 2’30” (!!)
  • Sunday early evening:  Bus 4’30”, streetcar 3’00”
  • Sunday late evening:  Bus 10’00”, streetcar 11’15”

As someone who tried many times to ride the bus service, it was no picnic.  It was common to be unable to board a vehicle, and bunched service and short-turns were commonplace.  Note the huge improvement in off-peak service (which is only there because there is a demand) with the streetcars.  This shows the benefit of providing good service at a much more reliable level.  It also shows how on some routes, the off-peak demand is as important as the peak period.

Up on St. Clair, the level of service is far below what it is on Spadina, and even if we return to “the good old days”, it still will be nowhere near as frequent.  However, all the spending on the LRT scheme will be for naught without good service.  People don’t care about saving a few minutes of travel time if they have to wait 10 minutes for a streetcar to show up.

14 thoughts on “What’s Up On St. Clair? (With A Glance at Spadina)

  1. During construction periods there is going to be severe disruption, whether the tracks and roadway are built integrated or separate.  It is a misreputation to somehow imply that everything would move normally during the construction period if the tracks were to be replaced in kind.  It is just unfortunately that there are not a lot of good alternatives to travel on St. Clair.

    Nevertheless the construction period will end (actually fairly quickly considering the extent of the construction).  There is no reason to imply that the current state will somehow continue forever.  There will be changes, but if past performance is any example, the traffic engineers will be bending over backward to make sure the net result for automobiles is positive.  Certainly the image of an impenetrable barrier down the middle of the street is uncalled for.

    Once the construction is completed, drivers will quickly find out what routes work best. I expect they will not find St. Clair wanting (unless they are drivers who liked to double and tripple park).

    Steve:  Just to be clear, my comments about where there will be openings in the right-of-way apply to the finished plan, not to the obvious chaos of the construction period.  The traffic engineers are rather kinder to motorists than I would have liked in some places where widenings to provide turn bays does serious damage to the street’s pedestrian character. 


  2. I’d be curious to know what running times were like on St. Clair when the TTC tried to “reserve” the streetcar right of way in the late 70’s/early 80’s with nothing more than painted yellow lines.  Granted, it hardly prevented cars from trespassing onto the tracks, but if the running times were not much better than what they are predicting for the “protected” right of way they are building, then I would think that such statistics would proove that their compromise for the automobile is but a similar folly to the yellow line.

    Steve:  Peak period round-trip running time for Yonge to Keele (none of these include any recovery time):

    April 1990:  72 minutes
    April 1987:  70 minutes
    April 1983:  63 minutes
    October 1980:  60 minutes
    March 1975:  52 minutes
    Before this time the service was differently organized and there was no published time covering this route segment.  The St. Clair cars ran through to Mt. Pleasant and Eglinton

    This is a route where clearly there has been an increase incongestion over the years.  What is ironic is that this route should have been the least congested given the width of the street compared to other major streetcar routes.


  3. I made the mistake of trying to get somewhere on St. Clair yesterday.  At St. Clair West Station, I could not for the life of me figure out where to get the replacement bus westbound.  There were signs with arrows pointing every which way, and *they all disagreed*.  Some of them said

    “St. Clair bus to Gunns Loop board here ===>”

    *I* know what Gunns loop is, but that’s because I’m a nerd.  How many people who take buses and streetcars that have always been signed “Keele” know what Gunns loop is?  Not to mention that, how come some signs pointed to one place and others pointed to another?

    I asked a bus driver, and he naturally gave me the wrong answer.  I figured out myself that I needed to get the bus on the street.

    Getting back was great too.  I saw two buses, one right after the other, fly by curbside.  I figured the buses weren’t using the islands because of construction, so I waited there.  I then, of course, almost missed the following bus because it used the island.  When I snarked to the driver that they needed to make up their mind where they were stopping, he told me that what I had said happened was impossible because the buses stop at the islands.

    I cannot possibly imagine what hell it must be using this system for someone who is unfamiliar with it, or who doesn’t speak english, or is blind or disabled.

    I used to a very big fan of the TTC, but over time I have become convinced that the TTC is utterly irredeemable.

    Steve:  There are horrendous communications problems both between the TTC and its staff and between the TTC and the public.  I despair of ever seeing accurate signs describing route changes and diversions, and it is common to see signs that are months old still posted in subway stations.  I have even seen two contradictory signs posted nearby each other.  As for the operating staff, they are often as much in the dark as everyone else especially in a rapidly changing setup like St. Clair where the rules change from day to day depending on construction activity.

    Gunn’s Loop.  Yes, I like that.  Some days I think it would be fun to rename all of the subway stations after minor streets known only to the locals.  Somehow, Roy’s Square makes a good name for Bloor-Yonge, but alas that street will disappear under a new condo one day.

    This could make a good alternate subway map!

    Seriously, the TTC needs to do a major rethink of its public information and stop assuming that it’s spectacular because in places it is downright horrid, as you described.


  4. Following on from Thickslab’s comment, I remember seeing a set of the the little yellow barricades, the type that block the bottom ef escalators, labelled “Vincent”.  (This was in the early years of the Bloor-Danforth line).  Does Vincent still exist as a street?

    Steve:  Not really.  It vanished under the Crossways development opposite Dundas West Station, although the street sign survived for many years.  It’s not on the map any more.  This is my nominee for the alternate name for that station, in hour of the old King car destination, along with its eastern twin, Erindale (which does still exist a block from my apartment).


  5. Those opposing the St. Clair ROW are saying no to special curbs that keep cars out of the streetcar lanes.

    John Sewell, former mayor and now candidate for Ward 21, apparently wants to halt the project in its current form west of Bathurst. He favours a ‘simpler, cheaper’ alternative: cameras on the front of streetcars to take images of offending cars in the (painted and signed only) transit lanes, plus better enforcement


    What would have to change at TTC, City Hall and the Toronto Police Service to achieve reserved lanes using this kind of approach?

    Steve:  This proposal shows just how desperate the opponents of the St. Clair right-of-way have become.  You don’t keep people off the tracks with cameras, you do it by making it impossible for them to get on in the first place.  We had painted lines on St. Clair for years, and they were totally ignored.

    Frankly I don’t have any faith in the police as enforcers of transit rights-of-way because they have more important things to do.  Remember that most cops are not part of the Traffic operations anyhow, and don’t see their primary role as managing roadspace except in an emergency.

    From the city’s point of view, one distressing development is the frequency with which roads are constrained by the presence of construction easements such as the one in front of the AGO.  We seem to have no trouble taking away road space to accommodate construction, but somehow never manage to do the same thing when someone suggests that we could dedicate space to transit priority.

    One great irony of the St. Clair design is that the centre poles make it more difficult to use by fire trucks because they can’t just drive down the middle and dodge around transit vehicles as need be.  But someone in the City and the TTC decided that they must have centre poles, and they were not going to brook any criticism or opposition on this.


  6. Ya know, Royce would be good for Lansdowne Station.
    Oh, and how about Bedford for St. George?
    Or, to confuse things, how about Rosedale for Sherbourne, and Crescent for Rosedale, or…


  7. There’s another mode – bikes – that isn’t served well by the St. Clair redesign, just like Spadina.  Is this to keep as much market share for the TTC as possible as bikes can truly be the better way some times and occasions?  And it’s noteworthy that road constrictions for construction happen often but to add a bike lane, the world will end.

    Steve:  “Temporary” construction projects (including curb lane occupancy for building sites) is allowed to screw up transit on a regular basis too.  However, I doubt that the TTC is too worried about hordes of cyclists cutting into their revenue.

    A thought about a different design for St. Clair but perhaps costlier with extra hydro pole work: could we put the streetcar beside the sidewalk with a bit of extra space for bikes?  Parking and car space all to the other side of the streetcar and ROW/bike space/peds near the shops. Is this done anywhere else in the world?

    Steve:  There are a number of problems putting the tracks in the curb lane, notably that people getting out of the parked cars now have to cross the streetcar tracks to get to the sidewalk.  Also, this arrangement really messes up curves at intersections because the right turns are far too tight.


  8. Honestly this is probably the best thing for the 512, having proper ROWs built.  I ride the 512 occasionally, but the people on St. Clair should be glad that they get to have a ROW for transit, unlike where I am.  On Yonge St. the reserved lanes don’t even work, everyone breaks the rule about the reserved lanes.

    Off topic, but is there by any chance that the TTC has looked into building a ROW for buses on Yonge st. north of finch to Steeles?  I know that the TTC is currently building another bus exit between Finch Ave and the York region terminal.  This future will be hell because of how there will be 4 lights within 2 blocks.

    Steve:  There is a study in progress of a busway on Yonge north from Finch Station.  Follow this link


  9. Hi Steve – Great site, great insight.  Not sure if you’ll remember me, but I was one of the participants in the MUSIC users “Burger Summits” way back in the ’80s.  Of course, no one else here will likely have the slightest clue what I’m talking about.

    Steve:  Ah yes MUSIC.  It’s been a long time.  For those who are interested, it’s an acronym for “McGill University System for Interactive Computing”, and was part of my “real world” live years ago when students at the Toronto Board of Education used terminals connected to a mainframe computer.

    One aspect that has been almost completely neglected in all the media coverage around the St. Clair ROW is that it isn’t being built exclusively to benefit current riders.  Rather, it is being put in place with an eye towards the riders of tomorrow.  Toronto’s Official Plan identifies St. Clair as an “Avenue”, the intended focus of a substantial amount of the City’s future population growth.  The Plan further recognizes that the only viable way to move all these additional residents around will be by providing enhanced surface transit – the private automobile hasn’t a hope unless we want to go back to the days of bulldozing neighbourhoods to build new roads. 

    Consequently, the Plan designates St. Clair as a component of the City’s “Surface Transit Priority Network”, a fancy way of saying a corridor on which to build a streetcar ROW.  The thing is, these future residents of our city don’t presently vote in municipal elections, join ratepayers’ associations, write letters to the editor, or maintain blogs, so they tend to get lost amidst all the noisy debate.

    Steve:  You have touched on one of the big problems of any regional planning.  Necessarily it is for decades in the future, not for the condo that’s going up down the street today.  Moreover, there is huge distrust (including from me) that the “Avenues” plan will actually be executed as intended with medium rise development.

    I worry that we will see a forest of “exceptions” with high rise towers in places they don’t belong.  Several examples are already in the pipeline.

    Moreover, the politicians still want to spend money on transit megaprojects that serve one or two dense neighbourhoods, while doing nothing to  improve transit in many areas where population is building today or planned for the near future.  A “Transit City” is not free.  People can’t “Ride the Rocket” if it isn’t there, or is full, or can be outrun by a pedestrian. 


  10. Much has been said about the removal of cars from the streetcar lanes on St. Clair.  Before the streetcars were removed I attempted to get a feel for how the streetcar lanes were actually used.

    East of Avenue Rd. cars used the streetcar tracks for left turns only.  Since these will now be implemented as separate lanes, this will be either a wash or a positive (left turning cars do not have to wait for streetcar loading).  East of Avenue road no lanes have been removed from the roadway.  For the streetcars there is of course a positive influence since they will not be trapped behind left turning cars.

    West of Avenue Rd. the situation is more complex because cars used the streetcar tracks for through travel.  Even here though the streetcar tracks were rarely a fully functional lane.  They were rough and through traffic could get caught by streetcars at a stop and other cars turning left. In rush hour traffic I have observed the longer line at an intersection is invariably the faster line and the longer line is rarely the streetcar tracks.  With the addition of left turn lanes and reduction of the number of left turns possible, plus of course double parking will be absolutely forbidden, the actual result may turn out to be a wash even west of Avenue Rd.

    (Also on spacing/votes)


  11. I made the mistake of TRYING to use the St.Clair route yesterday.  The Christie bus took me into the bus bay, no problem.  At least 4 people asked her how to continue east, she said to catch the St. Clair bus going east, no problem.  I got off the bus, and, PROBLEM.

    I saw at least 50 signs saying “512 ST.CLAIR WEST” and a big arrow… but all 50 signs were on rounded posts, so the arrows were pointing in different directions.  The only similairty was that they were pointing towards the exit.  Nothing saying you needed to go upstairs, and nothing about St.Clair going EAST as I needed to go. 

    After fumbling my way up the stairs and outside I was totally lost. No signs or anything telling me where to go from there.  I had to choose to dart across the busy street and TRY to not get hit by a car, or walk 100 meters to the intersection, which I did, only to find a sign telling me I need to cross to the other side of the intersection to cross St.Clair. 

    Needless to say I missed my bus AND the one behind it, resulting in me standing in the cold gusting wind for a good 15 minutes.  I found out while over there that I could have walked underground to exit at that point, of course there were no signs to tell me that.  I am no idiot, I’m running for city council on a pro-TTC campaign, and I know more than many drivers do (as I ask them things I dont know and they dont even know anything about what I’m asking them) and if even I can get lost I dread to think what tourists will do.

    I went to Davisville to complain only to find out, surprise surprise, they are closed on weekends.  That makes little sense if you ask me, since the TTC operates on weekends, but whatever.  I went back today and complained, but I doubt they’ll do anything.

    On the brighter side, on the way back home yesterday I ran into a very nice driver and while I was at Davisville.  I gave him a commendation for something nice he did for a passenger.


  12. The TTC does make a concerted effort to properly advertise routing changes. The problem appears to occur during the actual implementation where some ‘tweaking’ may be required, and is usually done by the inspector on duty. From the customer’s side the signage issues raised are more an issue for infrequent users, but usually are not a problem for regular users except when they change. Infrequent users will probably have the problem anyway (I know I have when I take a new route), although construction does make it worse.

    Perhaps what is needed in locations of heavy construction, is for a person to walk the route once a week and look at it from a customer’s perspective, with the intent of adding new signs or correct confusing, obsolete or inaccurate signs.

    Steve:  The issue here is that customer information is an integral part of making people feel comfortable with the system and able to use it without undue problems.  The absence of accurate, clear information, especially in construction areas, gives riders the feeling that the TTC doesn’t care about their being able to use the system easily.  Ensuring that signage is current (including removing obsolete signs) should be an integral part of TTC operations be it on construction jobs or in routine diversion notices.  From what I have seen over the past years, it’s at best an afterthought.


  13. Reading this a bit late, and now we have the muddle of the Hydro work.  John Sewell noted, and rightly I think, that so much of what the ROW is trying to accomplish could be accomodated with rigourous sigmal prioritization for streetcars and a few more left turn restrictions.

    A number of years ago I was in Hannover and the surface S-Bahn routes had really aggressive and effective signal priority…even if a crossing road’s light had just turned green, it would turn red again as a tram approached.

    It seems the TTC wanted an “LRT line” on St. Clair as opposed to improving service, or at least was closed to options that didn’t look like the LRT lines being built in so many cities.

    Steve:  The key words in your comment are “aggressive” and “rigourous” neither of which comes close to what passes for transit priority in Toronto.  Personally, I believe that the right-of-way is the right thing to do, but the design needs serious work.  In particular, we need to lose the centre poles (which make the ROW wider than it needs to be otherwise), and we need to be “rigourous” about denying throat widenings at intersections whose purpose is to ease auto turning movements at the expense of sidewalk space.

    Toronto is a very different transit culture from many cities in Europe where a strong transit system has always been an integral part of municipal services and has been given the precedence it deserves.


  14. I cycled along St. Clair from Yonge to Vaughan yesterday. I expected the road to look “top notch”. Instead, the pavement in some places is deteriorated and needs replacing. Some wooden hydro poles on the south side remain standing but curiously lopped off. The main hydro wires may be underground but streetlight wire loops between several poles.

    Aesthetically, it’s a mess! At least, it needs a good tidying up.

    Steve: The work is not finished yet and many temporary hydro poles remain. As for the road surfaces, it will be intriguing to see where the Works Department will move the traffic if they have to close one side of the street at a time for repairs. The option of sending people down the streetcar right-of-way shouldn’t even be considered.


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