This piece is much more of an editorial than my usual writing here in response to a lot of ill-informed commentary about the streetcar system and Transit City. This is not intended as a definitive, answer-all-questions epic on why we should keep streetcars, but as an overview of my position.
Some will think I am too aggressive, moving too fast, or just plain out of my mind for my opinions on the role streetcars and LRT can play in Toronto. I happen to have similar feelings about those who advocate subways and other inappropriate technologies.
For three decades, Toronto has been appallingly served by its professional transportation establishment and by its politicians. While the rest of the world goes on with building, or rediscovering, the streetcar and LRT, we clung to the idea that they were quaint, something for the tourists, but not “real” transit. We blew years on studies looking at small extensions to our subway network that would do almost nothing for the city overall and leave large areas without decent service. We just about convinced everyone that good transit could never happen because we could never afford it.
With Transit City and the Official Plan there is hope that we are moving in an important new direction.
Recently, a reporter at the Star who shall remain nameless left me both a voicemail and a comment here asking that I get in touch about a piece he is writing. He has not returned my call back, and the email he left bounces. This leaves me little alternative but to reply here to the questions I think he might be asking.
What is LRT?
One of the reactions I have heard to Transit City is to dismiss the plan as “only streetcars”. Indeed, a report to that effect in the Town Crier includes some rather uncomplimentary remarks by one of the people who is supposed to be in charge of our transportation infrastructure:
Rod McPhail, director of transportation and planning for the city, said an environmental assessment is currently underway for Don Mills Rd…
While McPhail says LRTs are factored in as a possibility, he added that other methods of transportation like buses and streetcars are still being considered as well.
“Really, we’ll just be looking at buses and streetcars,” he said. “The only real difference between LRT and streetcar services is that the stations are a little further apart.” [Emphasis mine]
McPhail said the LRT proposal has made his job somewhat difficult.
“It’s confused the public,” he said. “Components of the transit city plan are in the city’s official plan so there is status to it, but it is a visionary document.”
I will be charitable and assume that Rob McPhail has been quoted out of context, but there’s a clear problem with his statement. LRT is most definitely not just streetcars with the stops further apart. It includes any or all of the following:
- Reserved right-of-way with or without grade crossings at intersecting streets
- Signal priority that really gives transit top priority
- Cars roughly double the size of our present CLRVs, possibly running in trains of 2 or 3 cars depending on the route
- Tunnels and/or overpasses when there is no alternative way to get from “A” to “B”
- The ability for pedestrians to walk across the tracks, although this is not necessarily desired for lines with high capacity and very frequent service
- The ability to run in or across traffic lanes (not as a design ideal, but as a way to simplify areas such as intersections or yards)
- Self-service fare collection (regardless of the technology or enforcement mechanism) with all-door loading
- Double-ended operation (like subway trains) so that loops are not required and turnbacks can be implemented with crossovers
If we start the debate by assuming that the Transit City lines are simply a clone of the Queen car, we are miles off of the mark already. Queen Street is a mess with three major problems: not enough service, a route that is too long to manage, and dubious quality of line management for the service that is operated. This is not a model for a new transit system.
The Sheppard Subway is no model either. It cost nearly $1-billion to complete, the stations are 1 to 2 km apart, and it does nothing to enhance or stimulate development of the street except at a few locations. Transit service between the terminal points is a shadow of its former level and some of the worst suburban service runs directly above the subway.
I will return to LRT and Transit City shortly, but first let’s look at the streetcar system.
The Streetcar System’s Capacity
Toronto does have streetcar lines and they will always be streetcars, not LRT, for the simple reason that they run on busy city streets. The neighbourhoods through which they run require closely spaced stops that are handy to where people live, shop and work. Imagine, for a moment, Spadina Avenue with stops only at Bloor, College and Queen. Imagine St. Clair with stops only at Bathurst, Oakwood and Dufferin. That’s what a 1 km average spacing gives you.
The streetcar lines once carried many more passengers than they do today, although there are signs of recovery especially on King where the morning peak service is comparable to the late 1960s (2-minute headways, and unable to handle the demand). The only thing that keeps us from carrying more passengers on most streetcar routes is that we don’t have enough cars. Over the past 20 years, riding on many routes has been killed off by service cuts, and we have a long way to build back up.
That build up will not be possible with any surface technology but streetcars. We have already reached the limit on King until we have more and larger cars, and redevelopments along other carlines will drive up their ridership in years to come.
As a point of reference, a 2-minute headway is 30 cars per hour. This provides a design load of about 3,240 on ALRVs (the articulated streetcars forming about half of the AM peak King service). If we move to longer cars, the capacity goes up by about 1/3 to around to 4,300 at design (average) levels, and a crush capacity of over 5,000.
(For the record, I am using the TTC’s own vehicle loading standards from their Annual Service Plan at page 8.
(The point about crush loading values is not that you plan for them, but routine variations in demand plus special events will create situations where a line must carry above its design capacity for a short period. Service should never be designed to require this level of loading as a routine operation.)
By contrast, 30 buses per hour give a design capacity of 1,650. Even articulated buses bring this number up to only about 2,500.
Track Reconstruction Woes
Many people, residents and motorists alike, comment that the streetcar system is responsible for perennial road construction. This is true in the short term because the TTC was building very bad track until the early 1990s. Although a recent report claimed that the old track was “state of the art”, this track would not have passed muster in 1921, let alone the 21st century. Our roads and track collapsed because of shoddy design and construction. Only now has the TTC nearly completed the task of putting the network back into first class shape. Dundas, St. Clair and Roncesvalles are the major pieces left to complete. After 2009, the amount of track construction should fall dramatically.
(Ironically, the Harbourfront line will be due for renewal in about 2010 on its 20th birthday. This track was better built than most of the 80’s vintage, but it suffers from having no rubber insulation to damp noise, vibration and concrete damage.)
Huge reconstruction projects are not caused by streetcars per se, they are caused by penny-wise and pound-foolish design two decades ago.
Why Have Streetcars?
So why have streetcars? The question really should be “why have transit”? Complaints about streetcars focus on several factors that, interestingly, were not present back in the early 1970s when Streetcars for Toronto and Toronto Council saved the system from destruction by the TTC.
- Service on streetcar lines now is well below its former level, service is unpredictable and inadequate to demand
- Streetcars are noisy (the track and cars of the 1970s did not have this problem)
- Track construction causes havoc in neighbourhoods (this was true but to a much lower extent because less track needed to be rebuilt each year, and total reconstruction of the road base was not required)
- Streetcars can’t go around delays (this has always been true, subject to whatever diversionary tracks are available, but oddly this argument is never raised when subway lines are under discussion)
Let’s boldly assume a conversion to a bus-based system. Many more buses would be required than the existing streetcar fleet just to provide the same inferior level of service, never mind what is really needed. Buses would completely dominate major streets and crowd out traffic. People who complain about being stuck behind streetcars today would always be stuck behind a bus. Maybe that’s where they belong.
Transit City — An LRT Network
First off, this plan is a network, not a series of lines that will be built at a glacial pace, and the intention is to have all of it up and running in 15 years. This is an aggressive plan, but if we are serious about making transit attractive to riders and supporting the planned increase of population densities in the Official Plan, then we need substantially more transit service.
That service needs to be easy to get to, relatively inexpensive to build and operate, faster than buses stuck in traffic, and with a capacity and frequency that will handle projected demands.
“Bus Rapid Transit” is often proposed as “the solution” usually in areas dominated by suburban land-use patterns and car-dominated roadways. BRT has fundamental problems of capacity, especially at stations where much land is required if frequent services will all stop. Often, BRT is proposed on dedicated roads or existing expressway. This is fine for people who want to travel between two stations, or on a route that uses the BRT link as a line-haul access to a terminal, but it is useless for developing local neighbourhoods and serving local demand.
Look at the bus roadway from Downsview to York U — it will do a great job of moving people between these two sites, but nothing for the area in because the people “in between” are not at the BRT right-of-way.
The Don Mills study mentioned in the quote above has a very different purpose than Transit City and the two should not be confused. This study began from a hare-brained proposal to widen the DVP that morphed into a transit study. However, the study was strongly biased toward people travelling to downtown, and the service design is intended to get people from the Don Mills corridor to either the subway (at Castle Frank) or the core (via Richmond Street).
Moreover, the access to Castle Frank would have required both the construction of Redway Road (a long-held pet project of a former mayoral candidate) as well as reconfiguration of the Bayview offramp at Bloor Street. This is a road project masquerading as a transit project.
Transit City is intended to provide service for travel up and down Don Mills and between its neighbourhoods. The alignment to Pape provides not only a subway connection at Danforth, but provides for further extension of the Don Mills line into downtown. Yes, some of this will be underground, but the strength of LRT is that it doesn’t all have to be underground. The Eglinton line is possible only because at least two-thirds of it will be in the middle of the street, not a subway.
City Council will be asked, sometime in the next few months, to direct that the EA studies for Transit City be LRT-only studies. This will be possible under the new Municipal Class EA process that will be approved sometime soon. Transit City is an LRT plan and should be designed that way from the outset.
We should not entertain fantasies about experimental bus technologies, nor will we spend too much time preserving the option of eventual conversions to full-scale subways, nor should it be an ICTS/RT plan. If you want one of those, move to another city. Alignments should be based on what LRT can do, not on potential accommodation of every alternative.
People often ask how other cities build so much while we do nothing. They believe that transit exists to serve passengers, not as welfare for the consulting, construction and real estate industries.
Parts of Transit City will be challenging to design, but this can be done with good will and good information from the professionals about what is possible. We have the opportunity to built a network serving the whole city and a model of what can occur beyond.