What Should A Streetcar Street Look Like?

I received a comment from “Dave” in the King route analysis thread on the design issues for Roncesvalles Avenue as well as street design in general for streetcar routes on narrow streets.  His comment deserves its own thread, and here it is.

An important point to consider is that the Roncesvalles tracks, and in fact the entire street, are going to be rebuilt very soon, including alterations to improve the public right-of-way (ie, wider sidewalks and boulevards with street trees, intersection bump-outs, etc).  An example of this can be seen here.

The TTC is apparently not pleased with the proposal because they think that the more narrow sections of the street will result in left-AND-right-turning traffic blocking the streetcar.  They counter-propose a different cross-section.

I haven’t seen anything regarding whether Roncesvalles will be getting transit signal priority installed, so perhaps these alterations will make no difference either way, since the streetcars will often get held up at the traffic lights anyway.

To me, this speaks to the much larger issue in Toronto of how street cross-sections are arranged when streetcars run on them.  Street design affects everything that is within the PUBLIC (yes, we all “own” the space) right-of-way, including transit service, trees, benches, garbage cans, car traffic, sidewalks, street lights, etc.

It seems that Roncesvalles could become the St. Clair debate all over again…there just doesn’t ever seem to be much agreement between the City, the TTC, residents, and/or businesses, on what are the “optimal” cross-section treatments for streets with streetcars on them.  For example, St. Clair ended up giving away a lot of right-of-way space over to traffic, at the expense of sidewalks, in some areas. Is the St. Clair treatment the “best” option?

I understand that balancing the space given to traffic, pedestrians, and transit is extremely difficult, especially with narrow right-of-way widths for certain streets.  But in Europe, they seem to be able to create very lively and vibrant streets that are extremely pedestrian-friendly (with trees, benches, cobble-stones, etc) but that also accommodate good transit service (trams) and even occaisional automobile traffic.  One could argue that these narrow, European, pedestrian-friendly streets result in less traffic choosing to drive and park on it, resulting in more walking trips, more transit riders, AND better transit level of service.

This raises the question of what IS the “optimal” cross-section for “streets with streetcars”?  Should space be given over based on the percentage of people trips? For example, if 50% of people walk or take transit, give them 50% of the street right-of-way space? (Just a random percentage I chose…I have no data to back that up.)

It seems we’re just randomly experimenting with each streetcar line individually (Spadina, St. Clair, future waterfront lines, future Transit City lines…), instead of borrowing cross-sections that actually work from other successful European cities with streetcars and trams.  I see this being of upmost importantance when Transit City EA’s finally begin and we have to start taking right-of-way space from each street user on the new routes. I’d hate to see an S.O.S. St. Clair fight on every route!

12 thoughts on “What Should A Streetcar Street Look Like?

  1. For off-street parking, the school parking lots at Howard Park, St. Vincent de Paul, Fern, and Garden could be turned into pay slots after school hours, weekends, and holidays.


  2. I’ve been to Europe and there are narrow and wide streets just like here. So on my last vacation, we were in Barcelona where there are wide streets. One street has 8 lanes of traffic with a bus lane, a tram line and fairly wide green space too! In Amsterdam, some streets are narrow – but they bring in a lot of goods on the canals.

    So I think this whole discussion does not make too much sense. A street does not exist by itself – but what other streets are near and if it have lots of commercial traffic is important.

    On St. Clair, there is no other artery for a long way North or South – and there is lots of commecial traffic that has no other road to use. (On the section I am near.)

    On Roncevalles, if the sidewalk is built out like that at the corner, the streetcar will have to wait for right/left turning cars and trucks who are waiting for pedestrians or other vehicles to move.

    There is not extra room on St. Clair taken up by traffic. Most of the road is one lane each way exept in the rush hour. There are turning lanes – but these are short. I have to use St. Clair during the day for getting stuff (and myself and other staff to job sites) and these turning lanes are often full and turning traffic is backed up into the main lane. Right now, there is construction at Avenue road – and the whole street gets stopped up because one of the turning lanes is closed.

    The reason there is sidewalk loss is because of the streetcars – plain and simple.


  3. I agree with François that each street possesses a unique set of characteristics, making it impossible to develop an “optimal cross-section”. What we should be looking for is a palette of best practices from streetcar lines in Toronto and elsewhere, so that engineers, street designers, residents and businesses can draw upon the work of others rather than reinventing the wheel. Not all the practices would be used on every street, but having good ideas to draw upon would focus the public debate much more productively.

    Dave mentioned level of service in his comment, and I want to emphasize what an important factor this is in street design. I live on Roncesvalles and know it well, so I’ll use it as an example. If the TTC promised to provide consistent service every 4-6 minutes during the day, I think eliminating parking spaces and left turns would become much more palatable to local businesses. If I ran a butcher shop and saw my customers dwindling because they got sick of waiting 20 minutes for their streetcar home, I would want to retain the existing parking too.


  4. Why not turn Roncesvalles Avenue into a one-way street with sunnyside ave in the other direction but make the streetcar two-way … or you can route the streetcar in a one-way pair but that would make things more complicated.

    It’s very simple. If the road is 4 lanes |v|Sv|S^|^| with 2 shared with streetcars then you can change it into |Sv|S^|^| with the extra lane going into extra side-walk space, parking, and platforms. It would make 1 lane northbound flow freely for traffic yet not be so wide that the street retains its unique characterisitics. Then Sunnyside will have a cross section of |Pv|v|Pv| with 1 lane southbound and the rest as curb outs or sidewalks or bike lanes or whatever.
    It calms the traffic because it’s only 1 continuous traffic lane.

    Also the split for one-way would be at Howard Park Avenue with traffic being forced to turn right then left into Sunnyside. From Dundas to Howard Park Roncesvalles Avenue would retain its existing cross section or one that’s enhanced.

    Keeping at least 1 traffic lane flowing is essential and yet giving streetcars their own ROW is just as important.

    Would this plan fly in the area? I’m not a resident there…

    Steve: There are several problems here. First off, the folks on Sunnyside would not take too kindly to becoming the main southbound street for the neighbourhood. They are trying to remove traffic from Sunnyside, not add to it. Second, the volume of south to east turns at Sunnyside and Queen would need a traffic light that would add to the places where Queen cars would be held up for the benefit of the motorists.

    This scheme also probably requires moving the centre line of the streetcar tracks on Roncesvalles and shifting it west because the east side is where the extra sidewalk space is wanted. Moving the tracks makes the reconstruction much more expensive, and probably puts the tracks on top of utilities now under the southbound curb lane. As a general rule, any plan to shift the centre line of tracks more than slightly from its current location (as on St. Clair) introduces major problems with access to what is already underground in the “conventional” street layout.


  5. Between Queen and Bloor, Roncesvalles has a grand total of… four lights. One you cannot turn left at, and another (Bloor) has turn prohibitions during peak hours. The rest of the neighbourhood is a nest of alternating one-way streets, with the streetcar stops only at the streets where lefts turns might be made. It’s hard to imagine how this arrangement could be more transit-friendly.

    It’s a veritable zoom from Jameson up to Bloor, except at Queensway which could some re-timing. There’s always a 300m lineup along King at rush hour, usually taking 5 minutes or more to plough through.


  6. I agree with the comments above about how European cities design their streets, although one has to note one caveat. In Cities like Dusseldorf, where I lived, there certainly were streets that were primarily designed for transit and pedestrians; cars weren’t typically banned, but they weren’t encouraged. What often makes this possible though are parallel, less commercial streets that are primarily designed for cars; traffic, as much as possible, is routed onto these streets through the city, and away from the transit oriented ones. In the case of Ronvesvalles, there is Parkside so this may not be an issue (although the City should look at de-grade separating the Queensway overpass at Parkside); but in other cases though, I worry that transit advocates see deleting car capacity as its own virtue, which is a doubtful premise because cars and transit don’t always serve the same need (you can’t ship goods by streetcar). I think if we are to pursue these types of transit priority streets, we need to ensure that they are implemented in areas where car and truck traffic can be encouraged to use other available routes. Toronto’s narrow four lane roads can’t be expected to be everything to everyone.


  7. Hi Steve and Tom B.:-

    Amsterdam may be employing an idea that just might work here. A streetcar freight car. See what you think.

    It may be an applicable way to keep trucks off of Roncessvalles so that they’re not part of the mix. Could European innovations be adapted for the wild and wooly west? Just think of the possibilities in other parts of the City too!

    Dennis Rankin

    Steve: At the risk of saying “it won’t work here”, this has to be seen in a wider context. The most obvious is that deliveries cannot occur when the line is busy carrying passengers, and this would require businesses to adjust their schedules both for receiving. If they can do that for a freight streetcar, they can do it for a truck without all of the overhead of a parallel transport system. Also, the goods have to get onto the freight streetcar somehow and this means transfer from some other mode, likely a truck, since the streetcar system does not go to most locations where shipments originate.

    The linked video on YouTube is an advertisement for the company promoting the City Cargo scheme, and it is notable for several points:

    No actual movement of goods is shown. Only an animation.
    The scheme involves a secondary shipment by small electric trucks to which goods in small containers are transferred. How these containers find their way into their destinations is unclear.
    There are already stringent controls on truck movements in Amsterdam that give this scheme an advantage not available in Toronto.

    The text of the article makes it clear that this scheme is not yet operating, is still a year away, and may run into other problems because of the need for the transshipment points within the city.

    Maybe I’m an old fart who doesn’t believe in green technology, but this seems like an awfully complex way to move goods.


  8. In Riga, Latvia, streetcar tracks in mixed-traffic locations are paved with cobblestones. Cars are allowed to drive on them, but most will avoid the tracks for the curb lanes which are paved with ashphalt.

    Maybe the TTC should go back to granite setts. Or just don’t maintain the concrete around the track–there was some awful car-tire-eating holes on Lake Shore Blvd before the section west of Kipling was redone.

    Steve: Those tire eating holes come from rotten track construction techniques that cause the concrete to disintegrate. In the process, however, the streetcar track also loses its integrity and need to be rebuilt at least a decade sooner that it should have. All of the new track (since the mid 90s) is built to a far better standard.

    For granite setts, I suppose we could mine all of the gardens and driveways that they went into over the years.


  9. Tom B: “you can’t ship goods by streetcar”

    They do in Dresden, Zurich, Vienna and now in Amsterdam.


    Please see my own remarks in the previous comment on Amsterdam.
    The Dresden link describes a point to point system linking a logistics centre (a distribution hub) to a single factory.
    The Zurich link describes a system with limited distribution points for specific types of cargo. As of March 2007, the goods tram had 16 monthly round trips.
    I have deleted the Vienna link because it goes to a page that has been “visited” by several bots leaving “comments”. If you want to read about Vienna or any other city’s cargo trams, use Google.

    The basic point about this is that we will not solve the problems of Roncesvalles Avenue by setting up a whole new goods distribution system for the city, especially considering the small reach of the street railway network.


  10. It would be tragic if the Ronc reconstruction didn’t involve getting Hydro on board to bury its overhead on the strip, which is grotesque-looking even by Toronto standards. Please, please, PLEASE, let someone at the City of the local BIA have the gumption to insist on that.


  11. The TTC design has some interesting possibilities. One possibility might be to reduce the ‘bumpouts’ at the intersections, to provide for turn lanes (Both left and right as per Bathurst and Fleet). This would mean that stops would need to be back from the corners though. An other possibility might be to provide timed transfers generally so there is no need in some cases to use the car. This might help the parking issue.


  12. The TTC design makes sense (can’t believe I am writing that…). In looking at the diagrams comparing their recommendations.

    It just makes sense. Don’t let people turn left at peak hours – problem sovled!


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