A Day To Celebrate on St. Clair

Saturday, December 19, 2009 brought the first passenger-carrying streetcars to St. Clair from Bathurst to Lansdowne on the new streetcar right-of-way.  Regular service starts on Sunday, but the preview day featured PCCs 4500 and 4549 shuttling between St. Clair West Station and Earlscourt Loop from about 11 am to 4 pm.

4500 was the politicians’ car with TTC Vice Chair Joe Mihevc, Chair Adam Giambrone and MP Carolyn Bennett.  Mihevc wryly noted that Bennett (a Liberal) was part of the government when funding came from Ottawa for this project.  It’s been underway for some time.  Mike Filey was along to provide historical commentary.

4549 was generally less loaded, but featured the Hillcrest Choir whose renditions of stop announcements were a distinct improvement over the standard TTC offering, and they even pronounced the streetnames correctly.

After riding several times in both directions, I can honestly say that the weaving track, although unusual, was not at all uncomfortable or any threat to standing passengers.  The first few trips encountered work crews putting finishing touches on parts of the line, but with only two cars operating, it wasn’t hard for them to dodge out of the way.

Everyone was having a marvellous time, and the crowd was fascinating for its makeup — many parents taking their young children out to ride cars built in 1951 on a line that might not have had active streetcar service when they were born.

To my amazement, the heat worked quite well on both cars, something I did not find on any other transit vehicle (bus, streetcar or subway) I rode on the same day.  The biggest problem with the PCCs is that the centre doors were not working on either car, and this made for lots of congestion as people had to push through crowds (at least on 4500) to reach the one working door at the front.  The running joke on board was that if we paid 50 cents more on the fare, we could have cars with doors that worked.  Memo to TTC:  Fix the doors.

Earlier in the week, test runs were made with CLRVs to check out clearances, overhead alignment and track.  Harold McMann sent a few photos of car 4165, the first test car on Monday, December 14.  Many thanks to him for these.

The real test comes Monday morning with a rush hour load.  A few problems were obvious even with the PCC runs, notably difficulties at Lansdowne.  There does not appear to be a dedicated transit left turn, and cars must bull their way through traffic.  This is probably because the westbound switch is not yet electrified, and the traffic lights don’t “know” that they have to give a transit call on.  This should be fixed.

A more difficult problem is the exit from Earlscourt Loop which is close to Lansdowne eastbound, and will regularly be blocked by traffic waiting for a green signal.  Streetcars must push out into traffic from the loop without any sort of signal to assist them.  They may also find an occasional 47 Lansdowne bus laying over, and it will be interesting to see how often this form of “congestion” puts gaps in the service.

The operation of traffic signals generally follows the pattern we have seen elsewhere with a left/U turn phase for autos, followed by a through green for autos and transit.  Some parts of the line now have detectors that will hold a transit green for an approaching streetcar, but I have not seen enough of the operation to know if this is installed or working at all locations.

Here are views of the test run with 4165 and of the PCC operation.

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Globe Blows Hot Air on Climate Change

Today, Canada’s so-called National Newspaper weighed in against Mayor David Miller with an editorial short enough on fact it might be a policy paper for would-be mayoral candidates in 2010.

The Globe doesn’t like our Mayor, who has not only his Toronto role but the distinguished position of leading the C40 group of major cities internationally.  Miller uses his international standing as a stage to critique Ottawa, but the Globe, with text that might have been cribbed from a Harper press release, paints Miller as at best unhelpful.  Miller calls himself “an embarrassed Canadian”, and he’s not alone.  International criticism of Canadian policy comes from many quarters, and the opposition is not co-ordinated at the corner of Queen and Bay.

Quoth the Globe:

While Toronto gets some things right, it is not the environmental angel Mr. Miller would like the world to believe. The city has ambitions for public transit, but fare hikes are more reliable than the announcements of new routes. The city’s energy retrofitting programs are worthy, but the tens of millions of dollars spent to date will not make a sustained, wide-ranging impact in conservation. There are vaunted efforts to expand renewable energy, but a single wind turbine twirls, lonely, near Lake Ontario.

In case the Globe’s editors, sitting down by the lake and an expressway, have not noticed, the single most ambitious transit project, Transit City, is a Toronto initiative, as are many other less glamourous but still important improvements to the transit system in the wake of Harris-era cutbacks.  Three Transit City routes are funded, as is the conversion of the SRT to LRT and its extension as part of an overall Transit City Network.  Transit service, though it has problems, has been improved both in capacity and in hours.  There are lots of announcements, but possibly the Globe is too busy with puff pieces about the oil sands to bother reading them.

Queen’s Park has helped on the capital side with almost complete funding for the Transit City projects.  Where they fall short is on the operating side of the budget where a consistent, guaranteed revenue stream is still not available to the TTC.  The city itself has a chronic deficit inherited from years of Lastman tax freezes when modest increases would have kept the city in good shape.  Queen’s Park refuses to take on many costs downloaded in the Harris era, but also refuses to give Toronto the most important tool it could have, a chunk of the sales tax revenue stream.

Ottawa has funded part of the Spadina subway extension and the Sheppard East LRT project, and has money in various smaller projects.  Almost all of the federal money is a one-time grant, not a guaranteed revenue stream.

Yes, the TTC has just passed a fare hike, the first in two years, and one that is justified to pay for ongoing increases in the cost and amount of transit service.  Recent complaints stem more from the size of the jump (a product of a two-year wait), and regular annual increases would likely have been more palatable.  The Globe itself raises prices from time to time, and we are stuck with paying for it (at least if we want the hard copy).  Try picketing at 444 Front West and see how much good it does you.

That single wind turbine down by the lake is lonely.  It never was intended to be the final word, but simply a demonstration project.  As the Globe should well know, tests are now underway to determine the wind characteristics off Scarborough Bluffs.  Moreover, generation is primarily a provincial responsibility through Hydro.  The city can and does encourage whatever changes are possible to reduce demand and to provide alternate energy sources where this is practical.

With spectacularly warped logic, the Globe argues:

Canadian cities often coast on the environmental harms being caused elsewhere. For instance, Toronto’s financial-services sector depends on oil, gas and mining concerns. Bay Street, and the larger Toronto economy, benefit from carbon emissions generated far away. Mr. Miller touts a 20-year record of greenhouse-gas emission reduction; an all-in calculation might yield a different result.

This implies an all-in view not just of energy usage but of economic prosperity.  We all benefit from the oil sands, and everyone needs to accept their share of the blame for Alberta’s carbon footprint.  That neat transfer of responsibility from the oil industry to Bay Street and the Mayor’s Office is a staggering leap especially considering that any attempt “the east” makes to critique Big Oil’s excesses, the more we are villified for interfering in “the west’s” manifest destiny.  What the Globe neglects is the small fortune lavished on Big Oil by government subsidies and fast writedowns without which the oil sands may never have been developed.  How much money have I invested in dirty oil through the tax system?  How much will future Albertans pay to clean up the mess it is creating?

Finally, the Globe dismisses the Mayor with:

A federal government that already has its back up on the international stage will not buckle from the chirpings of a lame-duck mayor of a city where it has no parliamentary seats; if anything, its stance will harden.

If anyone at the Globe thinks that the election of Tories to federal seats in Toronto would change the attitude of the federal caucus, they are dreaming.  Dismiss the Mayor as a lame-duck, they may, but the Globe cannot spin international opinion as if it’s all David Miller’s doing.  Miller’s “antics”, as the Globe describes them, show us as a city, finally, telling Ottawa to pull its weight in the world, to give us something we can be proud of, a lasting contribution to our future, something more than a few weeks of bread and circuses.

Wandering Rails on St. Clair (Update 2)

Updated December 15 at 1:00 am:

Car 4165 made two test runs on the western section of the St. Clair route on Monday, December 14.  The first pass was done slowly to check clearances, and the second was done at speed without incident.  Testing will continue through the week.

On Saturday, December 19 from 11 am to 3 pm, there will be charter service using PCCs 4500 and 4549.  Here is Councillor Joe Mihevc’s announcement of this event.

Save Saturday, December 19 for a fun shop local event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. when there will be free rides on two TTC heritage streetcars between Bathurst and Lansdowne. The heritage streetcars are the red-maroon and yellow “Presidents’ Conference Committee” streetcars that first operated in Toronto in the late 1930s and ended in the mid-1980s. These PCC streetcars are a real treat that will take you down memory lane to Toronto’s past.

The Hillcrest Village Choir will be performing for much of the day on one streetcar, and Toronto historian Mike Filey will be speaking about local history on the other. This is a great opportunity to come to St. Clair to enjoy a rare ride and support local businesses by finishing some last minute holiday shopping or enjoying a St Clair meal with friends and family.

The basic idea is have local residents support local businesses along the strip and use the PCC streetcars to jump on and off at your pleasure. So you may want to have a brunch or lunch at a local eatery, and then catch the streetcar as it comes by, make a big loop and return to where you began, perhaps jumping off at a store that you always wanted to check out. Boarding the streetcar will be from the new passenger islands.

I will be at World Class Bakers at Christie for most of the time. Feel free to come by and say hello.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The free ride only extends between Bathurst and the Earlscourt loop at Lansdowne. There will be no free transfers to other lines. The streetcar will only use the St Clair West subway station to turn around (no passengers will be permitted to exit into the subway. If you want to go to the subway, you will need to use the buses which will continue on the road and pickup passengers from the sidewalk.)

Joe Mihevc

The original December 5 post follows the break below.

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The TTC As An Arbiter of Morality and Good Taste

Much has been made in the press recently about a certain Internet dating service that encourages people to have affairs.  They managed to get lots of free publicity with a proposed total wrap of streetcars, but the TTC’s advertising review panel (a subset of the full Commission) turned them down claiming that encouraging adultery is just plain wrong.

Whether the TTC likes it or not, adultery is legal as is the provision of a “dating service” to hook up would-be partners.  This would not be the first such service to advertise on the TTC.  LavaLife ran ads in subway cars, and there are dating service posters in some subway stations.  Somehow, I doubt that everyone using these services tells their spouse/partner what they are doing.

Subway ads are running right now for the movie “It’s Complicated” whose plot involves a love triangle between a woman, her ex, and her new boyfriend.  The posters include a tasteful view of Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in bed.  I don’t know whether their characters are married at the point in the film where this scene occurs, but that’s hardly the point.  If the TTC is going to start censoring ads based on behaviour that is legal, they will have to be consistent.

Many people feel that lottos and booze simply involve addictive, anti-social behaviour and encourage people to spend money they don’t have.  Should these ads be banned?

On the good taste front, anyone who has visited Bloor Station recently will know that the station identity is almost completely masked in large places by a campaign for Amex.  It’s an odd coincidence that the TTC will be considering a report about the proposed renaming of Dupont Station as “Casa Loma” which contains the following observation:

TTC subway stations are, first and foremost, transportation facilities, not advertising vehicles. As people travel through our system, they need to know where they are geographically, in the context of the roads and neighbourhoods within Toronto. The names of subway stations are selected to give the clearest possible information to customers as they travel on the TTC.

Someone at the TTC should tell their ad agency that disguising a subway station to the point it is unrecognizable is unacceptable.  Count this post as the first of five complaints needed to launch a review of Amex’s adverising.  Four more shouldn’t be hard to find, and mine might not even be the first.

Footnote:  If you are going to comment, do not use the words starting with “g” that refer to games of chance.  Your session will be blacklisted by the spam filter.

Transit City Update December 2009 (Part 1)

On December 16, the TTC will receive an update on the status of the Transit City projects.  This post is a brief synopsis along with my own comments on the progress, or lack thereof, on this plan.

This is a long post, and I have placed the break here for those who don’t want to read the whole article.  The Eglinton LRT is covered here including comments on the December 2009 version of the design presented at recent open houses.  I will deal with the remaining lines in Part 2. Continue reading

A Very Bad Day on the Subway

Wednesday, December 9 was the first “snow day” for the TTC of the 2009-10 season.  Although I’m now retired and should have stayed in bed listening with glee to the traffic reports, I bundled up and rode over to Bloor-Yonge Station to watch the morning rush hour with the new crowd control setup.

It was not pretty.

The crowd control actually achieved its purpose in spreading out the load on the southbound platform, but the service was a complete mess.  The TTC had signal problems, service interruptions due to smoke at track level (more about this later) and a number of passenger assistance alarms (PAAs) brought on by people feeling unwell or fainting in crowded trains.

A log of my observations shows the wide gaps in service with headways rarely below 4 minutes. During the two-hour period from 0800 to 1000, the TTC managed to get only 26 trains through the station, slightly fewer than they would normally operate in the peak hour.

Traffic was heavier than usual with trains arriving southbound quite full of passengers.  However given the gaps in service, it was impossible to know if this was due to heavier demand on a snow day or simply the backlog of riders.  Passengers transferring from Bloor-Danforth made their way well down the platform, and the south end was often more crowded than the north end.  Even when the crowd was backed up on the platform beyond the pillars (roughly half of the platform depth), transfer passengers from BD flowed fairly freely behind them.

TTC staff adjusted their tactics to suit the changing situation and on one occasion sent passengers transferring from the Yonge to the Bloor line the “wrong way” through the passageway to the north concourse to avoid the congestion on the main part of the platform they would normally use.  This sort of flexibility and “on the spot” judgement about routing pedestrians is vital to the scheme, and will be part of the design considerations for any sort of “permanent” installation of barriers.

A sharp-eyed trainspotter can keep track of the approaching service using the “next train” time indications.  When these change infrequently, the next train is spending a lot of time at stations or crawling between them.  Given that signal problems slowed trains, and passenger congestion extended the dwell times, it’s hard to know which condition had the greater effect.

Dwell times at Bloor were appallingly long, and few trains achieved under one minute dwells.  The TTC has cut back on platform assistants, and this really showed because several trains had problems getting doors closed on the first attempt.  Moreover, some of the PAs held back from the crowd rather than being trapped between them and the platform edge.

A delay at Pape caused by a smoke observation shut down the entire BD line from about 0824 to 0841.  This choked off transfer traffic, and the YUS caught up with a “gap train” (empty train arriving express from Davisville) clearing the platform at 0830.  However, once the BD delay cleared, things on the YUS level became congested, and the platform was not cleared again until after 1000.  If the BD line had run normally, the platform at Yonge would likely have been overwhelmed.

These smoke delays are becoming quite common, although you would never know it from the TTC’s eAlerts.  Far more info is available on the TTC’s Facebook page.  According to that page, there have been three smoke delays so far today (1020), three yesterday, three Wednesday.  I am still waiting for the TTC to provide information on what is happening and why these delays are so frequent.

TTC’s eAlert system has been more or less missing in action.  The only alert on Wednesday was for a derailed streetcar at College and Ossignton, and it has been completely silent otherwise.

Overall, my impression of Wednesday’s operation was that the crowd control system together with the 20-minute shutdown of the BD line kept the situation at Bloor Station from completely falling apart.  This shows the importance of everything working as one system, and how badly things can go awry if any part of that system is unreliable.

A related issue is headroom, the spare capacity needed to absorb unexpected problems and surges in demand.  We hear a lot about the demand the YUS might carry, but that only works if the line is much, much more reliable.  All the signals and automatic train operation are worthless if there are regular delays caused by smoke or door problems or ill passengers from overcrowding.

We are trying to jam more and more people onto a system that was not designed for these loads, and whose maintenance philosophy appears to tolerate random service disruptions as a normal part of operations.  The more important any one component in the network becomes, the more important that it work reliably regardless of the weather.

The coming TTC operating budget debates will no doubt include the usual calls for belt-tightening, but we can already see that the TTC is falling behind in system reliability.  The debacle of the mid-90s must not be repeated, and the TTC must operate good, reliable service rather than falling back on “snow” as a catch-all excuse.

The Effect of Rapid Transit on Local Shopping

A few weeks ago, Stephen Rees Blog in Vancouver ran an interesting piece on the effect of the new Canada Line (the one connecting Vancouver Airport and Richmond to downtown) on local shopping neighbourhoods.  Since bus service on the former surface routes has been cut, merchants are concerned that they get less walk-in trade from bus passengers.

The comment thread following the article requires some knowledge of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods and geography, but includes a variety of viewpoints on this phenomenon.  One point comes right at the end of the thread in a comment about the reconstruction of Cambie Street, under which the Canada Line runs:

Cambie Street between 16th and King Ed was completely rebuilt at great tax payer expense. What an opportunity to create a “Great Street” and boost neighborhood identity!

Instead, the streetscape design is the worst possible for enhancing the Cambie Village experience. Six lanes of traffic without separating medians, with curb side parking taking up the outer two.

My favourite symbol of the lack of capacity shown in this area of design practice is the introduction of “park benches” on the sidewalks facing parked cars.

We hear a lot about urban design in Toronto and the improvements possible as an offshoot of the Transit City projects, and the Cambie experience should be a warning of what can happen.

Rees’ article talks about the problems of merchant pressure for parking taking precedence over transit, and this effect can be seen on St. Clair where parking was one of the car-oriented street functions that forced an uncomfortable design onto the street overall.

He makes an important point about transit, namely that it is part of a pedestrian experience:

Every transit trip is an interrupted walk. Transit stops and stations ought to be seen as key to retailing. Far too often in Greater Vancouver bus passengers are banished to remote, sterile areas like Phibbs Exchange, or the Ladner bus loop. Always this is forced by local merchants who have only contempt for what they see as the low income bus passenger, and who regard buses as noisy, smelly nuisances. Of course, transit’s selection of large diesel buses only confirms that view. We do have to learn from our experiences, and acknowledge our mistakes. Far too often, transit advocates are expected to be cheer leaders for a system which, sadly, often lets us down, and seems incapable of learning from its past mistakes. Let’s all learn from this when we design our next system change.

As one who is often expected to cheer for transit plans and hope that we will fix the design problems “later”, I can only say that the time for believing planners when they say “trust me” is long over.