Correction Nov. 7, 2010: An error in the spreadsheet calculating the number of vehicles required for 501 Queen in 2020 (either Flexity streetcar or replacement bus) caused these numbers to be understated. I have replaced the spreadsheets and modified the text in the article where appropriate.
The election of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto brought deep concerns to many about the future of transit as witnessed in the comment threads elsewhere on this site. Much of this focussed on the existing streetcar network and the planned Transit City lines, but transit as a whole is a larger issue.
This article is not intended as the definitive defense of streetcars. Indeed, the whole idea of “defending” them starts from a negative perception. The challenge for those of us who see a future for streetcars and LRT is to advocate for them, for the role they can play in decades to come. We also have to be honest about the tradeoffs. No technology — buses, trolley buses, streetcars, LRT, subways, gondolas, dirigibles, even swan boats — is without its problems and limitations. Pretending that any one of them is “the answer” is hopelessly shortsighted regardless of which one you might prefer.
The election brought a great deal of what I will politely call bovine effluent to the debate on the transit system, and many vital issues were simply ignored. Nobody talked about fares, only about the technology to collect them. Rapid transit networks were conceived to fit within funding that candidates thought could be available, rather than starting with the question “what do we need” and then addressing the cost and implementation. Regional transit was ignored, except for occasional hopes that Metrolinx, that bastion of clear-headed thinking and far-reaching financial planning, would take at least part of the TTC off of our hands.
Transit City was the heart of much debate. Whether your platform was “more of the same” or “Miller’s plans must be garbage”, campaigns ignored the fact that transit is much more than Transit City.
One note about terminology: In this article, I will use the term “streetcar” to refer to the existing TTC system, including those lines operating in reserved lanes. The operating characteristics of Spadina and St. Clair, with single cars using pay-enter fare collection at closely-spaced stops, really is little more than an upgraded streetcar. I will use “LRT” for much of the Transit City network where:
- service will be provided by 30m cars in two or three car trains,
- all-door loading and proof-of-payment fare system will be standard,
- routes will be substantially or completely on private right-of-way with transit priority signalling, and
- stops will be more widely spaced than on the streetcar and bus networks.
We can haggle about definitions, and will always run up against the fuzzy boundary where a streetcar becomes an LRV. Indeed, the replacement of existing streetcars with new stock and a move to all door loading will address some of my “LRT” criteria above, but won’t change the basic fact that most routes spend most of their time dealing with traffic. Either they run in mixed traffic, or have substantial interference at intersections.
Please don’t clutter the comment thread with this sort of argument as the real issue is the appropriate use of the technology, whatever we call it. The name is important when trying to explain things to the public who have been ill-served by the deliberate fudging of the streetcar/LRT differences in the campaign.
As I write this, the political standing on streetcars and the Transit City LRT lines appears to be shifting.
- Mayor-elect Ford’s YouTube video talks about streetcars as a source of traffic congestion, but does not mention eliminating them from Toronto. They are portrayed as simply not the sort of thing we want in the suburbs, and a few subways would replace the much larger Transit City network.
- Ford’s campaign literature does talk about removing streetcars from some city streets, and this was later clarified to indicate the right-of-way lines (Spadina, Harbourfront, St. Clair) would survive at least for a time.
- Ford hopes to meet with Premier McGuinty and change the terms of the streetcar purchase, ideally to kill it. Whether this position could be mollified by the arrival of new transit funding from Queen’s Park remains to be seen.
- Councillor-elect Doug Ford (brother of the Mayor-elect) backpedalled on the streetcar issue and claimed that the idea that Ford would get rid of streetcars was an invention of the nasty lefties to scare their supporters. The fact that Ford’s own literature and statements by candidate Ford directly contradict this position makes one wonder how much the brothers Ford actually pay attention to each other.
- Recently, Councillor Karen Stintz, mooted as a new Chair for the TTC, made what I read as concilliatory statements about Transit City. She would prefer subways, but is not unalterably opposed to LRT. This is a change from her campaign stance where her representations of streetcars, LRT, especially where the latter is underground, and subways were either uninformed or “misleading” in the Parliamentary sense. As TTC Chair, she would have quite a learning curve.
As I write this, it is unclear what a Ford administration’s position on streetcars might be.
We often hear that buses would be faster than streetcars, but one need only compare bus routes on comparable streets with (usually) 4 lanes much like those where the Queen and King car run. Slow scheduled speeds are a function of the individual routes, the demands at stops, the street geometry and the traffic on those streets. It is ironic that the Queen car has a faster scheduled speed over its long route than the Dufferin bus.
Although Ford’s literature claims that the average speed of streetcars in only 17kmh, the speeds planned for Transit City routes start at 22kmh (Sheppard East, Finch, Eglinton East surface section) and go up from there to be comparable with subways in the tunnelled section of Eglinton (28-31km/h).
Estimating the number of vehicles needed to replace streetcar lines turns not just on vehicle capacity, but on whether buses could match or better the speed of streetcars. From historical evidence on Bay Street, buses were slower than the streetcars they replaced by a factor of about 10%. Even on short routes like Junction and Mt. Pleasant, the trolley buses, and later the buses, could not make the running times of the streetcars they replaced.
The streetcar network has a backlog of additional peak service requirements going back close to a decade. The TTC’s ability to add service is constrained by the combined effect of the decision to retire the last of the PCCs, service cuts of the mid-1990s, opening the 510 Spadina line in 1997 and the gradual decline in reliability of the CLRV/ALRV fleet.
Current schedules require 152 of 195 CLRVs, and 38 of 52 ALRVs. Spares are over 20%, a generous allowance for transit vehicles. If the TTC were able to attain a 15% spare factor (15 spares for every 100 in service), it could field 169 CLRVs and 45 ALRVs. Five additional CLRVs will be required in January 2011 when the 504 King route returns to Roncesvalles Avenue (4 cars), and service is improved on 511 Bathurst (1 car).
The order for 204 new streetcars will very substantially increase the capacity of the fleet. Taking a CLRV (the existing 4-axle cars) as a unit of “1”, an ALRV (two-section, six-axle cars) as a unit of “1.5”, the current fleet is equivalent to
195 (CLRVs) + 78 (equivalent of 52 ALRVs) = 273
The service actually on the street as of January 2011 will be
157 (CLRVs) + 57 (equivalent of 38 ALRVs) = 224
[Note: For the careful readers, the number of CLRVs here does not match the total shown on the TTC’s Service Summary. The reason is that there is an ongoing problem in this summary with the count of vehicles in service due to double-counting of cars that switch between routes during the AM peak. The numbers I use are taken from the count of cars assigned to each route.]
Riding continues to grow especially on the downtown routes which were not as badly affected by job losses of recent years, compounded by high density residential construction on King, and already underway on or near Queen. Both the King and Spadina routes are at the limit of service that can be operated in the AM peak without moving to longer cars or trains in the manner of services once seen on Bloor-Danforth and on Queen.
Over the past decade, it is not unreasonable to estimate a backlog of demand for the streetcar system of at least 15%. Growth in future years, if only it could be accommodated, is projected to run at 2-3%. Conservatively, that is at least 20% over the coming decade, and the combined effect would be about 40% allowing for compounding from 2001 to 2020 by which time the new fleet would all be delivered.
Applying this amount of growth across the board to every route gives an approximation of future fleet requirements. Note that this is only for purposes of illustration. Some routes will grow faster due to population shifts and new development, others will grow less quickly. The overall effect is the point of the exercise.
Route Projection To 2020 [501 Queen requirements in 2020 corrected]
Including spares, about 155 167 of the fleet of 204 new streetcars will be required to handle growth on the existing system to 2020, assuming service replacement on a capacity-for-capacity basis. In some cases, rather wide headways by streetcar route standards result, and this may require some additional cars so that waiting times do not come to dominate transit trips on these routes.
Other planned improvements include the eastern waterfront services on Queen’s Quay, Cherry and eventually into the Port Lands.
Line management on wider headways will be crucial to the success of the larger cars. The TTC has a long history of creative writing in explaining why it cannot better manage its service, and this really must be addressed. The single largest problem with service reliability is that cars are not dispatched at regular intervals from locations where control on departure times is practical.
Short turns on wide headways will produce unacceptably large gaps, and the TTC must move to a headway management philosophy rather than using short turns in an attempt to keep operators “on time”. This will require a complete rethink of operator work practices by the TTC and the ATU.
The view from 2020 is important because this is roughly the timeframe in which some pronouncements about the streetcar system would have us roll the last car into the barns and retire it to life as a chicken coop.
When the projections are converted to an equivalent bus operation, we can see the effect on headways and on fleet requirements. In this projection, I have used a replacement ratio of 2.5 buses for 1 Flexity streetcar on a capacity basis. A separate calculation adds a penalty of 10% for slower loading of a bus fleet to see the effect. This penalty assumes that headways would stay at the target level, but more buses would be used to handle the added running time.
[The following paragraph has been updated to reflect the correction to the number of vehicles required on 501 Queen in 2020.]
The peak vehicle requirement goes from 135 145 flexity cars to 336 363 buses, or to 370 399 buses if the 10% speed penalty is added. (Note that spare vehicles do not consume operators and are not included in these figures.) On some routes, the headway would become very short (55.8 buses per hour on King), while on others it can be argued that the bus headways would be more attractive because for short trips, a long wait for a vehicle can contribute considerably to travel times. Conversely, fewer transit vehicles per hour reduces the interference, such as it might be, with other road traffic. Other possibilities include articulated buses or trolleybuses. These are not straightforward tradeoffs.
[Again, this projection is to give a general idea of the combined effect of replacing streetcars with buses and accommodating reasonable expectations for riding growth. Other scenarios are possible including one where transit is starved of resources to make a bus plan fit within a larger political agenda.]
Finally, turning briefly to Transit City, Mayor-elect Ford argues that the TC network will doom people to take hours getting across the city. However, his Sheppard/BD subway loop plan leaves large areas without rapid transit notably the northeast and northwest quadrants of Toronto, not to mention the dense Eglinton crosstown corridor. People in these areas will still have to ride buses to reach the rapid transit network.
If we are going to seriously talk about additional subway building, this must address actual needs for travel, not merely be an exercise in recycling the monies presumed to be available from cancelling Transit City. If subways are to be “the answer”, then let us be honest about the scale of construction, and the cost both for building the network and operating it for decades to come.
As I said earlier, this is not intended to be the definitive article on the future of streetcars, and many other discussions will spring from points raised here and from the inevitable proposals at Council and at the TTC.
The future of transit, whatever it may be, requires well informed debate. This should be based on more than a desire to get the Queen car out of the Mayor-elect’s way as he drives to City Hall.