LRT For Toronto

Royson James has a pair of columns in the Toronto Star discussing the perennial LRT vs subway transit debates.

City needs a transit lesson (Nov. 17, 2010)

Commuters won’t fill LRTs, much less subways (Nov. 19, 2010)

James sets out the pros and cons without becoming mired in either side’s arguments.  As with any overview, there are points for or against either technology that are not made with the vigour that advocates would prefer.  The important issue, however, is not to choose one technology to the exclusion of the other, but to look at the appropriate one for each implementation.

One critical issue — regardless of which side one might be on — is the matter of land use and how the evolution of Toronto will affect demand on routes and the overall network.  There are two fundamentally different views of of future development — the Official Plan’s “Avenues” with major streets lined by mid-rise buildings and shops giving an active pedestrian environment at ground level, or the more traditional “tower in a park” design that has shaped much of Toronto’s growth since the 1960s.  A third variant has appeared over the past decade — both tall and dense, as exemplified by the railway lands, parts of Liberty Village and most recently the Queen West Triangle (Queen & Dovercourt).

Each of these produces transit demands which vary both due to the built form and to the neighbourhood in which development occurs.  A building located in an existing walkable neighbourhood with shops and transit will have very different transportation demands than the same building located on a suburban arterial where the nearest shop is the mall a short drive or a lonely, windy walk away.

The perennial myth about subways is that their high capacity will be consumed by redevelopment around stations.  This is utter hogwash.  The Yonge line is full well north of Eglinton not with Willowdale condo dwellers, but with traffic fed in on surface routes.  Developments along the line add to the demand, but the subway exists to serve a much wider catchment area.  Similarly, the BD subway depends on feeder services to many stations, and the decades-long absence of nearby development did not prevent the buildup of demand eastbound from Etobicoke or westbound from Scarborough.

LRT lies somewhere in between by serving both busy “local” corridors and, in some cases, acting almost like a subway in speed, if not capacity.  We must remember that the SRT would have been an LRT line (and to Malvern too, decades ago) but for Queen’s Park’s intervention with the ICTS technology.  Regardless of technology, it is a medium capacity line whose principal function is to feed the BD subway at Kennedy and, much more recently, to serve the high-density residential development at Scarborough Town Centre, developments that did not occur until decades after the SRT opened.

In many ways, LRT has always been a misunderstood, orphan technology in Toronto.  Some within the TTC have never accepted the retention of streetcars, much less the creation of an LRT alternative to full-blown subway construction.  At a time when LRT was coming back into favour around the world, Toronto pursued ICTS and lost the chance to show what real LRT could do.  At more than double the cost of the LRT proposal, ICTS “proved” that there was no cheap way to implement transit lines, and system expansion stalled.  The TTC did nothing to advance the LRT alternative.

Spadina, Harbourfront and St. Clair are really not LRT, but rather upgraded streetcar lines.  That statement brings me to a common question:  what’s the difference between streetcars, LRT and “Heavy Rapid Transit” (or HRT)?  Everyone knows what subways, streetcars and buses are, but things get mushy in the space between them.

The boundary between HRT and LRT is fairly straightforward:  if the technology cannot run at grade in medians or crossing streets and walkways, then it’s HRT regardless of what vehicle actually operates on the structure.  There can be “light” railways such as the SRT, or full-blown subways, but in either case the lines are confined to an exclusive right-of-way.  This imposes costs and complexities wherever they are built.

The boundary between LRT and streetcar is not as clear-cut.  How exclusive is the right-of-way?  How much mixed-traffic operation does a route have?  How aggressive is the traffic signal priority?  Do passengers board through all doors?  How far apart are the stations?  How long are the vehicles or trains?  All of these issues and more produce a range of answers, and there is no magic point at which a light blinks on “LRT”.  That’s the strength of the technology — LRT does not have to be the same thing all the time on every metre of a route or a network.  The challenge is to strike a balance between the “light” and “rapid” parts of the name — exclusivity and speed versus the footprint a line can have in a street and neighbourhood.

The term “LRT” has been oversold in Toronto.  We have never seen something in the style of other Canadian LRT implementations in Edmonton or Calgary.  We lost that chance when the Scarborough LRT became the “RT”.  It’s still dubious whether we will see that route incorporated into an LRT network, or swallowed by a subway extension.

Toronto’s “LRT” routes run through downtown areas with frequent cross-streets where traffic signals grudgingly give priority to transit (but just as often serve to delay it).  They have slow on-board fare collection with high-floor cars and low-floor platforms.  They suffer a planning context where transit must fight to be acknowledged.

There is only so much road space and money to go around.  Subways make for flashy announcements and lots of work for the construction industry, but endless waits by riders whose trips are not served by the most recent subway extension. LRT lines (and busways while we’re on the subject) take space that would otherwise be used by motorists.  On some arterials, this space is available, but on many it is not (even VIVA’s BRT network is constrained in places by a narrow right-of-way).

LRT advocates have an uphill battle because Toronto’s version of this technology pleases few.  St. Clair was a disaster for “LRT” (and for transit in general) — there were too many design tradeoffs and construction was appallingly mismanaged.  Operations have improved over “the old days”, but still depend on keen route supervisors who actually manage the service rather than letting cars roam back and forth in packs taking generous layovers at terminals.  We may be rid of traffic congestion, but not the infamous TTC culture.

The political climate may shift back to one where we make announcements to appear to be “doing something”, even if that won’t bear fruit for a decade or more.  Such plans will serve only small parts of the GTA when finished (if ever), we will have yet another “lost generation” of transit investment.  Decisions about how to build, where to build, what to build are difficult and need more than an endless supply of magic markers, maps and press kits.

We have seen how a proposed LRT network suffered from funding cutbacks.  Major new revenue streams (tolls, regional taxes) cannot be implemented in the current political climate without a huge fight and an expenditure of political capital nobody seems willing to make today.

“The Big Move” could turn out to be little more than a modest expansion of GO Transit, busways, and a few rail lines of indeterminate technology within Toronto.  That’s not a network, and certainly not a recipe for convincing people that transit can offer an alternative to driving.  The challenge is to find a plan, a network, a quality of transit service that people are willing to pay for, however the money is raised.

LRT has a role as do full-blown subways and busways with each fitting into the mix under the right circumstances.  Advocates would do well to focus on the strength of each technology rather than trying to justify a full network of one option.  The goal is to improve and expand transit, not to prove that my subway is better than your streetcar.


Within James’ second article, the TTC is quoted as saying that ridership on the King car is 1,800 per hour.  It’s worth noting that the AM peak service is 30 cars/hour of which 7 trips are served by ALRVs.  The TTC’s service design capacity is 74 for CLRVs and 108 for ALRVs, and this gives a total for the route of about 2,450.  Crush capacity is higher.  A common complaint from riders is that they cannot get on, and this suggests that the demand cited by the TTC is rather lower than the actual level.