Motorists vs Transit — 50 Years On

Mike Filey recently sent me a copy of an editorial written in the Toronto Star of February 12, 1963 by the late Ron Haggart.  For copyright reasons, I cannot reproduce the entire article here, only selectively quote from it, but it could have been written yesterday.

Haggart begins with a 1957 report from the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board that argued Toronto could improve its streetcar service, possibly avoiding the need for so much subway construction, simply by using tools already at the City’s disposal to manage the streets:

  • Enforce laws that prohibit obstruction of streetcar tracks.
  • Let streetcars control the traffic signals.
  • Enforce “no stopping” laws in curb lanes to keep them open for traffic flow.
  • Limit or ban left turns from streetcar lanes.

The context for these recommendations was a report on subway priorities (Bloor was recommended over Queen), but planners argued that even if subway would come to Bloor eventually, changes should be made to improve streetcar service.  Streetcars could get up to 12-13 miles/hour (19.2-20.8 km/hr)  compared to the expected 15.75 mph (25.2 km/h) for the subway.  (In those days, the line was projected to cost $200-million for the 12km stretch from Woodbine to Keele).

Streetcar priority would “necessarily involve some inconvenience to a number of ratepayers”, but would save the transit system (and those ratepayers) money.  As Haggart observed:

Every politician knows that it is far easier, politically, to build a $200 million subway than it is to keep cars off the streetcar tracks.

He continued:

Present-day leaders in Toronto have continued to play with the expensive but politically popular solutions (subways) or the airy-fairy solutions (monorail) and have shied away from the solutions that are simpler (in the engineering sense) but which are more difficult (in the political sense).

W.E.P. Duncan, then General Manager of the TTC, had observed that the political decision makers come to their jobs in cars.  Haggart goes on to cite the same sort of streetcar-vs-auto capacity numbers we hear today from the TTC.  But politicians of the day thought that replacing streetcars with buses would fix everything.  Not so, said Norman D. Wilson, a consultant to the TTC and father of the “wye” junction, who observed that three times the transit vehicles would be required, and the speed and convenience of transit would not be “one whit improved”.

Haggart concluded that the streetcars should be saved, but that:

Unfortunately, politicians prefer to be known as the father of the Gardiner Expressway … no one wants to be remembered as the Protector of the Streetcar.

Fifty years later, nothing has changed.  Even a fully grade-separated LRT, the most advanced form a “streetcar” can take without simply morphing into a subway line, fails to gain support and advocacy from the very politicians who should defend it.  It is simpler to plump for subways and ignore the expense.