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.

57 thoughts on “Motorists vs Transit — 50 Years On

  1. Wilson, after whom Wilson Av. is named, actually envisioned the Spadina subway operating with light rail equipment, but ironically, his integrated BDU system killed the Queen line proposal (which was originally intended to run with light rail equipment also).


  2. Robin mentioned the bendy buses and their short life on the road in London. There was a lot of politics at play in that episode and in the new Boris Bus that followed. I rode the bendy bus on RV1 a number of times – this is a route with narrow old streets and lots of turns. One loop is in the south end of Covent Garden. The bus seemed perfectly functional to me and had multiple door pass pay loading. However, Londoners loved their iconic double deckers and resented these buses. Perhaps they also were harder for the cars to pass or get around – I am not sure if that was a major part of the hatred or not.

    Appealing to popular wishes – and not I am sure those who are experts in transit – Mayor Boris Johnson promised and delivered an updated imitation Roadmaster. This is affectionately known as the Boris Bus. It has three doors – front middle and rear. I only rode once, but I believe all three doors had pass pay facilities. The big feature – and big catch is that the back door is an open “hop on, hop off” door – just like the Roadmaster. However, obviously in modern liability world, you obviously cannot have an open door that people can fall from or that results in injury for those attempting to board on the fly – so every bus has a conductor who acts as a “human door” to prevent the very actions that supposedly make this design attractive. It is true that the rear door loading can speed things up at an actual stop, but the daredevils of old movie fame will not be reappearing in modern form. The catch is that during the daylight, when the door is open, each bus requires two employees. At night there is a mechanical door that closes.

    When I rode the Boris Bus on June 25 on Route 24 (first day that a whole route had all Boris Buses) I got on at Oxford Street, each bus was packed to the point of dysfunction and lots of people were left behind. As we proceeded to Camden Town, there were people left behind at most bus stops and the dysfunctional crowding persisted.

    While I rode, I pondered about the total waste of having a “hop on – hop off” door and the fact it required a second employee. Perhaps conductors do not get paid as much as operators, but I am sure it is two thirds. There are 600 of these buses on order. That means 600 conductors at peak times. How much more use might be realised from 400 operators instead.

    I must say that London Transit is impressive. However, on the Route 24 on that Saturday (cold and wet) the crowds outnumbered the spots on the service. The money wasted on conductors did not enhance anyone’s journey. It just goes to show, that when Mayors plan transit on the back of an envelope and sell it with populist slogans, chaos ensues. We know that too.

    Who hates Roadmasters or subways? They both are great in populist slogans.

    PS: Rereading my comment before moderation, I wish to make clear that the Boris Bus design itself is my concern. The incumbent two door London Double Deckers that have only one employee are, in my opinion a better design. I am not advocating getting rid of the conductors and risking people falling off the Boris Bus.


  3. Thanks for the responses! It makes sense that 2 minute headways was unrealistic, and I only mentioned buses operating in pairs as that appears to be what YRT is planning to do sometime down the road. As Steve pointed out, there are some major issues which probably make such a scheme impractical.

    So it would appear that the practical headway for a 2-lane BRT (which, as Steve pointed out, is 3 lanes at intersections) would be 3-4 minutes at best… which translates to 15-20 buses per hour and around 1,200-1,600 pphpd.

    It would be interesting to see the CIS data on what happens when the TTC tries to cram 30 buses per hour onto a route which should only have 15-20. I wonder if the 196 York U Rocket data will include information on Viva Orange? Also, even though the BRT may be compromised, is it still an improvement over the previous service?

    Steve: The VIVA info will not be in the CIS data.


  4. Joshua Tossavainen wrote:

    I only mentioned buses operating in pairs as that appears to be what YRT is planning to do sometime down the road.

    To the best of my knowledge, YRT is not planning to run buses in pairs. However, they have worked into the design of the new VIVAstations that this will occasionally occur, because this has been the case at times due to a couple of reasons.

    First, the Highway 7 rapidway now nearing completion has both the Purple and Pink routes during rush hours, and there are times when they may be running close together. More likely, what can happen is that two buses that would otherwise be spread apart by a few minutes can find themselves at the same stop due to things like traffic light timing (signal transit priority on VIVA only causes an early change to green or a later change to red when the bus is running late, and only for a limited window) or the need to deploy the ramp at a stop.

    Building platforms capable of holding two buses is just good planning.


  5. @ Matt Greason. The reason people hated the Bendy Bus in London, is that the buses were not often suited to the roads they ran down. On some of narrower and twisty sections of road it was common for them to clip curbs. More frequently their sheer length meant they often ended up blocking junctions.

    As to the review of the Boris Bus, well that is obviously your own view, but the on the whole they have been well received. Londoners like the new bus and do appreciate the ability to jump on and off a bus when it’s stuck in traffic. Until you have experienced the build up of rage being stuck on a bus in a traffic jam and not be able to leave the bus because walking would be quicker, then you will appreciate hop on and off. There might be fewer people leaping on and off the bus at speed, but they are still able to get on and off when the bus comes to a stand still, which in Central London is a 50ft.

    As for the 24 route, are you sure on the crowding? Maybe it was because of the launch day of the bus, because buses in Oxford street tend not to be too packed, unless there has been some disruption.

    The problem the bus has is that it was a manifesto pledge that has been fulfilled by the politician elected. For those that do not like him that infuriates them and colours a lot of the coverage. So every teething problem is seized upon, as if that was going to make a fair assessment. For example some of the new buses had problems with their air conditioning for a few days and this was promptly pounced upon as it that meant if the whole concept was useless. But it soon died away despite the continuing heatwave, because in the end it was just a few faulty air con units.


  6. Joshua, if you are comparing the service on the 196 Rocket prior to the opening of the bus-only lanes in the hydro corridor to how service runs now, then yes, there clearly is an improvement in reliability. On the old routing, there were a few problem spots, especially at Keele & Finch and the Sentinel/The Pond Road area, where congestion was particularly bad in the afternoon peak. The printed schedule was complete fiction and running times were so inadequate that buses would fall so much behind schedule during the day that they would eventually “fall back” on their schedule, missing a whole round trip every few hours!

    With the dedicated bus roadway, things are a bit better, but it is still virtually impossible for the ops to keep up with the schedule, as it takes at least 4-5 minutes at times simply to load/off-load at the York U loop at busy times. Under this scenario, a scheduled headway of 2-3 minutes, as shown in the schedule, is meaningless, especially when there are buses missing completely from the route due to cancellations, as is often the case especially during peak periods.

    On the 196 Rocket specifically, there are some other particular problems I would rather not get into that have to do with the “TTC culture” that Andy & co. want to change so much. Good luck with that!


  7. The practical headways for any system that has traffic signals in it is a multiple of the signal cycle time. If it is 2min. 40 sec. then your headway should be 2:40, 5:20, 8:00, 10:40, etc. If you try to run a 4:00 minute service you will either get a bus every 2:40 or 2 buses every 5:20 seconds. It is impossible to keep them on a 4:00 minute headway. Don’t tell the traffic engineers to change their cycle times because it would interfere with the flow of “their auto traffic.”


  8. So, I’m getting the impression BRT is unsuitable for Toronto. The practical capacity is not much greater than what many of the regular bus routes already carry, and while there may be some level of speed and reliability improvements it simply isn’t worth the costs involved. Perhaps it will work in places like York Region, where the ridership levels are far lower and 15-30 min is considered “frequent service,” but it doesn’t appear like it will work well down here.

    Steve: Much depends on the type of service and how much you want to invest on infrastructure. You can carry huge numbers of people with buses provided that you (a) will dedicated the space to multi-lane bus operations plus station platforms and (b) will actually run lots of buses. The commitment must be to more than a reserved lane or two where there happens to be some space left over on a road. Oddly enough, those are not always places of much congestion. Also, a BRT that acts as a line-haul link to a major terminal (e.g. a mall or a subway station) but which has few stations along the way is fundamentally different from a line that serves local demand.


  9. Speaking about BRT, I take it Steve that you will be posting an article early next week about you impressions regarding the opening of the first segment of the Highway 7 rapidway.

    Steve: Well, no, actually, I won’t.


  10. I guess the question of transit is all based on what we buy and at what cost with the scarce dollars. My 40 foot Ossington Orion “clipped” a curb tonight turning from Queen to Ossington northbound. Articulated “bendy” buses may do so as well, but that is not a fatal flaw. To reiterate, on the RV1 route, from Covent Garden to Tower of London, on “distillery district” style streets it seemed to cope OK.

    The frustration of not being able to wait until the next stop has been solved with an extremely expensive solution – the hiring of a full time conductor for all daytime operation. Is that a good investment – I don’t think so. If, TFL thinks it is safe for passengers to disembark mid-block, this can be accomplished by opening the doors on the incumbent fleet. To spend all that money, when existing service is challenged, seems to me to be madness.

    However, to spend a billion dollars to offer a “one seat ride” to a small number of suburban commuters is even more madness. To build a subway for those suburban commuters in the mistaken belief that it will end road congestion in Scarborough so that automobile commuters can move around at will is even more madness. Populist politicians deliver madness. How do they suck the electorate (but not me) in?


  11. Michael Greason wrote:

    My 40 foot Ossington Orion “clipped” a curb tonight turning from Queen to Ossington northbound. Articulated “bendy” buses may do so as well, but that is not a fatal flaw.

    I’ve read that since a ‘bendy’ bus (at least here in Canada) is 18m (60foot) but divided into two 9m (30 foot) segments it is actually easier to turn than a 12m (40 foot) bus … it’s certainly easier to turn than a 20 foot tractor pulling a 53′ trailer (the combination is also about 60 feet long with the overlap).

    Cheers, Moaz


  12. Because the electorate either don’t have the time or can’t be bothered to fully study the issues, so they rely on the catchiest slogans and the most winning smile?


  13. Moaz Yusuf Ahmad says:
    August 16, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    “I’ve read that since a ‘bendy’ bus (at least here in Canada) is 18m (60foot) but divided into two 9m (30 foot) segments it is actually easier to turn than a 12m (40 foot) bus … it’s certainly easier to turn than a 20 foot tractor pulling a 53′ trailer (the combination is also about 60 feet long with the overlap).”

    The trouble is the third axle turns in side the second axle which turns inside the front axle. This will happen with all free wheeled vehicles unless you make the middle axle steerable which causes other problems. The old GM fishbowls had axles that were 30′, 6 m, apart but the newer buses have axles that are 20′, 6 m, apart. The new buses have more overhang at each end but at least they have wider front doors.


  14. Does anybody here find it ironic that LRT can’t seem to take off in, of all places, the only North American city to retain so much if its traditional streetcar network? I love subways about as much as anybody could but I know it’s no one-size-fits-all panacea for every last transit corridor in the GTHA. LRT isn’t either. Every modern mode known to mankind has a niche somewhere but every mode also has its partisans who think their favorite mode is the be-all-and end-all and no mode is.

    Steve: Not surprising really. Forty years ago, the TTC just wanted to get rid of streetcars although they saw a use for them on lines in the as-yet undeveloped suburbs. Queen’s Park, whose experience with transit is marked by a succession of snake-oil salesmen trying to market dubious technologies, has always treated transit as an economic development proposition either for technology or physical construction. Actually operating transit is something they do on sufferance, not from true belief that more of it everywhere would be a good thing.

    LRT has never had a political champion, and by the time Transit City came along, it was burdened with the political battles of the pro- and anti-Miller camps. Add to that a TTC internally divided between surface and subway factions. The subway fraternity was so hurt at being left out that the short term goals of the Ridership Growth Strategy had to be amended to include subway expansion, clearly a long term option. TTC service policy has always focused on “rapid transit”, not on surface operations which are doomed to constant limitations on resources and a laissez-faire attitude to service management. Even our quasi-LRT streetcar lines don’t get the priority they deserve, and our politicians are unwilling to make hard decisions about allocation of road space.

    Every issue of Tramways and Urban Transit brings news of yet more LRT systems opening and expanding somewhere, and the rest of the world cannot be wrong about the value of this technology in its many forms. Yes, there are misapplications when funding schemes favour capital construction at someone else’s expense, but that doesn’t invalidate the basic idea any more than nearly-empty vanity subway stations invalidate that technology.


  15. David Aldinger wrote:

    Does anybody here find it ironic that LRT can’t seem to take off in, of all places, the only North American city to retain so much if its traditional streetcar network?

    I certainly did not. When I started the Toronto LRT Information Page in early 2007, part of the reason was to show what ‘True LRT’ was because not only did few people in Toronto know this, but that the retention of our streetcar system provides a concrete example of what one narrow type of ‘LRT’ is and this is applied across the entire definition of LRT.

    Just look at Rob Ford’s definition of what an LRT is during the Scarborough Subway debate recently. I like to believe that more of the public at large don’t have such a narrow view of LRT compared to 2007, but there remains a significant number in varying degrees.

    I am not saying that it was a bad idea to retain the streetcar network. However it is important to acknowledge that its retention has been and continues to be a handicap at the promotion of anything light rail. With this understanding in mind, a proper approach to selling light rail can take place and have a greater chance of succeeding.

    Until there is an example in or near Toronto, and I am not yet sure the K-W LRT is near enough, the battle to sell LRT will be uphill. I found the delay of the Sheppard East LRT most disappointing as it was the one line that could do the most to make LRT into a “we need that in our part of the city” thing. While both Finch West and Eglinton may have a higher utility value to the transit network, Sheppard East had the potential to showcase true LRT on a median for several reasons. Its construction would not take away any traffic lanes, with the exception of the portion between Consumers and Pharmacy. It could be built the way the VIVA Rapidways are being built with little to no removal of existing traffic lanes during construction. Most of all, we would now be less than a year from its opening.


  16. I think Calvin’s comment about the downtown streetcar network being an impediment to widespread public acceptance of the more general LRT concept is bang on. Unfortunately, it also shows how ass-backwards this city really is. Many medium-to-large cities throughout the world would kill to have a tram/streetcar network as extensive as ours. And for all of its perceived inefficiency, it does work prettly well, given that close to a quarter of all ridership is on the streetcar routes, although in terms of mileage the streetcar network accounts for less than 5% of the TTC network.

    Eliminating some streetcar routes and replacing them with buses (or perhaps even scrapping the entire network as some local politicians would want) would be extreme foolishness verging on imbecility. To my knowledge, no other city in the developed world is doing that now (with a few exceptions such as Milan, where new subway lines are replacing current tram routes, but that is a different situation). Some smaller tram systems were recently closed only in some Eastern European cities and the former USSR, due to a lack of funds as well as declining ridership. In most cases, both the rolling stock and the infrastructure were quite dilapidated (very much unlike the situation here in Toronto), and in any case I don’t think those particular cities have transportation policies we ought to emulate.

    On the other end of the spectrum, we have the example of The European Union, where the construction and expansion of electrically-powered, surface public transportation (be it tram/streetcar, LRT, trolleybus or more recently, electric bus) are strongly encouraged. Such projects are eligible for financing with EU funds, which in most cases cover up to 98% of the total construction cost (excluding ancillary costs, such as expropriation, environmental/feasibility studies etc.). Meaning that the municipality only has to come up with the remaining 2% of the cost, which in most cases is negligible. This financing scheme is not – and never was – available for bus purchases or BRT infrastructure. Imagine if we had such options available here in Canada!


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