Bloor-Danforth Streetcar Shuttles: Demand Without Density

A frequent part of debates about technology choices and network planning is the premise that to succeed, rapid transit must be surrounded by high density development. This is an odd claim given the counter-examples available on Toronto.

The situation is more subtle, and “demand” turns not just on density adjacent to the line, but on its ability to act as a corridor drawing on feeder services to concentrate demand. Whether such concentration is “good” is another matter. Higher demand requires more infrastructure in the corridor and in a worst-case scenario, a line can run out of room. Two good examples in Toronto are the Yonge subway and Highway 401.

Focus on a single corridor can also distort travel patterns and network design. As a non-driver, I have often been amused by motorists who will go miles out of their way to use an expressway, only to find themselve trapped in a traffic jam. For transit riders, the need to force-feed rapid transit can interfere with travel that is not oriented to the primary trip pattern. Try getting around Scarborough if you are not bound for Kennedy or STC stations.

Recently, I was scanning another batch of old phographs and they reminded me of an even older example of high demand in a low density area: the streetcar shuttles on Bloor-Danforth that operated between the opening of the original Keele-Woodbine service, and the extensions a few years later to Islington-Warden. Neither Bloor West nor the Danforth — particularly in the late 1960s — were forests of high rise apartments. All the same, the shuttles had service, capacity and demand beyond that we see on any streetcar line today.

The Bloor West shuttle from Keele Station to Jane Loop operated with 17 cars at peak over a distance of only 2.1km at a headway of 1’07”. That’s 53.7 cars/hour for a design capacity of about 4,000/hr (based on about 75 riders per car) with headroom for peaks at a higher level.

The Danforth shuttle from Woodbine Station to Luttrell Loop operated with 12 cars on a 1.6km line at a headway of 1’30”. At 40 cars/hour this gave a design capacity of about 3,000/hr.

An important point about these shuttles is that the lion’s share of their traffic was bound to or from the subway, and local traffic was comparatively light. Many riders boarded inbound at the Jane and Luttrell terminals, and the streetcars were not attempting to serve very heavy demand from on-street stops. That demand depended on feeder bus services from what we now call “the inner suburbs”.

Moreover, the level of service on the outer ends of the old Bloor-Danforth streetcar route shows how considerable the demand was for these segments, even allowing for some added demand due to the subway’s presence.

The moral of this short article is that a transit network and its routes cannot be thought of with a simplistic model of transit stations surrounded by development. The larger context includes the diversity or concentration of demand patterns and the degree to which the network serves them.

In the next article, a look at Bloor West and The Danforth as they once were.

Correction January 6, 2015: In the original version of this article, I cited the number of cars/hour as the actual assignment of vehicles to each route. Thanks to John F. Bromley for catching this howling error.

Will We Ever See Our New Streetcars?

In the Financial Post, Peter Kuitenbrouwer reports on problems at Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant.

It’s a sad tale of cock-ups with parts that don’t fit and claims that designing for Toronto’s streetcar environment is too challenging. Fortunately for Bombardier, they have not yet had to start producing the Metrolinx cars that should be an off-the-shelf design as a point of comparison.

Sorry, Bombardier, you bid on this contract, and you pass yourselves off as a world-class supplier. Stop complaining and start delivering.