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.

11 thoughts on “Bloor-Danforth Streetcar Shuttles: Demand Without Density

  1. To be somewhat fair, they knew it would only last two years, the tracks were there, there were streetcars available, there were plenty of operators available (as the major reorganization of routes did not occur until 1968) and, at least according to D. Norman Wilson’s reports, the demand remaining was more than buses could handle, so, why not? BTW, are you familiar with D. Norman Wilson’s reports Steve? They start in the early 50’s and go up thru the end of the 60’s. Hundreds of reports that I have found so far and it seems he was either directly working for the TTC or very close relationship.

    Steve: Yes, it was a temporary arrangement, but my point was to illustrate that a large demand can exist thanks to feeder services, not just to walk-in trade from adjacent development. Indeed, the BD subway is based on this premise. Jobs and academic positions are concentrated, but residents are not.

    As for Norman Wilson, yes I am aware of his long-standing relationship with the TTC.

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  2. Why did the TTC bother to rip out the streetcar tracks if much of the subway line wasn’t directly underneath the right-of-way?

    Steve: They didn’t. The tracks were paved over with asphalt and removed years later, if ever, when the streets were rebuilt.

    Also, did inline locations, like at Pape or at Broadview, see much transferring traffic at the time?

    Steve: I presume by “at the time” you mean the short period between 1966 and 1968 while the subway ran only between Woodbine and Keele. If so, yes, there was and is considerable transfer traffic to the subway. Before 1966, the Bloor car got some of this, but there were frequent streetcar services into the core from Pape (Harbord car from Lipton Loop to downtown via Dundas) and Broadview (King car from Erindale Loop) that allowed people to bypass the Bloor car. Sort of a “downtown relief line” for the streetcar network.

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  3. Steve:

    How did the cars for the east and west shuttles get to service. Was the complete Bloor line kept in place until they were discontinued. I rode the Keele – Jane shuttle for a year, but don’t remember track at Spadina and Bloor.

    Steve: The trackage was abandoned east of Dundas and west of Coxwell. Danforth carhouse remained active as an overflow storage facility and cars rotated between this location and Russell.

    The Bloor shuttles ran from Roncesvalles carhouse via Roncesvalles, Dundas and Bloor. The Danforth shuttles ran from Russell carhouse via Queen, Coxwell, Upper Gerrard and Main. Photos of some carhouse moves will be included in the gallery I will be publishing soon.

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  4. “The tracks were paved over with asphalt and removed years later, if ever, when the streets were rebuilt.”

    Some of them are still there. At Danforth & Hillingdon, part of the old switch to Coxwell barn can be seen. When they stripped the pavement from Danforth near Main a few weeks ago, the streetcar tracks were exposed at Chisholm.

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  5. Steve, the question I would have, is to what degree does it now make sense to replicate this idea of demand without density, only spread considerably thinner in Toronto? How many corridors should we realistically have of what would now be seen as intermediate capacity transit, that would act like the densely serviced streetcar routes of yesteryear? Collect volume without driving routes and riders miles out their way.

    Steve: I don’t think it’s quite that simple. The Bloor-Danforth corridor is part of the “funnel” that brings people into a very dense core area which is a major destination for jobs and academic activity. That area evolved over the city’s history and there is no comparable area elsewhere in the GTA to act as a focus. Travel patterns within the suburbs are more diverse.

    The “solution” often proposed for new density is to build more residences, but this presumes that the result will be a concentration of travel along a specific corridor or path (e.g. Sheppard East to downtown). However, new residents will be attracted not just by transit but by the existing road network notably the 401/DVP. It also presumes that these residences can be built at a price that is economically viable both for builders and for the people who might take up home there. Families, for example, require more space and, in turn, a higher income to sustain themselves in new buildings, and that presumes there are even suites large enough for them.

    Even the SRT and its replacement the Scarborough Subway follow the low density pattern in the sense that they are mainly a bridge between the STC area and Kennedy Station.

    The whole purpose of the LRT network proposal was to shift to a network that would provide capacity for modest growth beyond what can be provided by bus services without a commitment to massive infrastructure spending that would limit us to one or two lines. Whether Toronto will ever be able to build this type of network between competing demands for “subways” and the claim that surface routes will cause traffic chaos, I don’t know. In the current political climate, I am not optimistic.

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  6. For the historians out there, I’m curious if there were any plans to run the Dundas service up to the new Pape station back in the 60s or if the plan was to run both services on Dundas and King to Broadview.

    Speaking of hidden tracks, there’s a piece of southbound rail on York Street (south of Wellington) that’s appearing which I imagine won’t last much longer if the city is planning on digging up York for the new PATH tunnel. Get your pictures while you still can.

    Steve: There was no plan to take the Dundas car to Pape. Don’t forget that in the 1960s, the TTC was still planning to abandon the streetcar system with the Dundas car vanishing sometime around 1975.

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  7. These streetcar shuttles that were used on the Bloor-Danforth line while the outer ends were under construction remind me of the Sheppard LRT proposal. There is no way such an arrangement should ever be used for anything other than on a short term temporary basis. Also the decision to spend 5 billion on the Eglinton LRT means we are building the most expensive LRT line in the world, so much for the argument that LRT is cheap. This is a massive outlier compared to what LRT lines typically cost (see The Transport Politic). There are so many condos under construction and proposed along Eglinton (as today’s Globe and Mail article talked about) that we are going to regret not building a higher capacity subway because building too many condos will result in severe overcrowding problems. I suspect that Eglinton will be the only LRT line ever built in Toronto because GO expansion will use up all the remaining money for GTA transit expansion in the foreseeable future.

    Steve: The whole point of the central tunnel (which, by the way, we would need for a subway) is to build expensively where there is no choice, but to allow the line to come to the surface where there is room and the future demand is within LRT capability.

    I am constantly amazed at the opposing positions that say, on one hand, that LRT won’t attract enough ridership to justify the expense, and on the other hand, that there will be so much ridership it will overwhelm the LRT capacity.

    Don Mills and Eglinton is a logical major node in the transit network, and if we every get the TTC’s head out of their butt to the point they accept the worth of the DRL north to Eglinton, then that intersection will really shine. Note that although there will be east-west demand there will also be north-south demand.

    It is also worth noting that one of the principal architects of SmartTrack is a “real estate expert” who thinks that Don Mills is an area that has no potential. Possibly he does not read the Globe.

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  8. I took the Bloor shuttle during most of its life.

    Coming from north Etobicoke, there were 2 bus lines to the end of the line – Kingway and Anglesey. Kingsway was the Bloor St route while Anglesey wandered a bit, but I did use Anglesey occasionally; I’m not sure why. The other feeder to the end of the line was Jane.

    There were only 3 main north-south routes in Etobicoke and each required a change to come in to the city.

    The ends of the Bloor/Danforth carline were the boundary between zones 1 and 2. I think the extension of the subway into zone 2 helped to demolish the zone system.

    Steve: Yes, once the subway extended beyond Jane and Main on BD, and beyond Lawrence on Yonge, the whole zone system was something of a joke. Also, the suburban politicians complained that their constituents were paying taxes into Toronto, but getting worse service at a higher price. Sound familiar?

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  9. Do you know if there is any provision in the Crosstown’s plans for future Don Mills expansion? I know it’s being built with a bus bay (presumably as a future terminus of the 54 Lawrence, among others), but will it be built with the capacity to be an intersection with the DRL? I don’t know if that’s even really possible to prepare for, it just seems a shame for Metrolinx to spend hundreds of millions on a station, only to have to completely redo it ten years later.

    Steve: The short answer right now is “no”. I hope that a spin-off benefit of the study of the DRL, SmartTrack, etc now underway, we will have an acknowledgement that the station should be designed with a future underground connection provision. When this was all part of “Transit City”, the TTC refused to talk about an underground Don Mills LRT station, yet another example of how they screwed up that plan because of their long-standing opposition to a DRL going north to Eglinton.

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  10. Not considering the possibility of a future subway station below Don Mills seems insane. Even if the TTC doesn’t foresee a DRL to Eglinton any time soon, do they really believe that there is no chance that it will ever happen?

    Heck, I’d think they should be considering provisions for excavation below Mount Dennis or the Crosstown’s Keele (Keele North?) stations. While a westside DRL all the way to Eglinton is on nobody’s radar, is it really so hard to envision a future where we’re building some sort of rapid transit from Keele/Bloor north, one day?

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