Today, September 1, 2021, marks the anniversary of the day 100 years ago when the Toronto Transportation Commission, as it was then known, began the consolidation of the mostly privately owned street railways that served Toronto into the system we know today.
I will not attempt a mini-history in this article as there is good reading elsewhere in the TTC and Toronto Archives sites, as well as many detailed articles on various aspects of the system’s history on the Transit Toronto site.
At Roncesvalles Carhouse, which is conveniently half-empty thanks to a combination of the never-ending King-Queen-Queensway-Roncesvalles reconstruction (held up by Toronto Hydro) and the reduced level of streetcar service, the yard could be dedicated to a collection of vehicles over the past century. There was plenty of room for a socially distanced gathering of media, a few politicians, TTC management and staff.
The assembled fleet included:
- Peter Witt 2766, PCC 4549, CLRV 4081, ALRV 4207, Flexity 4601
- Proterra 3725, BYD 3754, New Flyer 3722, Nova Bus 8850, GM New Look 2252 and Wheel Trans ProMaster W700.
The TTC has produced a commemorative book that will be available at some subway kiosks and through the TTC online shop. There is also a painting which will be issued as a poster, and used as the cover art for the January 2022 Ride Guide. The artist is Robert Croxford.
[Full disclosure: I reviewed an early version of the text for this book on a pro bono basis.]
In his remarks, Mayor Tory emphasized the importance of the TTC to the City of Toronto and to the movement of people particularly during the covid pandemic. He gave thanks for the dedication of TTC staff and the substantial funding from other governments. Although there are many large capital projects now underway, Tory also noted the importance of better funding for day-to-day operations.
Although the reference was veiled, Tory also was happy that the proposed “uploading” of the TTC to Ontario did not occur, and that the TTC was celebrating its centenary as a municipally owned and operated system.
Although Premier Bill Davis brought Queen’s Park’s participation in transit funding, he was also responsible for the failed technology dreams of the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation’s maglev train “GO Urban”. Had Toronto’s suburban network actually developed in the financially balmy days of the 1970s as an LRT network (planned by the TTC in the 1960s), the city might be a very different place.
The TTC began in the post-war excitement of the 1920s, survived the Great Depression and provided key service to Toronto in World War Two. Then came the Metro amalgamation of the 50s, the start of the subway network, and the booming economy that fueled growth of Toronto and the surrounding region. Transit barely kept up and the density of transit service once seen in the old City never came to the suburbs.
Cutbacks began in the 1980s, but hit hard with the mid 1990s recession when the TTC lost 20 per cent of its riders, a loss that was not recovered until the mid 2000s. There has been much emphasis on subway building, but the new lines did not contribute new riders at the same rate as the earlier rapid transit additions on established, well-used corridors.
With the covid pandemic, ridership dropped again and now stands at about 40 percent of the pre-pandemic level growing slowly as more activities resume. The TTC faces a challenge over the coming decade not just to regain its riders but to sustain and improve service as external subsidies fall.
As I have discussed in many articles, there is a crying need to deal with line management and headway reliability. It is not enough to advertise a service, but a transit system must actually operate credibly to be an alternative to other solutions including that classic alternate for the TTC acronym, “take the car”. There are limitations to what can be achieved with red paint and a handful of reserved bus lanes.
As I was leaving the event, I could not help looking at that yard and contemplating what it might have become if not for we merry band of “streetcar enthusiasts” (and that’s the polite term) who convinced the City of Toronto and the TTC back in 1972 to keep the streetcar system. The years have not been kind, and service levels on some routes are a shadow of what operated decades ago.
When cuts settle in as a management response, when “tailoring service to meet demand” means stuffing as many people as possible onto a declining number of streetcars and buses, the result is a “new normal”. Every time there is an economic downturn, and there have been a few since the early 70s, transit falls back and rarely recovers lost ground.
Back in 2019, the TTC had an all time record day with 2.7 million, but that was for a special event – Raptors Victory Day. But in years before, the rate of ridership growth had leveled off, in spite of continued population growth in the City. The political focus was on where new rapid transit lines might be planned (never mind actually built and opened), while daily operations were strangled by a Mayor and Council bent on limiting taxes. The TTC squeezed some savings out of its own organization, but that sort of exercise is limited to short-term austerity, not for long-term growth.
Today’s presentation had brave words about the TTC’s future, its importance in greening our city. Very true, but not possible without acknowledging that owning and running a good transit system costs money, and short term “efficiencies” can work contrary to our goals.
The TTC’s bus network might be electrifying over the coming decade, a noble goal albeit an expensive one that could constrain vehicle purchases more generally. But if all we do is to replace existing buses and offer no more service, the real saving of moving more people by transit will not be achieved.
This might have been a great site for condo towers overlooking the lake at Sunnyside, but it is still a car barn as it has been since 1895 and the early days of the Toronto Railway Company. I look forward to the day when this yard will be full of streetcars again, and there will be good, frequent service across the entire streetcar network including long-awaited extensions in the waterfront.