Over five decades, I’ve had a hand in many of the issues described here, but I didn’t want this piece to give the impression of a one-man band. Many people contributed along the way including other activists, media, politicians, and professional staff within various agencies and consultants. My thanks to them all for being part of this journey.
Updated October 17 at 12:25 pm: Corrected opening date of Spadina streetcar (oops!)
When I was very young, I liked streetcars. A lot. Trains were OK, but streetcars were the genuine article. My Dad and I would go for rides around Toronto on most weekends exploring where all the lines went. Through him I got to know the world beyond Mount Pleasant and Eglinton and the loop where my local streetcar line ended.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of “transit advocates” and their equivalents in subways, buses and the mainline railways got their start that way. As such, I’m proud to be called a “railfan”, but not the pejorative term “trolley jolley” concocted by the anti-streetcar elements of the transit industry.
Roll forward to 1971. Toronto was a hotbed of citizen activism with the big focus of the Spadina Expressway, a road that would tear through downtown and provide the justification for even more destruction including the Crosstown, Scarborough and 400 South Expressways, not to mention conversion of local streets like Dundas and Front to serve as arterials through the core. This was an era when fighting City Hall was very much part of the body politic, and this was the context for my entry into transit activism.
The TTC planned to dismantle the streetcar system line-by-line up to 1980 when, yes, the Queen Subway would take over the heavy lifting of getting people into the business district and the streetcars would disappear.
TTC held on to its streetcars longer than most cities by buying up used vehicles as others disposed of them, often under the influence of a cabal of bus-gasoline-tire companies more than happy to finance the conversion. Streetcars came to Toronto from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville (almost brand new, those), Birmingham and Kansas City. But the policy of streetcar abandonment had been in place for years, and the early 70s were to see the first lines go – St. Clair, Earlscourt and Rogers Road.
What would replace them? Trolleybuses. With the opening of the Yonge Subway north to York Mills Station, the TTC no longer needed a very frequent trolleybus service between Glen Echo Loop and Eglinton Station, itself a remnant of the Yonge streetcars that disappeared with the original subway in 1954.
Although this might have been the beginning of the end, the TTC made a crucial mistake: the level of service they planned for St. Clair was sized to the available trolleybus fleet, not to the existing capacity of the streetcar lines. In that era the peak service between Yonge and Oakwood ran every 60 seconds, and this was not a trivial route for service cuts.
The summer of 1972 saw the birth of the Streetcars for Toronto Committee under the leadership of Professor Andy Biemiller with political support from Aldermen (as they were then called) Paul Pickett and William Kilbourn. Later, Mayor David Crombie’s office lent support.
By October, the Committee was issuing press releases, making deputations and gaining political support from City Council. On November 7, 1972, the TTC board voted to reverse management’s position and to retain most of the streetcar system. The only exception would be the Rogers Road car that operated outside of the old City in York (a remnant of York Township Railways), and later the service on Mount Pleasant (a victim of bridge reconstruction at the Belt Line Railway).
This was not just a fight to save one car line, but for streetcars as the backbone of the old City of Toronto’s transit network, and as a basis for expansion into the suburbs, something the TTC had planned in the late 1960s.
Here are some of the Streetcars for Toronto Committee members at the TTC Board meeting.
From the left along the wall: the late Mike Filey and John Bromley, Chris Prentice, Steve Munro, Professor Andrew Biemiller and Alderman William Kilbourn. In the foreground at the table are Commissioner Gordon Hurlburt and Pat Paterson, General Manager of Engineering.
Not shown: Howard Levine, Robert Wightman, Ros Bobak.
In those days, the estimated cost of a new streetcar was quite low, and the TTC had already been working with Hawker-Siddeley (then proprietors of the Thunder Bay plant now owned by Alstom) on a design for an updated streetcar. These would be used both on exiting streetcar routes, pending the Queen subway, and on suburban lines to what is now Scarborough Town Centre, across the Finch hydro corridor, southwest through Etobicoke and even with a branch to the airport.
But Queen’s Park had other ideas, and in the same month, November 1972, Premier Bill Davis announced his scheme for a network of maglev trains that would criss-cross the city and make subways obsolete. The premise was that subways were too expensive, and buses were limited in speed and capacity. The “missing link” would be “GO Urban”.
The Rise and Fall of LRT
That provincial plan ran aground, but not before it killed any hope for the TTC’s suburban network of what, by then, was named “LRT”, or “Light Rapid Transit”, a gussied up name for streetcars running largely on their own rights-of-way. I will leave it to readers to imagine what our suburban transit network might look like today if Toronto had built this LRT backbone fifty years ago.
Note the word “proposed” for some entries on this map. Much of what is now heavily developed suburbia, particularly in Scarborough, was then farmland. A rapid transit network would make “transit first” development possible, something Toronto failed to achieve in the decades since.
With the streetcar system saved, Andy Biemiller retired as chair and I took over. Often I am erroneously credited as “the man who saved the streetcars”, but it was a group effort under Andy’s leadership.
There was a lot to do. An obvious first need was for a new fleet, but in the interim the TTC rebuilt many existing PCCs for extended service. A great strength of the PCC design, a product of the 1930s, was that it was simple to maintain with robust, long-lasting technology. The same cannot be said for more recent vehicles of all types whose electronics evolve faster than the planned life of the streetcar, bus or subway train.
The TTC already had their design-in-progress, but it was co-opted by the Provincial mandarins and modified for the type of service they expected to run: high speed, limited stop suburban lines. The heavy CLRVs were the result, a major change from the lightweight PCCs. They never operated at their potential top speed, and even on trial in Boston were limited to 50mph (80kph). In fact no urban rapid transit car needs to go this fast most of the time because typical stop spacing limits the usefulness of very fast operation. Even the subway, for the brief period it operated in “high rate” rarely hit 50mph.
The new fleet stabilized the streetcar network, but other challenges remained.
The province repeatedly stated that there was nothing between a bus running in traffic and a subway in its own tunnel. In response, Streetcars for Toronto produced a detailed brief advocating that Light Rapid Transit be the mode for suburban expansion of rapid transit. The problem was not that some new technology was needed to rescue transit from the cost and complexity of subway building, but that an existing technology was ignored.
Although development of the provincial maglev-based system ran aground and was abandoned by its government partners in West Germany, the idea of a “missing link” technology never disappeared. Too many careers depended on building something new, and eventually what we now know as the SRT, initially ICTS (Intermediate Capacity Transit System), was born.
Like the maglev system before it, this would be the new technology for a city-wide network of inexpensive rapid transit routes. Although the TTC planned to build a Scarborough LRT line using CLRVs, and construction began on that basis, the ICTS system prevailed thanks to provincial pressure and pliable Scarborough politicians. Other North American cities, notably Edmonton and Calgary, built LRT networks, but progress stalled in Toronto because that mode was pushed off of the table.
LRT advocacy was challenging when the received wisdom, locally, was that only new technology would do, and failing that a conventional subway network. Former Mayor Mel Lastman said to me “Real cities don’t use streetcars”, and that made any LRT plan an uphill battle.
The mode would surface again, decades later, in David Miller’s Transit City scheme, but even that hit a political brick wall named Rob Ford.
The Eglinton-Crosstown line is a now-and-forever construction project with a ludicrously expensive underground extension to placate the sensitive voters in Etobicoke. Scarborough will get a subway, but the eastern leg of Eglinton to UTSC and Malvern is only a fading hope, a memory of how Scarborough voters were conned over and over about their transit future. The Sheppard LRT likewise has become a subway plan, one that will stay a dotted line on maps for decades to come.
The one line that will open more or less as proposed will be the Finch West LRT.
With the decision to keep streetcars, the Streetcars for Toronto Committee turned its attention to the trolleybus fleet. The TTC had already rebuilt its fleet with new bus bodies using the electrical gear salvaged from older vehicles. Without St. Clair to soak up their vehicle surplus, they needed another route, and we strongly advocated for the Bay bus, then a frequent and very well-patronized service.
The advantage of this route was that it had been a streetcar line, and was located in territory easily served by the existing power distribution system. 6 Bay converted from diesel to trolleybus operation in 1976.
The TTC studied other routes for possible conversion including 94 Wellesley and even 29 Dufferin whose hills and frequent service made it a good candidate. Alas, no expansion beyond Bay nor a larger trolleybus fleet ever materialized. In time, the TTC and Toronto were seduced by supposedly clean natural gas buses, and trolleybus operations ended in 1993.
There was a marriage of convenience between TTC management who wanted rid of the trolleybuses, technology boffins trying to justify their existence at the Ministry of Transportation, a bus builder looking for an untendered contract, a would-be supplier of gas storage tanks, and last but not least the natural gas industry which, at the time, had a surplus of product looking for a market. Try to imagine someone trying to replace electric buses with natural gas today.
Service Quality and Short Turns
In 1972, service on the streetcar network was very frequent, but an ongoing annoyance was the common “short turn” where a vehicle would turn back without reaching its destination. Most galling were the “surprise short turns” where, for example, a Queen car might leave Yonge Street signed “Neville”, but midway through the trip passengers would hear the dreaded announcement “this car is short turning”. They would be turfed off to await the next through car, wherever it might be. This was a burning issue as shown in the cartoon below from that era.
The TTC was in denial about the level of this activity, one which bedeviled major routes. A group of City Councillors working with Streetcars For Toronto organized a survey of the actual behaviour of the streetcar routes. Volunteers stood on street corners keeping track of passing cars and their advertised destinations for three days in May 1984. Once the data were consolidated and analyzed, the results were not pretty, and the true scope of the problem was well documented in our December 1984 report.
What was the TTC’s response? For a time they placed larger fleet numbers on the streetcars to make a Route Inspector’s job easier. I am not kidding. (This was before the era of automated vehicle tracking and GPS.)
In the early 1990s, the TTC installed the first iteration of its vehicle tracking system (known then as “CIS”, since replaced by “VISION”), but its ability to accurately locate vehicles was shaky, particularly if they were not on their advertised routes. The system was not upgraded to use GPS tracking until 2009.
Although one promise for the new system when it was approved was the ability to analyze service in detail, this was never implemented. My own analyses began in 2007, and readers are now familiar with chart-filled articles showing the (mis-)behaviour of many routes. This work proved useful on City projects to review schemes to improve streetcar flow on major streets, and especially on the King Street transit project. For the record, that is the only work for which I have been paid, and the vast majority of my analysis is pro bono.
The TTC’s primary response to service reliability issues has been to wring their hands about traffic congestion, and to pad schedules so that running late is, in theory, almost impossible. That service can be unreliable even on a clear, snowless Christmas day is never acknowledged.
Padded schedules produce long layovers and bunching at terminals all in the name of eliminating short turns. In practice, they are still quite common, but simply are not reported as this does not fit with the TTC’s mythology about its service quality.
I have written extensively about the shortcomings in both line management and reporting elsewhere, most recently here and here. There is no world in which service can be perfect, but the TTC is willfully blind to just how bad their service can be. A laissez-faire approach to line management needlessly turns small problems into major cock-ups that drive riders who have a choice away.
The TTC Service Standards are problematic in many respects, but they did not start with the TTC. Over four decades ago then-Mayor John Sewell and City Planning staff proposed standards for the evaluation of service changes. At the time, the concern was that “squeaky wheels” with good political connections would get service improvements that might be less deserved than in other parts of the city. This is a perennial transit “planning” problem: the money and the service go where the votes are.
Spadina and Harbourfront Streetcars
Saving most of the streetcar network was not enough for Streetcars For Toronto because our aim was to advocate for significant expansion. Over the years this has been longer to come and hard fought with the Harbourfront and Spadina routes being comparatively small additions, and both within the 1972 network’s scope.
We proposed the Spadina car in mid-1973, but it was not until 24 years later that service would actually operate on a street ideal for a central reservation. The idea of a new route was misrepresented by its opponents on a few counts including the business effects of converting angled to parallel parking, the inability of (fictional) garment dealers to wheel racks of clothing across a Spadina right-of-way, and the horror that a new streetcar was only a tool for massive development in the railway lands.
The TTC did not help much by emphasizing how quickly a streetcar could get from Bloor to the railway lands, especially if selected stops were deleted from the line. Their portrayal as an express Spadina streetcar gave the image of a line rammed through a neighbourhood, not serving the very heavy demand already on the 77 Spadina bus.
The first route to appear was actually the Harbourfront car (originally route 604, now 509) from Union Station to Spadina and Queens Quay opening in June 1990. Tracks were later extended west to Bathurst with service launching in July 2000.
The 510 Spadina car replaced the 77 Spadina bus in July 1997. Despite the TTC’s attempts to create an express route, stops remained at Sussex, Willcocks and Sullivan Streets. As it had been on the bus service, most demand originally lay north of Dundas, although with development in the Railway Lands and along Queens Quay, there is now a strong demand at the south end of the line too.
After an initial rather drab, bare-bones right-of-way implementation on Queens Quay, the street got a major makeover to provide more cycling and pedestrian space and reduce the importance of cars.
There is a similar plan eastward from Bay Street, but it is still mired in planning and funding at the City. This would be one of two links to the new “Villiers Island” and the Port Lands.
The Cherry Street branch from King is the only part of the eastern waterfront network that has actually been built, and it has been in operation since 2016. At first, the line ran through a lot of abandoned industrial space and parking lots, but most of this has now been replaced by condos, a trend that will continue south of the rail corridor along Keating Channel and on Villiers Island.
From Activist to Advocate
The early 70s saw activism on many fronts in Toronto and elsewhere, and a polite, deferential mode of dealing with the powers-that-be was not always a recipe for success. Streetcars For Toronto was lucky to come along just at a time when the activist culture was boiling away. We had a popular argument, and we were listened to. The same would not be true today with the overwhelming influence of “communications” staff, spin doctors and an all but vanished local media.
Sometimes I am asked “Steve, why must you be so confrontational”? To that, I have a simple answer: nice guys finish last. Those who are on the receiving end of my ire tend to be puffball politicians and “professionals” who spend more time justifying old plans than contributing to better transit. Anyone who has been active in municipal politics and activism knows that asking for something politely rarely gets you more than a pat on the head. As for vitriolic explosions, I confine those to private conversations.
I started out very much in “activist” mode and evolved through much experience on several issues to someone respected, if not always agreed-with, as a commentator on transit affairs. A lot of my advocacy has been behind the scenes or to small groups such as community organizations, academics and even transit/planning professionals, and some of that off the record. That takes time, and more than occasional soul searching of “why am I doing this?”
I make no pretense to formal expertise (my professional life was in IT, not planning), but hope to synthesize decades of watching and learning from others. Along the way, I’ve done countless interviews, some edited with more grace than others, and helped several journalists navigate the complex policy tangle around our transit system.
Another question I’m asked is “why not be on the TTC Board”? Mayor John Sewell actually nominated me for the position, and there was a chance I might have been appointed, but for the machinations of Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey. His pal “Brother” Jeff Lyons, a man with no previous interest in the post, was Godfrey’s candidate, and easily won. In due course he became chair of the board. His tenure ended abruptly thanks to conflicts of interest, although the details of an investigation were never revealed. This also marked the end of “citizen” members of the TTC Board for many years.
Had I been successful, I would have been less than productive. The depth of my experience was nowhere near what it is today, and frankly I could be more use “on the outside” unconstrained by the need to advocate policies as a member of the board.
In 2005, I was honoured by the Jane Jacobs Prize as an “unsung hero” of the City. This was the last year that Jane was still alive to have a hand in the award, and that was very special day.
The early 2000s saw a new wave of citizen activism, a desire to learn how the city works, and how to make it better. This evolved into, among other publications, Spacing magazine and its website. Several writers and activists from that era are now established in the Toronto media scene.
There was a clear need for better coverage of and technical discussion of transit in Toronto, and in 2006 I started this blog. As I write this, there are close to 2,700 articles and 57,000 moderated comments. We have all been busy chatting here about, mostly, transit issues.
(Again, for the record, I was paid for articles in the late NOW magazine and in Spacing, but not at a rate that would significantly augment my lifestyle. I say this because there are trolls who assume I have a network of unseen sponsors. And, no, I don’t have a Patreon account.)
Particularly heartwarming has been the regard extended to me by the working media, notably the City Hall Press Gallery. I grew up as a techie who had a strong interest in the arts, but who never expected to devote much of my time to the creative side of my life. I would be in many audiences, but never on stage. This blog gave me a chance to be a commentator, a writer, bringing transit issues (and occasional whimsy) to a loyal audience. To those who do this for a living, I tip my hat.
One story is worth retelling because recent arrivals scratch their heads on the subject: where did the Twitter handle @swanboatsteve come from?
Back in early 2005, there was a scheme afoot to get more capacity out of the Don Valley by widening the DVP. One advocate for that was the same Councillor who more recently pressed strongly for the elevated option on the Gardiner-DVP rebuild so that he would save a few minutes driving into downtown. I thought that there must be an alternative, and in a flight of fancy born in front of Greg’s Ice Cream (now sadly departed) on Bloor Street, the idea of swan boats on the Don river was born. You can read all about it here.
Many hopes for transit came crashing down with the election of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto. Not only did he kill the Transit City plan, he tried hard to kill the order for new streetcars, and he began an era of austerity, of just barely getting by, in transit generally for anything that was not part of his subway fixation. We still suffer from the fallout 12 years later, and despite billions for new construction in Toronto and beyond, there is no money for simply operating better transit service. Asking for more is almost sacrilegious in a town where keeping taxes low takes precedence over everything.
The Covid era blew a big hole in activism generally with the media and politicians understandably pre-occupied with the pandemic and the fiscal chasm facing the City and all of its services. Participation in Zoom meetings is not the same as showing up in person at City Hall, showing common cause with each other, and giving pols and their staff the haranguing they often richly deserve.
In the process we have lost something that was a Toronto tradition reaching back to the 60s, and I hope in time it will return. Many would prefer that the citizenry stay cooped up at home watching streams on their computers, but that does not build a good city.
Where Will Transit Go?
Toronto’s transit took a heavy blow from Covid-related ridership losses, and the TTC does not expect to be back to pre-pandemic demand levels until 2024. The recovery has been uneven, with the slowest growth on routes serving the core area formerly a dense node for employment. Exactly how work trips and their associated peaks will return in this area remains to be seen. This disproportionately affects the subway and streetcar networks.
A related change that was beginning before the pandemic is the growth of a “shoulder core” area where residential growth will occur either via high rises at major nodes, or by the “missing middle” building form. The question, however, is where these new residents will work and what sort of transit demand they will generate. A long-standing problem with transit, and especially with regional transit, is that it aims straight at King & Bay. If your destination lies further away, and if your travel lies in the traditional “counter-peak” direction, transit is a much harder or even impossible option.
The degree to which transit does not serve potential demand affects political support. Why spend billions on routes that do not go where people want to travel? How can we convert drivers to transit, or make jobs, schools, shopping and entertainment accessible to non-drivers if transit will not take them them, or involves a burdensome journey fraught with infrequent service and poor transfer connections? What is the meaning of “park-and-ride” if it serves only one direction of travel, and then only for those with cars?
There is a danger of Toronto’s transit falling into a pattern seen in many US cities where transit is for “other people”, those who do not drive and are therefore regarded as a second-tier social class. Mayor John Tory already leans that way with an emphasis on transit for those who do not drive, as opposed to being an alternative even for those who own and can afford to operate a car. Voters who think of transit riders as “them”, not “us”, are much less likely to support spending on better service and more attractive fares.
Advocacy, activism, whatever you want to call it, faces years of restrained spending while misdirected billions go to capital construction. Advocates face organizations like the TTC where the mantra is “spend no more” and Metrolinx where “resistance is futile”.
At the Metrolinx board, secrecy is the order of the day, with significant policies coming more commonly from the Minister or Premier’s office.
The TTC Board is asleep at the switch on management performance and service quality. Many organizational improvements from former CEO Andy Byford (who was by no means perfect) have been dismantled by his successor, and institutional memory lost through retirements, resignations and dismissals.
Councillors may complain on behalf of their constituents, but at the end of the day, the City’s budget and the subsidies given (or withheld) from the TTC control the debate.
The next decade will be difficult if austerity becomes firmly entrenched. In place of a culture looking forward to what can be better we will count pennies and trim “inefficiency” as the only goal. People will not stop travelling, but as we already know from past decades, if transit does not keep up, its market share will inevitably fall. Even the new rapid transit lines and GO expansion will not stem this without strong support for the spaces in between those thick lines on the map, all day, everywhere.
I will keep up “the good fight” in the hopes of a better political and financial environment to come. We have been through downturns in both before with promises from the good years dashed by economic and policy shifts. I hope to see a renaissance, hard fought though it might be.