What Should Be Done With Spadina and St. Clair?

This article was originally going to be a very long reply to a comment left in the Spadina vs Bathurst thread, but I have moved it to its own article for better exposure.

I received the following comment from someone whose identity I will keep to myself. You know who you are.

Steve, I am a political strategist at the municipal level here in Toronto. I have a meeting with some new inner city Councillors next week (+ the Mayor) who are interested in this issue of streetcar speed and reliability (as am I as a fervent reader of your blog!).

Putting aside cost and political barriers for the moment: from a purely technical perspective, what measures would you recommend implementing on the Spadina and St. Clair streetcar routes to speed them up without losing ridership?

For instance:

  • Are there any stops on the Spadina line, near or far side, that could be eliminated while still retaining the riders who use those stops via other stops?
  • What kind of TSP [Transit Signal Priority] extension would yield the best results if having to choose between the two: extending the seconds of green light extension OR maintaining the green light extension window while simultaneously allowing for more active TSP (ie rather than just if it’s late)?
  • How much time would be saved if all far side stops were eliminated on Spadina and St Clair?
  • How much delay does the lack of grade separation for the final/first leg of the St Clair route (ie when it’s entering or leaving the station and having to wait for cars and pedestrians) cause? Would installing a signal system for that unprotected stretch that prioritizes the streetcar result in any substantial gains?

Open to all thoughts and suggestions – many thanks 🙂

I am replying to this in public because (a) the comment was left in the public thread rather than sent in a private email, and (b) my answers will be of interest to other readers.

(1) What stops could be eliminated while still retaining the riders who use them via other stops?

The first thing you need to obtain is stop usage counts from the TTC. This is trickier than it seems because the streetcar fleet is not yet fully outfitted with automatic passenger counters and so we do not have full sampling of ons and offs at the stop level as we do on buses.

Be careful to include off peak and weekend usage, and break these data out from the peaks. There is a huge tendency in transportation planning to sanctify the am peak, but this misses travel patterns during other parts of the day.

On Spadina, my gut feeling from riding the line is that at most you would save the stop at Sussex, but I also don’t think that would save much time. I recommend that you look at the dwell time charts in my recent article. By the way, there can be some long dwells at Sussex that are not caused by stop service, but by backlogs of streetcars from Spadina Station Loop where various factors combine to delay service:

  • Only one car loads/unloads at a time on the platform, and they often take long layovers for bathroom breaks or crew changes. Service backs up from the loop sometimes onto the street. This should be addressed by changing the stopping positions and door operations.
  • A related problem is running time on the line which can be excessive leading to long dwells at terminals.

On St. Clair, there are few if any “in between” stops that could be eliminated. There are blocks between major roads where there are two stops rather than one (for example Silverthorn and Laughton west of Caledonia, or Russell Hill and Dunvegan between Spadina and Avenue Road). Combining them probably means just dropping one rather than finding an intermediate location.

During design of both lines, the stop locations were a subject of considerable discussion in the trade-offs between convenience and stop service time.

As a general rule, remember that we are trying to make this a walkable, accessible city. If you don’t want to serve riders, the fastest way is to make service harder to reach. In the Scarborough RapidTO implementation, a chunk of the “saving” came not from the red painted lanes, but from stop elimination, including the stop where Mayor Tory held a presser to announce the program. This verges on dishonesty.

Remember that total travel time includes the time to reach a stop which varies considerably depending on a rider’s age, physical condition, the weather and the local terrain. Making the walk longer can be counterproductive.

Stop elimination has long been one of the “magic bullets” the TTC looks at thinking they will save gobs of time. On non-right-of-way routes, intermediate stops that are not at traffic signals tend to have little effect on travel speed because streetcars do not “fall out of the wave” of traffic and get caught at a red signal. I will pick up this thread in a following answer. (I reviewed the behaviour of some routes after “minor” stop eliminations and found there was no difference because it is the traffic signals that determine overall speed.)

(2) Which is better: Longer green time extension or more active TSP?

You may not be aware that there is little TSP on the Spadina route and in some cases “TSP” actively interferes with transit operations particularly from Front to Queens Quay. On St. Clair, it’s a mixed bag. In brief, any major cross street (just about all of them on Spadina, several on St. Clair) have no TSP because the road engineers fear the effect of stealing green time from the cross street. So before you ask about improving/changing TSP, ask whether it is even active.

(For clarity there are transit advance greens for turning streetcars on Spadina, but for the most part that is not the scheduled service. Turns from east-west streets onto Spadina have no TSP, and there are geometric issues with implementing it for left turns because the detection point for a turning car is in the intersection, not behind the stop bar.)

An option you do not mention is letting the streetcars move before left turning traffic. This is a major source of delay on two counts. First is the obvious holding of streetcars, but there is a more subtle effect combined with the farside stop. When the traffic (including streetcars) moves off on a green, the timing of the next signal is based on the flow of the auto traffic wave. However, if the streetcar stops for any period, it falls out of the wave and is caught by a red except when green time extension is (a) active and (b) detects the approaching streetcar in time to kick in. This is particularly bothersome when an operator, reacting to the TTC’s imposition of slow orders and padded schedules, drives slowly to the next stop.

I strongly recommend that you get a detailed list of the operational plan for signals at each intersection so that you know how each of them behaves. Ride the lines. See how things really work.

(3) Elimination of Farside Stops

The fact that you even ask this tells me you don’t know these streets very well. Structurally that would mean a big change because new nearside stops would be required to replace the farside ones. These would eliminate the left turn traffic bays and likely require other structural changes to intersection layouts.

How much time would be saved? Aside from the physical impossibility, the saving would probably be at most three or four minutes on a one way trip. The amount saved would also vary by time of day, but it would depend on aggressive TSP for streetcars serving the new nearside stops. One factor that the current system does not sense is whether a vehicle is serving passengers or just sitting awaiting a green signal. If the former, then green time extension is a waste. There has been talk of sensing this by seeing if the vehicle’s doors are open, but I don’t know the status of this. Note that this applies across the system, not just on these two routes.

(4) Time savings on the outer ends of St. Clair (east of Yonge, west of Old Weston)

I have not seen substantial delays on St. Clair east of Yonge, and fitting in a reserved lane could be challenging. You obviously have not visited St. Clair Station, or you would know that there already is a signal at the loop exit. At Gunn’s Road, there is a signal just east of the loop which creates breaks in westbound traffic that streetcars can use to pull out without their own signal.

The track from Gunn’s to Keele has been in a reserved lane (unlike the original implementation) for over a decade, and there are plans to widen St. Clair as part of the reconfiguration of the segment between Keele and Old Weston Road. The streetcar lane is already reserved from Old Weston westward. The problem there is the single road lane through the four-lane underpass.

So when you talk about an unprotected stretch, I am not sure just what you mean.

(5) Other Suggestions

A major problem with transit priority generally is that there is too little of it, and it is compromised both by deference at major cross streets and by shortcomings in TTC operations. Moreover, if the goal (as too often cited by the TTC) is to speed operations and reduce the number of streetcars required, this is nothing more than a superficial attempt to address budget problems. Doing this by eliminating stops would be a double blow.

The TTC wastes vehicles everywhere today with padded schedules whose purpose, in theory, is to eliminate short turns and make Rick Leary look good. In fact short turns still occur at a rate far higher than the TTC reports, but also vehicles clog streets at transit terminals because they are so often early. Meanwhile, actual management of service is rare, especially evenings and weekends. TTC cites “on time” performance stats which (a) they don’t hit particularly well and (b) are measured only at terminals, not along routes. They also do not address a growing problem of vehicles running “Not In Service” where there should be a scheduled trip.

There is another growing problem of vehicle bunching where we are no longer talking about pairs of vehicles, but triplets and far worse. When most of the vehicles on a route wind up running in a pack for a few round trips, nobody is minding the store, and service for riders is appallingly bad. Fixing this will make a far greater contribution to service quality than messing around with stop locations and signals on a few routes.

In closing, this article may sound just a tad snotty as a reply to a well-meaning reader. If you’re going to claim a transit advocacy, or worse, a consulting role, you need to do your homework. Remember that we are still dealing with the fallout from “SmartTrack” which was a scheme hatched by, among others, a consultant working with obsolete Google street views from his UK office. (It was also originally a real estate play designed for the Markham and Airport districts it would serve, not as a local service within the city.)

I will take it that you are a “strategist” in the sense of an advocate looking to improve our transit, rather than a consultant looking to make money off of other people’s ideas. I already talk to many Councillors, and if they or the Mayor want my advice, I am happy to give it. They need only ask. Indeed, I am working on an article with advice for the next TTC Board right now. Anyone is welcome to quote from it, but it’s my work.

14 thoughts on “What Should Be Done With Spadina and St. Clair?

  1. I’ve long wondered about some of the choices on St Clair: the Arlington-Winona-Oakwood cluster (three stops over about 500 m) and the whole Vaughan-Bathurst interchange, which IME is a major bottleneck.

    Steve: There used to be a stop at Atlas as well. It was removed when the right-of-way was installed. Winona exists because it is at the bottom of a hill. It’s obviously time for me to revisit speed and dwell time stats for St. Clair.

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  2. I remember the Bloor PCC streetcars running in 2-car trains, which is the same length as a Flexity Outlook streetcar. Seen them speeding through the intersections, track switches and all. Sometimes, the doors close and their facing traffic signals turn amber, but the streetcar train would enter through the intersections picking up speed as their signal turns red. The poor cross traffic automobiles would face a streetcar train racing across them, unable to view their own green single lights.

    Of course, in the 1950’s and 1960’s streetcars were considered “street railways” and had priority. The streetcar operators didn’t need a driver’s licence then. That all changed when they changed the laws to make streetcars follow MTO laws including getting a driver’s licence like the bus drivers.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Steve.

    I’m going to try to remain calm here.

    But the comments posted, clearly do not come from someone has no other option to get around, than, than Public Transit nor does it seem that they are a person with physical disabilities, nor do they understand whatsoever the daily struggles of those of us that do, fully rely on TTC to get around Toronto.

    I can speak from first hand knowledge of the St Clair & Spadina lines, I use them often, especially St Clair, (between SCW & Gunn’s loop (as well as further west along St Clair.)

    No you can’t remove farside stops, first of all, the extreme cost, second, it’s FASTER, for the streetcars to go through the light, THEN, make the stop, especially important for the accessible streetcars..

    Yes, Spadina has issues.

    1. No driver washroom in the area where they can ‘hide’ a streetcar.
    2. Not enough platform space for the new streetcars, with the old CLRV & ALRV, you could fit 2-3 CLRV’s, or 1 ALRV & 1 CLRV, now you can only fit 1 Flexity.
    3. The southbound stop for Queen, is great, goes the entire length of the block between Queen/Richmond, except that the Richmond end is NOT wheelchair accessible
    4. The stop at Bremner is damn scary at rush hour, especially if you are in a mobility device or blind, currently with the condo construction, the Audible pedestrian signals are either constantly broken or have been disconnected. There is sometimes a crossing guard, but they can’t use a whistle.

    I have many other comments in regards to this post, but I’ll stop where I have & not get political.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for the article Steve. I enjoy your “what I would do” writing. It gives the perspective of what could be. Do you have any plans to revisit the ‘A Grand Plan’ with updates based on what’s currently under construction anytime soon?

    Steve: Not really. Between Doug Ford’s megaprojects and the general penury at all levels of government, this is really not the time to be drawing lines on maps. The big issues these days are service and state of good repair.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One of the top reasons for slow service is the obsession with safety theatre ostensibly implemented to mitigate malfunctioning/poorly maintained/obsolete infrastructure. Increasing the door cycling times (they close more slowly) for safety seems asinine when the doors already have sensors for detecting obstructions.

    Remember that we are still dealing with the fallout from “SmartTrack” which was a scheme hatched by, among others, a consultant working with obsolete Google street views from his UK office. (It was also originally a real estate play designed for the Markham and Airport districts it would serve, not as a local service within the city.)

    That sounds a lot like the Ontario RT line… a scheme hatched by a slimey consultant from the UK as a real estate play for the Distillery/East Harbour districts and Exhibition place.

    Steve: The same consultant in both cases.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve got to say that that was a bit of a grumpy reply to a seriously well-intentioned post. As a dedicated reader, you can do better.

    Steve: I took it differently. Someone who clearly does not understand a topic, especially in making proposals that do not fit with existing conditions, but who wants to schmooze the Mayor and members of Council with “solutions”. That reads like a would-be consultant who describes themself as a “political strategist”. I should check the lobbyist registry. You don’t get a meeting with the Mayor easily, and I suspect the best they will get is one of Tory’s assistants.

    I give away a lot of advice freely, but resent being asked by someone who seems to be in this professionally.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. If someone is a “political strategist at the municipal level here in Toronto,” who is about to have a meeting with John Tory and several municipal councilors about a transit line, my first recommendation would be for that person to elevate his body from his desk to actually go out and see the line. As Steve pointed out, this person seems unaware of the signal coming out of St. Clair West Station. His comments about transit signal priority (TSP) leave me with the distinct impression that he has not actually been a passenger on these lines and seen the TSP (or lack thereof) in action.

    As a frequent victim of the lack of TSP on St. Clair, I can testify that the streetcar is frequently held up by red lights, and VERY frequently is held at a stop in order to enable some private automobile driver to make a left turn in front of the streetcar. I could comment upon the practicality and morality of holding up an entire streetcar full of people to facilitate one person to assault the children of the neighbourhood with lethal cancer-causing fine particles by driving a private automobile. But it would get my blood pressure to unsafe levels if I were to dig deep enough into my military vocabulary of profanity and obscenity to express my true feelings about this situation.

    There are, of course, many European cities where the streetcar never, ever is held up by a traffic signal. Zürich, Switzerland is one example, and I highly recommend the “Zürich Tram Videos”.

    Warning: Seeing streetcars operated by non-incompetent municipal governments may cause residents of Toronto to experience emotions ranging from sadness to anger to firey, burning rage. Please ensure that you have adequate supplies of alcohol available before watching these videos.

    When Mr. Tory took office in 2014 the City of Toronto’s spending on outside consultants was $11.2 million. Mr. Tory managed to quadruple that to $45 million in 2021. Judging by this example, we do not appear to be getting our money’s worth. But then we knew all along that this $45 million was corrupt payoffs to the usual cronies. Source: City Hall Watcher

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The single biggest fix you can do is make it so that whatever the scheduled headway is…this gate only opens once…this would stop bunching…want to make things even better, install another one at Spadina….

    Steve: Remember that the gate on Queens Quay also affects the 509 Harbourfront service.

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  9. >>they often take long layovers for bathroom breaks or crew changes

    Why doesn’t the TTC use step-back crewing to allow the operator a break after each run? Didn’t they make half of service stop at the Queens Quay loop to provide a break every ~2 hours as well, along with reducing congestion at Union?

    Steve: The stop is actually at Bremner, not it’s not a “break” as there are no creature comforts available for the ops there. Yes, step back crewing would be good, but it depends on ops actually being ready to take over cars when they come in. A call of nature can take longer than the 510 Spadina headway.

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  10. Hi – original poster (the one who asked the initial questions) here! Thank you for the detailed reply, Steve. I don’t think I need or necessarily want to reply to all of the allegations in the post or subsequent comments (though I will note that I take the Spadina streetcar everyday, and while I have not taken the St Clair streetcar in a while [you said I have never been there, not true] many constituents of the Ward have and it is their comments that gave rise to my questions [you can’t expect residents and riders to be transit engineering experts]. The one thing I won’t allow to be levelled against me, as many in the comments have, is that I’m some out of touch elite. In reality, I don’t own a car, don’t have a license, take transit everywhere, and my most frequent mode is the bus). In any case, you won’t find me on any lobbyist registry as I work directly for the folks one would lobby. As for my conversations with the Mayor, I can assure you they do indeed happen directly with him. I cannot, however, assure you that he will always or even often listen to what I say 🙂

    As someone who works at the political level, I don’t have the technical expertise to evaluate these issues myself. That is why staffers usually rely on “experts” from the TTC and other municipal departments. However, in my experience, the TTC is not particularly forthcoming and doesn’t like to state hard truths that would reflect poorly on the Commission. That’s why I wanted to ask you here – literally the most knowledgeable, unbiased authority on transit in the city and I can ask advice for free! So I apologize if my questions came off as uninformed, I can imagine that was frustrating. I do hope though that this helps to explain where I’m coming from. I asked publicly rather than directly because I thought others would be interested and wanted to hear what your readers had to say on these topics. I appreciate you keeping my identity to yourself. If you want to get together for a coffee sometime, I’d be more than happy to sit down and chat properly.

    The level of detail in your reply was fantastic and much appreciated, so thank you very much for taking the time. Some takeaways for me that I will be following up on with the powers that be:
    – Getting rid of stops isn’t the catch-all solution some make it out to be
    – Stop usage counts: we need to get them, and see what the timeline is for the streetcar fleet to be fully outfitted with automatic passenger counts
    – We need to figure out exactly how active TSP is on Spadina and get the data. Specifically, get a detailed list of the operational plan for signals at each intersection, and explore making cars wait for the streetcar before turning left (heaven forbid drivers have to wait a few extra seconds…).

    One followup questions for you:
    – In your answer to question (1), in the first bullet, you state: “This should be addressed by changing the stopping positions and door operations.” –> do you have any specific recommendations on how the stopping positions and door operations would be changed? I ask because in my experience the TTC, loathe to change operations as they are, will not volunteer any solutions but rather say yes or no to proposed solutions. If you don’t know, don’t worry about it.

    Thank you again for your advice! Looking forward to future posts.

    Steve: Thanks for your explanation. It certainly read to me like a consultant/lobbyist looking for free advice, and I’ve had a lot of experience with the damage such people can do thanks to their lack of detailed knowledge and focus on simplistic “results”.

    At Spadina Station the problem is that if the first car were far enough along the platform to allow a second car to offload behind it, the front door would be beyond the point where the track starts to curve and the platform pulls away from the track. However, the cars do not have independent controls on each door, except the front one. The operator can open only the front door with the others closed, but not the reverse. This means that a car cannot load through door 2-3-4 on the platform with door 1 closed and beyond the platform end. There is a structural pillar in the way of making more of the platform useable. I do not know if the specs for the 60 extra strsetcars we are getting include a mod to the door controls that would allow this, but doubt anyone thought it necessary.

    As for Mayor Tory, I don’t expect him to agree with everything I write, but hope that his staff (or those at the TTC) do pick up the occasional nugget to improve the system. Many things I discuss are not amenable to rule by fiat and require changes in policy and managerial outlook.

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  11. Posting anonymously, because I once worked on City of Toronto signal timing card optimisations, but left North America entirely, so I can’t really ask my colleagues anymore.

    Does anyone know why the City of Toronto does not allow lagging-left turns? Somewhere on their website, it vaguely mentions “safety reasons” unless such a lagging-left phase is fully protected. No further explanation as to what this danger is.

    Well, all left-turn phases across the streetcar ROW’s just so happen to be fully-protected, so why not?

    In my mind, with lagging-lefts, pedestrians will have finished crossing before the left-turners start executing their turn. And even if lagging left-turners risk hitting slower pedestrians who haven’t finished crossing by the end of their FDW phase, the conventional leading-left-turn plan wouldn’t eliminate this risk because instead, it would be cross-street through-traffic which would threaten to hit these same pedestrians.

    Sorry, I couldn’t find a more diplomatic way to put it, but I don’t see how lagging lefts are any more dangerous than leading lefts.

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  12. My two favourite takeaways from Steve’s advice:

    1) We should consider a modified TSP, where the streetcar gets a short 20-30 s dedicated green phase before the general traffic’s left-turn phase. That might work well even with farside stops.

    2) We should consider returning to the practice where each streetcar route has a dedicated route supervisor whose sole job is to make sure the headways remain even. Perhaps those could be positions for former streetcar operators who approach their retirement, and know the route well. Or for those past retirement, who no longer want to drive but wish to keep earning money.

    One could say that a route supervisor is an added expense. One the other hand, once a streetcar pair has formed, both the operator and the pretty expensive machinery of the 2-nd streetcar provide very little service; avoiding that situation is equivalent to adding the whole new streetcar to the route without adding any maintenance costs.

    Steve: Route supervisors are needed on bus routes too as some of them have appallingly irregular service including bunching.

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