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A Desire Named Streetcar
Do streetcars in mixed traffic still make sense for Toronto in 2013?

Photo via flickr / John Tavares Jr

Toronto is undergoing what our Californian friends would classify as Carmageddon.  With millions of dollars being spent upgrading infrastructure, getting from point A to point B, trying at the best of times, has become downright impossible. Unlike California, however, Toronto’s roadwork doesn’t just impact drivers.  With a downtown transit system dependent on our comprehensive streetcar network — construction often means track repairs, which throws a wrench into our somewhat minimalist transit system.

Toronto’s current bout of construction is very much our own doing: over half of our road system was built in the 60’s and 70’s.  Unsurprisingly, 50 years later we’re nearing the end of our existing infrastructure lifecycle. The City estimates our roadwork backlog (excluding repairs to Gardiner Expressway) will cost about $338M over the next five years. On top of this the TTC will spend approximately $166M on surface level track replacements between 2013 and 2017.  The need for massive streetcar track reconstruction is also our own doing: between the 1970’s and 90’s the TTC neglected streetcar track maintenance choosing quick repairs over quality reconstruction.  With the recommitment to our streetcar network the TTC has become more conscientious with its track rebuilding including the usage of longer-lasting materials.

As a result of this chronic neglect many downtown intersections required complete closure recently for total track reconstruction.  King/Bathurst, King/Spadina, and Queen/Spadina — all of which were rebuilt over the last two years — are also some of the most complex streetcar intersections in the world.  All three are classified as Grand Unions and allow for streetcars to make turns in any direction. Toronto has the only three Grand Unions left in North America.  Now rebuilt, these intersections won’t see a complete reconstruction for the next 60 or so years, and now that the final Grand Union at King/Spadina has re-opened some normalcy should return to Toronto’s long suffering transit users.

Normalcy for Toronto’s commuters is shades of grey.  One only has to stand at the corner of King and Spadina during rush hour and watch bunched up streetcars fight with morning traffic to wonder if the TTC’s slogan, the better way, isn’t meant to be ironic.  The TTC may be the ultimate hipster transit system.

When it comes to transit, hapless Toronto can’t ever seem to get it together. For every mildly exciting step forward in the city’s transit infrastructure, like the renovation of Union Station or the aforementioned streetcar track replacements, the city takes three steps dithering backwards into the ether. Transit planning in Toronto has become some sort of Groundhog Day where we repeat the same list of transit needs year after year, only putting a shovel in the ground when it becomes absolutely necessary.  

The one piece of good news is that from a conceptual basis almost everyone in the city agrees on the big picture. Look at any fantasy map (and plenty have been made by transit geeks, not to mention city councillors) — and there’s a fairly strong consensus on where higher order transit is needed.

The bad news: we’re stuck in a myopic fight over technology. Half the people who read the first half this article are probably shaking their head in anger muttering how streetcars clutter our streets, incensed that we’re still spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a method of transit that seems archaic.

Since the 1980s, Eglinton has been a poster child for what plagues Toronto’s transit aspirations. Higher order transit on Eglinton was first proposed in 1985 as part of the network 2011 program (hint: it was going to be completed in 2011).  It’s 2013 and a lot of us are still waiting at the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton for the lumbering 32 bus.  

30 years of stunted development later — it looks like in classic Toronto fashion (don’t mind us we’ll just compromise), Eglinton is getting some sort of odd subway/LRT hybrid.  For this we should be incredibly thankful. Perhaps the only longer North American transit line that has been on the books is New York’s Second Avenue Subway, which was originally proposed in 1920’s. It too is finally being built.

But when it comes to transit lines we should have built, Toronto can still one up New York.  In 1911 an underground streetcar line was proposed for Queen Street; 2011 marked the centenary of Queen still not having an underground line. Construction on Queen started in 1940, before being mothballed; its near reality may have been the most prescient attempt to fix Toronto’s transit system ever. 

Any attempt at a Queen Streetcar tunnel underscores one inalienable fact about streetcars: they suck.  It pains me to agree with His Worship Rob “The People Want Subways” Ford, but when he squeaks in his country twang that the people tell him, they “hate the St. Clair [streetcar], they hate these streetcars,” he mostly speaks the truth.

The corollary to that truth is this: streetcars in mixed traffic have no place in Toronto anymore.

This is a tough tack to follow because Torontonians have always had a weird attachment to the rocket.

Partially our attachment is one of perceived efficiencies.  Streetcars last longer (supposedly), carry more people per hour and presumably emit fewer carbon dioxide emissions.   The purchase of 204 new streetcars, for the price of about $1.2B, should even up the efficiency argument — the Bombardier built streetcars are purported to carry 257 people, compared to 132 and 205 on our current fleet. Transit aficionados and streetcar porn addicts are quite taken by these low floor beauties, which even have are air conditioning, but I’m not entirely sold.  Any streetcar in mixed traffic will forever be inefficient when it comes to maneuvering through traffic congestion. All the air conditioning in Boca Raton won’t help a crush load streetcar stuck behind a rush hour driver trying to turn left.

Beyond hypothetical efficiencies streetcars are sacrosanct simply because they exist. “There’s just something about riding the rails,” said former TTC Chair Adam Giambrone. Streetcars are so iconic in Toronto that we have a development company named Streetcar Developments, while regular condo developers frequently use streetcar imagery to signify an urban sense of place in their bucolic condo renderings. Quite frankly there is no more inelegant form of transit than a packed streetcar in rush hour.

As my friend Adam noted about the new condo construction by his house on St Clair, “it’s not so much that we mind the new building, we’re just concerned that we won’t be able to get on the streetcar in the morning.”

There’s a funny fetishization of streetcar culture in Toronto as iconic Toronto; the rocket red glare is one of the few defining images we have.  On the other hand Torontonians loathe them – no one today would dare contemplate building a new streetcar line that runs in mixed traffic. Anytime anyone raises the spectre of an LRT we seem to shudder at replicating the mistakes of the King and Queen streetcar in our fair suburbs.  And yet we still cling proudly to the motion that by not tearing up out fleet in the seventies Toronto is some progressive urban planning wunderkind.

Guess what Toronto? 2013 called, the seventies are over.

Of Toronto’s 11 streetcar lines 8 run in mixed traffic. These include Toronto’s busiest street level transit lines (the queen 501 and 508, as well as the king 504 and 502).  Their average speed is 10-12 KMh simply because they are forced to lumber along our traffic clogged streets. Considering that both lines are used by almost 100,000 riders a day (for a total annual ridership that exceeds 30M, the approximate ridership of the proposed Scarborough LRT) – how is this efficient?

In the suburbs our reaction to these complicated feelings toward streetcars has defaulted to the need to build subways. Subways are like the Marsha Brady of transit.  They are our default desired form of transit because the average transit user doesn’t know any better. Torontonians don’t necessarily want subways simply because Rob Ford made a sign that says: honk if you want subways, people want reliable transit that isn’t impeded by traffic. In Toronto we don’t know any better as the only really reliable transit we’ve managed to build is through subway construction. Everything else (including the SRT and our various LRT-lite lines) have been middling successes at best.  When shown a phoney alternative – a packed King streetcar for example, of course the people want subways

It is these complicated feelings which have clouded the current debate in Scarborough over its own subway line. Downtown, however, things are different. For political, emotional as well as financial reasons (we’ve already sunk so much money into buying new streetcars and rebuilding our tracks) Toronto’s streetcar network is here to stay.  And while we may be adept at creating grandiose plans that take fifty years to come to fruition while building subway extensions to such inurbane places as Vaughan Corporate Metropolitan Centre, when it comes to moving around sheer number of people in the core, streetcars, for better or worse, are our bailiwick.

So the question begins — how do we salvage the billions of dollars we’ve invested in our streetcar system? Truthfully I don’t know.  I’m not a transit guru.  But as a regular rider of the King Streetcar system, I do have some questions:

  1. Why is there a streetcar stop at Simcoe Street (or York street for that matter)?
  2. Why are streetcar stops before intersections, when logically, you’d want to load to load streetcars after an intersection so that a fully loaded car isn’t as impeded by red lights
  3. Why can’t we use Adelaide or Richmond for one way express routes?

As stated I’m not a transit expert, perhaps my questions above are easily answered.  What I do know is that our streetcar problem can’t magically disappear by waving a “Honk if you love the Downtown Relief Line” sign in a bikini at the corner of King and Bay.  There are way too many people standing at the corner of King and University in the morning hoping to get on the 504 streetcar.  There are too many streetcars stuck in mixed traffic.  Whatever you think of our streetcar fleet — we should all be mature enough to realize that until the billions of dollars are raised to build the downtown relief line exploring alternatives to ensure reliability to our existing network, which we’ve upgraded with new tracks and new cars, seems like a valid starting point. 

So much bluster is exhausted in this town arguing over LRT’s versus subways when millions of people just want to get from Liberty Village to the financial district (or vice versa) without being stuck behind a delivery truck. Transit users in Toronto aren’t going anywhere and neither are our streetcars.


Jonathan Naymark is a Toronto-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @naymark.

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