The Spadina Streetcar: not quite LRT
Yesterday, I posted an article on Spacing Toronto briefly explaining the history and context for North America’s light rail renaissance and what the different approaches were. While a select few cities retained their streetcar systems mainly due to tunnels prohibiting dieselization, only to later incorporate them into rapid-transit-type services, other cities started from scratch years after abandoning their street railways.
Today I will talk about Toronto’s experience and how recent developments, such as Transit City relate to the experience south of the border.
Toronto was unique amongst North American transit operators. Until the 1960s, the TTC rejected the prevailing wisdom that streetcars were an obsolete technology and needed to be replaced by buses. It also did not have any of the special circumstances that saw the retention of streetcar systems in places like Boston or San Francisco. There are several potential reasons; in 1921, the TTC was one of the first large municipally-owned transit operators (along with Detroit and San Francisco), and invested heavily in its system before increasing auto ownership and declining ridership made a large dent in the profits of private operators.
Despite a slow pruning of the streetcar network through the 1930s and 1940s, most of it survived until the Yonge Subway opened in
1953 1954, and remained crucially important until the Bloor-Danforth subway was opened in 1966. By then, most American cities already abandoned their street railways (Los Angeles and Baltimore were amongst the last, in 1963). And by then, citizens’ groups, such as the Committee to Save Union Station committee and Streetcars for Toronto, had considerable influence in preserving Toronto’s historic landmarks.
By the 1980s, after acquiring a new streetcar fleet, Toronto was ready to expand its street railway again. The first new streetcar route, opened in 1990, was a short stub along Queen’s Quay between Union Station and Spadina, and used vintage PCC cars, similar to San Francisco’s F-Market line and closer to the role of the American downtown streetcar circulators. The next lines grew out of this short stub – the 510 Spadina route, also in its own private right-of-way in the middle of bustling Spadina Avenue, and the 509 Harbourfront extension to the Exhibition.
But the 509 and 510 cars, while given their own rights-of-way, are still streetcar routes and not modern LRT, as they have frequent stop spacing and still deal with traffic at the intersections (where the signal priority system has not been activated by the city’s transportation department). Spadina is now much more reliable and carries a many more people than the old 77 Spadina bus, but it isn’t a true LRT line either, closer to the local streetcar service that Torontonians are familiar with.
The reconstruction of the St. Clair line, still underway, will be the seed for Transit City. Held up by a local NIMBY group for two years, St. Clair will provide a bridge of sorts between the downtown streetcar system and the suburban Transit City system, and in a way, a trial for future routes. So far, it remains similar to Spadina, with frequent stops and a signal priority system that so far does not work. But it still promises more reliable, and slightly faster service than before.
Transit City plan
Transit City has not yet evolved much beyond the vision stage, as detailed planning, environmental assessments, and consultations have not yet begun, but the corridors have been set. Transit City aims to be closer to a light-rail system than a streetcar, relying exclusively on dedicated rights-of-way, and in several cases – Eglinton being the most prominent – in underground sections. But as planned, it is somewhere between a modern light rail system and the new streetcar systems proposed in the United States.
Transit City is not perfect – perhaps the biggest flaw in the plan is how the Sheppard Corridor will be served by separate modes of transport with no single clear east-west route through North York, affecting crosstown commutes in the northern part of the city. There is also the concern that some routes, such as Don Mills, may overburden the subway in the central city without new downtown connections. But it does represent a serious attempt to address gaps in Toronto’s transit network and a means to strengthen neighbourhoods (more on this later).
The Eglinton-Crosstown route comes closest to modern light rail, with a long underground section that will completely liberate it from traffic lights and motor traffic. It will traverse the entire city, making it an effective, through crosstown route. The types of trips that will be best served by the plan will be neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood and cross-suburban trips that are not well served by the subway, and Eglinton comes out on top for suiting this purpose.
While stop spacing has not yet been determined, there should be a happy medium between spacing of TTC bus stops, which can often be 100-200 metres apart in places, and subway stations, often 1-2 kilometres apart (and similar to those of LRT systems in the US and Alberta). Stops too close together slow down service and increase the cost of building platforms, shelters and the means (signals or crosswalks) for passengers to cross to the centre of the street, and even more for underground sections, where stairs and elevators will be required. Passengers will walk farther to higher-order stops, but if they are too far apart, local accessibility is lost. This most evident on subways built after 1966, where stations on North Yonge and elsewhere are not within a short walking distance for most of the corridor, and supplementary local bus service is infrequent. Stop spacing of 500-600 metres or so would fit the hybrid nature of Transit City. Other LRT-like features will likely include pre-payment before boarding (either with a pass, transfer, or a ticket paid at a machine, with roving inspectors or constables) and possibly next-train information. And transit signal priority is a must.
Finally, there is a role for a downtown circulator service, like those in operating or proposed in US. During the 1970s, the TTC offered a summer Tour Tram route, accepting regular fares, and looped via Queen, King, Spadina and Church, passing by many of the tourist and shopping districts. But the best part was the use of old Peter Witt streetcars, removed from revenue service in 1963. As I have mentioned before, the TTC and the city has a golden opportunity to resurrect such a service using the two retained PCCs, and even the Witt still on TTC property. Riders got a taste of this last Simcoe Day, where both PCCs were put into revenue service on Queen’s Quay, to the delight of tourists and transit fans alike.
Toronto has a very good plan to bring reliable, higher-order transit to places across the city. Like earlier milestones in Toronto’s transit history, Transit City forges a different path.
Note: Yesterday, I neglected to mention some serious proposals for streetcars in Montreal, including a local streetcar route connecting Downtown, Griffintown, Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter. Modern LRT is also proposed for the “Ice Bridge” connecting Montreal and the south shore, and there are preliminary plans for a modern streetcar on Park Avenue.
Next: Transit City, the Avenues, and streetcar-oriented development.