Red Rockets: I love to love you but sometimes it ain’t easy

The following piece was published yesterday in the National Post. It’s a bit of a love letter to Toronto’s iconic streetcars, but was born out of frustration, mostly generated when waiting for them to come around the bend, as I mention. When I get frustrated, at the mercy of the TTC when all my personal agency has evaporated, I sometimes send broadcast text messages to friends complaining & swearing (sorry about that) or post angry Twitter updates condeming the TTC, both venting and killing time at once. Then I’ll get to where I’m going, eventually, and feel bad about complaining. So I started to think about why I love the streetcars and why they are good for Toronto. I found a lot of reasons and these are some of them.

Of course last night at 8pm I was at at Yonge and College, waiting for the eastbound car — first time I’ve taken the streetcar in many months thanks to biking weather — and it didn’t come. Getting angry again I deciding to walk, all the way to Parliament, my destination, before a streetcar came. I easily forgot about what I wrote.  Now, the morning after, I’ll read it again as reminder, but I’m sure I’ll have occasion to Twitter-vent sometime soon…

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The westbound TTC stop at Parliament and Carlton is not the place to fall in love with Toronto’s streetcars. If you stand there long enough, a red rocket will eventually turn off Gerrard and glide up the street, ready to deliver you to points west. But it’s a hard corner to wait at — you can only see a few hundred metres down the track — and you’ve got to trust that another car is always just around the bend.

The longer you wait, the more invested you feel in waiting longer. It must be just around the corner by now. When it isn’t, the initials “FS” stamped on the nearby TTC schedule that promise “Frequent Service” seem more likely to stand for “Frequent Sucker.” That’s you. Or me.

And when I feel like a sucker I start walking west on Carlton, losing sight of the Parliament stretch of tracks. Sometimes it will round the corner a half-minute later and I’ll be mid-block and miss it, while other times I’ll stomp, mutter and swear all the way to Yonge Street before I see a streetcar. Why, exactly, do I buy a Metropass every month? It’s at this point of incendiary exasperation that the people who say Toronto’s streetcars are antiquated and should be removed — tracks and overhead wires included — start to sound like reasonable people.

This is a moment of weakness, though, so pay no attention to them, for they are philistines. To rip out Toronto’s streetcar system would remove the glue that holds the centre of this city together. The network of rails is infrastructure built to last on a grand scale. Should we ever abandon Toronto such as they have in Detroit, Buffalo and other shrunken U. S. cities, and then let 10,000 years of weather erode and wear the city down, the tracks will still be here like an indestructible city skeleton laying in the dust of our civilization. Those philistines say buses are more nimble and can maneuver around cars making left hand turns, and that they don’t require a massive capital investment, but those rails are an investment in the very idea of Toronto.

Buses lack the elegance of the streetcars that navigate like giant street ships through Toronto, their permanent courses set for the long haul. During a snowstorm, try riding up near the front of a car before the salt trucks have a chance to turn it all into dirty slush. While other vehicles slip and slide, unsure of the road beneath, the streetcars drive a steady and straight line down the middle, instantly organizing the chaos around them. Our current streetcars are built like tanks and weigh too much — damaging the rails and neighbouring masonry — but that solid chunk-a-chunk, chunk-a-chunk sound that your body feels more than your ears hear it, and the way the sidewalk vibrates under your feet as they roll by, is one of the few times Toronto reaches back and touches us physically. Up above, the wires are the city’s electric nervous system, continuously running, waiting for a streetcar to tap it for energy. They’re like Toronto’s ceiling, marking where the city ends, and atmospheric wilderness begins.

Toronto is undergoing a rail renaissance. City Hall is promoting its Transit City plan that would have light rail extend well outside of the former City of Toronto boundaries, while Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority, just unveiled a plan that would continue to drive those rails out into the 905. There are even passionate debates in both Internet and sidewalk forums on whether Eglinton should have light rail or a subway of its own. Across North America cities are looking to return to urban rail transit, yet for decades Toronto had one of the only robust streetcar networks on the continent and it became a beloved symbol of this city.

The philistine may be right in one respect; the streetcars evoke a feeling of an earlier era when the industrial revolution was in full swing. The way sparks will snap and crack along the wires reminds us of times past, when new and bulky machinery seemed untamed and dangerous.

Walk by the Hillcrest TTC yard on Davenport or the Roncesvalles Garage down at the southern edge of the city and listen to the violent sound chunks of heavy metal make as they clang and smash together in the shop.

Men with blow torches and anvils shape steel into working parts there for these great machines. On board, there is often sand spread around the front seats, spilt when filling the reservoir underneath that automatically dispenses it on the rails for traction.

On the streets, drivers sometimes have to leave their helms and use crowbars to switch tracks or place the “witch’s broom” sticking out of the rear of the streetcar back on the overhead wire.

These are all special, elemental and physical activities that are so unlike the smooth and silicone operation of modern life.

Some cities cover their geography with bungalows, malls, skyscrapers and taverns just like we do, but without rails sunk deep into the earth it feels as if you could roll those cities up like a rug and there would be no trace left. When we build streetcar tracks it’s no quick and painless endeavour, as anybody living or working on a street undergoing rail replacement will tell you.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Toronto Transit Commission followed a streetcar abandonment policy, as many cities in North America did. Streets such as Coxwell, Harbord, Hallam, Ossington, Davenport, Winchester and Parliament once saw streetcars roll along their length. But their spirit can’t be killed so easily. Take a close look along Lansdowne, especially at Davenport, or on St. Clair at Mount Pleasant; the old tracks are pushing up through the pavement toward daylight. In some places you can just make out the long, narrow bumps along the street where the rails lay. In other places, the pavement has worn down, exposing bits of steel that can catch the sun: a surprise reflection of light where there isn’t supposed to be any.

A few years ago, a city crew repairing a water main dug a hole in the middle of Dupont in front of my old apartment, an unintended exhumation that afforded a perfect cross section view of the rails and timber ties that the old Dupont and Bay streetcars once plied.

Though they haven’t been in operation since 1963, they’re still there under the pavement, right by the big LCBO, then a Power Supermarket. It was a little sad to watch, like viewing a civic autopsy and seeing exposed bones that look intact but whose marrow no longer produces blood cells.

The streetcar tracks and wires define what our city looks and sounds like. Toronto may be Hollywood North and is stunt double for Chicago or New York, but a shot of the tracks is always the Toronto giveaway the producers hope we don’t notice.

Perhaps we know the TTC’s gauge instinctively, but no amount of foreign flags and weird-looking taxicabs can hide Toronto’s identity. The ding of the streetcar bell and the sound of their smooth rumble are the aural wallpaper we hardly notice while we’re here, but miss when in another city dominated by diesel and gasoline engine sounds.

The rails and wires tie parts of our city together in a way buses cannot. Longtime Junction residents will tell you how cut off from the city they felt in 1968 when the Dundas car began terminating at Bloor instead of driving a permanent and smooth path into their neighbourhood from downtown. Toronto is lucky the TTC abandoned the abandonment policy in time to retain a rail network the envy of other cities.

Out in the middle of Kingston Road, just east of Victoria Park, streetcar rails abruptly end a hundred metres into Scarborough. They lay there waiting for us to decide that these parts of Toronto matter too, taunting us even, asking if we have the audacious nerve to continue tying Toronto together with a backbone of steel.

Photo by Sam Javanrouh

21 comments

  1. Lovely. I missed the sounds you describe when I left Toronto, and when I come back for visits love to hear them again. I may get to relive a similar experience without the trans-atlantic flight though, since right now beautiful Edinburgh is being pulled apart to put in tram lines.

  2. The biggest problem with the TTC Streetcar isn’t that it doesn’t come, but on many streets like College, they suffer from the same problem buses do, and that is they get stuck in traffic, and then cars end up bunched together. I take the 36 Finch West bus every day, and sometimes you get a bus right away, sometimes you wait half an hour, and 5 of them come together. On lines like St Clair or Spadina, where streetcars get their own lane, this does not occur anywhere near as much. What the TTC needs to do, is keep more of an eye on where vehicles are, according to big brother (the radio unit in all buses and streetcars), and be more pro-active about keeping vehicles from herding. Here is what I think they should do, instruct operators, that if they catch up to the vehicle ahead of them, they call control for instructions. Control then notes the problem, and fixes it, this could mean telling then to hold back, and the other bus/car to only stop to drop passengers off, until the gap between vehicles is re-established. They would also look ahead and behind one car/bus to make sure fixing the problem here, doesn’t create another one.

  3. I would love to see somebody analyze this post from a feminist critical perspective, hah.

    But I couldn’t agree more. Those who advocate for buses are rarely the ones who’d have to ride them. The experience of riding a bus is simply unpleasant unless it’s winter and the bus is empty, while a streetcar I always look forward to boarding, cramped or not.

    If we want people to want to use transit, buses are the worst way to do that.

  4. Thanks for this article Shawn.

    Oddly enough, a few nights ago I was riding the Carlton car west from Broadview to Yonge, and overheard in a conversation “They run in pairs at night”. This effect stretches “frequent service” to levels that are simply not acceptable for what should be a busy urban route.

    This happens on bus routes too and the underlying problem is that the TTC doesn’t do much (anything?) to keep vehicles properly spaced. They would rather blame “traffic congestion” for their problems.

    This is a TTC problem, not a streetcar problem.

  5. Shawn, thanks for the interesting and insightful article.

    I’ve lived in Toronto for ten years — never owned a car, and have been a heavy user of transit — and I have to say I do not love the streetcars. They are both badly designed and poorly operated, which is particularly egregious given the volume that they are expected to carry. And given that they are still operating in much the same way they did when they were installed a century ago, I’ve got no reason to believe that this will ever improve.

    Given how ingrained the car culture is in Toronto, I it’s most likely a minority of people who enjoy riding the streetcars in spite of the fact that they are slow and unreliable. If you want “most people” to want to use transit, you should give them something that is reasonably similar in speed and convenience to driving, be it a bus or a railed vehicle. Otherwise they will continue to use their cars.

  6. I’ve been fortunate to both visit and live in Europe and I’m always impressed with their public transit, from subways to busses to light rail.
    I like the simplicity of the Oyster Card in London and being able to swipe it when you got on the tube or bus. Plus one could ‘fill’ it up at a machine or online (I believe you can even put more money on it now from a mobile device)
    While in Amsterdam last spring my boyfriend and I took the light rail everywhere (almost everywhere we did a lot of walking too since it was so beautiful out). I was absolutely amazed that although the platforms and rails were not raised that the cars knew not to drive in the train’s lane.
    I don’t think Toronto will ever reach a point where cars will instictively know not to drive in streetcar lanes, but if we can provide dedicated lanes it would make travelling so much more effective.

  7. While nicely written, the idea that our city is defined by something as mundane as streetcar tracks is a little bit sad. Not to mention that however much nicer streetcars are to ride on, that only helps if they ever show up.

    Streetcars require a large investment in infrastructure and the end result is worse service levels than if they just used buses. I never have, and still don’t, understand why we have them.

    The exception is the Spadina streetcar, which, with its dedicated lane, is like subway-lite. Much less infrastructure and cost than a real subway and many of the advantages of dedicated transit routes. That I can get behind.

    But all the other streetcars? Pfft.

  8. I’d never argue that Toronto is solely defined by the Streetcar, but would (as I did) suggest they’re hardly mundane. They’re our civic living room, what better way to define our city?

    Though we all have trouble with the way they’re run, their connection to the city’s ontology is separate.

    Kevin> I would not want to look at a Donna Summer song from a critical feminist perspective (where the title of this post came from) — I’d prefer just to dance to it.

  9. Great article Shawn

    I used to live in Montreal and was often at the mercy of the Park Avenue bus which operates at the frequency of the Queen car (more or less, depending on time of day). And wouldn’t you know that most times, 5 would come at a time and then nothing for 20 minutes.

    Buses are just not the answer.

    And I vaguely remember a study done (where? when? by who? if anyone remembers, please link) that shows that the suburban middle class is far more apt to use rail-based public transit than buses. Although I agree that it’s essential to provide the urban working class with effective transit, it’s also essential to get the middle-class out of their cars. Rail (streetcar, LRT, Go or subway) seems to be the way of achieving both goals.

    And… just got back from Long Beach, CA. The LRT that runs down city streets is a subway-length 6-car trainset… not as cumbersome as you would think. And doesn’t Calgary operate an 8-car LRT? I was all for an Eglinton Subway (vs. LRT) until I was reminded how there are other models to the Spadina LRT with its spotty service levels.

  10. Raymond: I have not seen this study, but anecdotal evidence supports your statement. I know people who ride the streetcar or GO train and would not ride the same route if it were operated using a bus. One of my co-workers couldn’t wait for the streetcars to return during a track replacement project a few years ago where buses were substituted.

    Shawn is right, things like the streetcar tracks are part of the living room of the city, like the old-style streetlight brackets, or the old fire hydrants, they are not common to other cities, so they are among the things that define this city.

    I grew up riding the PCC cars; I have many fond memories of riding the streetcar to High Park for a summer afternoon, cranking the window open and listening to the distinctive sounds of the doors and the motors. The CLRVs have their distinctive sounds too, but we’ll only notice them when they’re on the way out. I don’t have the same sentiment for the CLRVs as for a bright red PCC car (not that horrific brownish-colour on the last two cars), but I’ll take the smooth ride of the streetcar any day over the bone-shaking and exhuast-laden ride on a bus.

  11. I prefer the streetcar to any other form of transit in the TTC. They’re smoother riding, generally quieter and brighter than any subway. I love taking my trip in to the theatre in the mornings, less so when I don’t get a seat, but it’s still better than standing on a herky-jerky bus. I couldn’t be happier to see Toronto building more LRT and fewer subways.

  12. Kevin, it is finally possible to say the following: A bus will be air-conditioned in summer most of the time. There are no more than two air-conditioned streetcars in the entire fleet (4041 and the mysterious 4040, which, like Sasquatch, has yet to be sighted in the field).

    If you’re in a wheelchair, streetcars are hopeless. So is most of the subway, but most buses are now accessible (though not all routes are, a bureaucratic TTC distinction).

    Buses are, on the whole, faster. And anyway, it borders on impossible to spend a week using the TTC for many different things without riding a bus. Toronto does not live by subway and streetcar alone.

  13. @Raymond: I’m not familiar with that study. However, the results I’m aware of (Downs, 1992; Mogridge, 1990) indicate that people will leave their cars only if you give them a faster, traffic-separated alternative. Thus, it turns out that people approach the transportation problem rationally, and the most important metric is mean door-to-door travel time.

  14. Joe: The streetcars are 30 years old. If you get on a 30 year old bus (buses have a 1/3 lifetime as a streetcar), it also will not be air-conditioned and will have a problem with wheelchairs.
    My 89-year old father (who walks with a walker) prefers riding the streetcar because it has a smoother ride without the bouncing around, and has a lot more seats (he prefers sitting forward).

  15. The streetcars are great and work well most times. But at the end of the afternoon, I often have to walk because service may as well not exist.

    What will it take for the TTC to address bunching? For example instruct the leading car to stop only to drop off passengers and the cars behind to slow down; implement boarding and exiting through all doors (keep right) or at least get serious about making passengers exit through the back doors. And my #1 pet peeve – work with the city to ban left turns at key intersections, e.g. from Carlton to Jarvis!!! This would help address bunching, I think.

    It would be silly to spend billions on new streetcars if these simple things are not fixed.

  16. There’s only one air-conditioned streetcar? Why? Was it an experiment?

  17. Congratulations Shawn on getting published in the National Post. As far as I am concerned you are the only writer in this city who truly “gets it.”

  18. Let me interrupt this lovefest to count myself among the “philistines.” Yeah, streetcars might have sentimental value, but I don’t see that as sufficient reason to keep an antiquated and painfully inefficient system in place. I’d rather have a transit system that works.

    Witnessing these beasts rolling down the street, daisy-chained together like a herd of lumbering, not-too-bright elephants, arriving in tandem instead of spaced out by eight minutes or so like they’re supposed to do — this doesn’t exactly fill me with civic pride. It fills me with disappointment and disbelief. We are, as you say, Frequent Suckers, and it pains me to think we’d keeping this system in place because some citizens think they’re, well, “nifty.”

    I want something that can divert its route when there’s a crash up ahead. Or, you know, pull over. I’m no fan of car culture, but I think we Torontonians deserve the same convenience as every other commuter clogging up our streets.

    I ride a bike and streetcars are the bane of my existence. Getting caught behind one in traffic is like quadrupling the number of reds you hit. And those tracks, besides being deathtraps for bikes, have turned our asphalt into some of the ugliest, most dangerous hell-pits in North America.

    And by the way, when there’s ice and snow on the streets, you better believe it causes chaos. Are you sure you live in this city? That’s when the crowbars come out at full force. Sure, the first time I saw these in use, I thought, “How quaint!” By the third or fourth time, I thought, “How in the hell do we continue to put up with this?”

    Anyway, I didn’t even know there was much of a voice out there calling for the removal of streetcars, but that’s comforting. I say, keep a few routes; the ones that still work relatively well and have historical value can stay for the rail geeks and tourists. Streetcars are way too expensive to maintain, anyway. Hold onto the ones that are in good shape (and yes, get some air conditioning in them) and replace the rest with hybrid buses. Break up the remaining cars and auction off the parts privately. What student wouldn’t love to have a TTC seat in their dorm?

    And finally, turn the Roncesvalles Garage into condos. How’s that for philistinism?

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