How the TTC sullied the reputation of LRT (Part II)

How the TTC sullied the reputation of LRT (PartAi?? II)

Ai??March 16,Ai?? 2012

TTC LRT StreetcarIn Part I of my look at howAi?? the TTC has sullied the reputation of LRT, I focused on the TTC’s communicationsAi?? on surface rail, where “LRT” somehow meant “Streetcar Rapid Transit” but “SRT”Ai?? meant “Scarborough… RT”? Plus, while there were 75 km of streetcars and 6 kmAi?? of RT, only the latter could be found on a map. In confusing light rail with streetcars, and streetcarsAi?? with buses, the TTC soiled the very sound of the letters L-R-T before the cityAi?? even built any “real” Light Rail Transit lines.

But maps and words only matter so much. WhatAi?? about the experiences of actually riding the streetcars and the RT as a transitAi?? user? And as a tourist? How do those factor into the anti-surface rail venomAi?? found in letters to the editor, online forumsAi?? and public meetings? In Toronto of allAi?? places? In an era when dozens of cities are racing to buildnewstreetcar lines and LRTroutes?

Going to Party Like ItsAi?? 1949

One cannot drive around downtown Toronto withoutAi?? at some point staring out the windshield at the back of a streetcar. Similarly, no one can ride a streetcar without soonerAi?? or later fuming at a stuffed transit vehicle being held up by a single-occupantAi?? car double parking or waiting to make a left turn. Mixed-traffic operations areAi?? by their nature infuriating for all. While the planned Transit City lines wouldAi?? have featured separate Right of Way (ROW), the continuing experience along theAi?? traditional mixed-traffic streetcar lines downtown remains a major motivationAi?? for the underground-at-any-cost crowd.

Even so, the TTC has managed to make mattersAi?? worse. While many problems such as traffic enforcement or the narrow width of Toronto’s colonial streets have been beyond theirAi?? control, streetcar operations have remained far too anchored in the 1940s. SomeAi?? examples:

  • There are too many stops. The 501 Queen, theAi??Ai?? busiest streetcar, stops three times between Yonge and Church ai??i?? a distance of 300Ai??Ai?? meters. Spadina, a new line, is littleAi??Ai?? better with three stops in 375 m between Queen and King, or 160 m between theAi??Ai?? stops at Harbord and Sussex. This incredibly close spacing cements the imageAi??Ai?? of even an improved streetcar as slow and lumbering.
  • Too much time is lost at boarding because ofAi??Ai?? the failure to adopt modern payment systems. While POP has been used on someAi??Ai?? lines, the lack of a smartcard or off-vehicleAi??Ai?? payment has greatly slowed boardingAi??Ai?? times, making streetcars much slower downtown than they might be.
  • The TTC has stuck to a single-zone fareAi??Ai?? pricing model that essentially uses short trips (often downtown, often onAi??Ai?? streetcars) to subsidize long distance commuting on the subway, at the highest fares in North America. It costs less to ride the Portland streetcar for a year than it costs to ride a TTC streetcar for aAi??Ai?? month. The TTC should have long ago instituted a free fare zone, timedAi??Ai?? transfers or other differentiated costs for the downtown streetcar network toAi??Ai?? better reflect their optimal hop-on, hop off short-distance nature.
  • The TTC simply waited too long to replace theAi??Ai?? fleet. While the CLRV’s were the darling of the ball when they first came outAi??Ai?? in the 1970s, even auditioning for service in other cities, they today lack modern features such as low-floor boarding, airAi??Ai?? conditioning, wide aisles and sliding doors. And when it did finally get around to buying a newAi??Ai?? vehicle, the TTC botched theAi??Ai?? bid ai??i?? resulting in further delay. ItAi??Ai?? is doubtful there would be so much negativity towards streetcars if thoseAi??Ai?? shiny new Bombardier FlexityAi??Ai?? LRVs had been in service BF (BeforeAi??Ai?? Ford).

Bottom line: riding streetcars in Toronto isAi?? more or less the same experience for a financial services worker today as it wasAi?? for that person’s grandmother headed to the munitions plant inAi?? 1940. There is really no excuse forAi?? that.

The Sad, Sorry Tale of theAi?? RT
Scarborough RTWhere to begin with the Scarborough RT? This was the original storyAi?? of modern light rail to the suburbs, gone horribly wrong.
Extensive histories have been written elsewhere, but the important detail isAi?? that the TTC had a chance to build a “high-speed streetcar” line that wouldAi?? finally demonstrate the true LRT-based potential of the new Canadian Light RailAi?? Vehicles. And they blew it.

Old marketingAi?? materials reveal the original streetcarAi?? intentions of what later became the RT. Had the province not interfered and pressured the TTCAi?? to convert the system toAi?? ITCS, who knows what ScarboroughAi?? residents would think of “streetcars” and LRT today? The elevated trackway toAi?? McCowan could have served as the trunk line that then descended to grade and ledAi?? to extensions in all directions. Instead of a small blue stubway at the end ofAi?? the Bloor-Danforth line, the TTC map could have looked like the western end ofAi?? the Philly SEPTA map where lengthy light rail feeds into 69th St Terminal.Ai?? And it would have all happened years ago, with unlimited future expansionAi?? potential.

But that did not occur, and as a resultAi?? Scarborough transit users today despise the RT as insufficient, unreliableAi?? second-class transportation that only shuttles them from bus to subway ai??i?? furtherAi?? evidence in their minds of why even fully-grade-separated light rail is just aAi?? cheap excuse for “real” rapid transit. Few are aware of the lost streetcar/LRTAi?? potential of the original concept, and still fewer care. Trust in suburbanAi?? surface rail was lost, never to be regained.

Tourism Derailed
PCC Streetcar TorontoTorontonians are oddly unaware of the symbolism theAi?? streetcars command as an image of the city internationally. Try a google imageAi?? search on “
Toronto,” and after you wade through pages of the CN Tower andAi?? skyline, streetcars start to pop up constantly. However, the TTC is famouslyAi?? tone-deaf to tourists, with no official merchandiseAi?? store and no dedicated tourist websiteAi?? (as opposed to those found in, say, New York or Chicago).

This attitude from the city’s own transit agencyAi?? has long extended to the streetcar network. Instead of being treated like the tourist icons theyAi?? are, and despite being one of theAi?? largest such networks in the world, streetcars here are officially considered noAi?? more special than buses. Besides the aforementioned problem with maps, the practical operation of streetcars ignores tourists.Ai?? Compare this lack of attention to New Orleans, where the streetcars are alsoAi?? regular workhorses for commuters but extremely tourist-friendly, or San Francisco, where heritage streetcars have beenAi?? placed on a special surface line downtown with high visibility to tourists.

Yet somehow those rather clear success storiesAi?? were lost on TTC HQ. Instead of, say, creating a tourist-friendly loop aroundAi?? the downtown (as was done inAi?? Melbourne), or just keeping heritageAi?? vehicles in regular service, the TTC sold off its fully functional andAi?? beautifully restored PCC fleet in 1995, just five years after refurbishing themAi?? for the opening of the Harbourfront line (two remain in special charter service only). So while aAi?? tourist today can ride an old Toronto streetcar in San Francisco or Kenosha, Wisconsin, he or she cannot do it in Toronto. Oops.

Although not directly related to LRT expansionsAi?? in the suburbs, the lost goodwill of the TTC’s inactions on tourism stillAi?? matters. Without idolized status, left exposed to political whims, theAi?? streetcars have become easy targets for those who argue against surface rail.Ai?? That it could even be suggested that they be eliminated by a mayoralAi?? candidate was a stunningAi?? revelation.

Summary: A Streetcar NamedAi?? Aspire

Although the above list of miscues isAi?? substantial, to be fair none of the current LRT vs subway vitriol would be getting such a prominent hearing were it notAi?? for the deliberate actions of a certain former councillor from Etobicoke whoAi?? drives an SUV and has stated on multipleAi?? occasions that streetcars “cause pollution“Ai?? and “drive me nuts.” Yet the TTC must still bear responsibility for theAi?? decades it has spent de-valuing the existing streetcars, not following bestAi?? practices as their operation evolved, undermining the very definition of “lightAi?? rail” and missing past opportunities to build new downtown tourist or suburbanAi?? high-speed routes.

With a new chief executive looking for a fresh start, the TTC now has a chance to own up to past mistakes andAi?? take corrective action. An omnibus strategy of restoring lustre to existingAi?? lines by fixing the problems stated in this article would pay long-termAi?? dividends, reduce the chance of ugly PR incidents, and begin to restore the reputation of surface rail inAi?? the GTA. Only then might Toronto be able to move forward into its multi-modalAi?? future in peace.

Writing by LarryAi?? Green

Photos from the City of Toronto Archives, Transit Toronto,Ai?? and KennethAi?? Lai

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