Judging by the headlines, it would seem to be an exciting time for streetcar fans in Toronto: The long-awaited double-size streetcars are set to arrive on the Spadina route next year, and last week, TTC officials floated an idea to ban car traffic from King Street in the Financial District during the morning rush hours so streetcars wouldn’t get bogged down in gridlock.
But there’s reason to temper our optimism—starting with the fine print on the new streetcars, which says we’ll be running fewer of them. That means wait times will be longer during rush hour, so the new streetcars could actually make many riders’ experience worse.
Moreover, the real shame is that the supposedly big change promoted for King Street inspired rancorous debate without offering any real chance of transforming our commute. Even if the TTC implemented the traffic ban, it would be bound to both piss off motorists and disappoint transit riders. And knowing that keeps informed transit enthusiasts from embracing such ideas, so we wind up with an atmosphere in which no one supports the proposed changes, scaring politicians away from even grander plans. Big ideas that inspire real debate would be good—I’ll get to one in a minute. But this proposal was not very big, and not too good.
On inspection, the King Street plan fell apart—analysis by transit activist Steve Munro showed the move would be unlikely to change travel times, since the major problems on that street only appear after 9 a.m., when parking becomes legal. Banning parking all day might solve that, but banning cars during the morning rush would not.
However, the TTC didn’t ban parking or cars—it decided instead to study banning cars from the streetcar lanes (rather than the entire street) during the morning rush. The weird thing is this already is the rule, and has been for the past 20 years—minus the section from John to Jarvis. So instead of an eye-grabbing but ineffective move, they’ll study a less interesting and even more ineffective non-move.
This is frustrating. If we’re going to study things, why not conduct a proper experiment to do so? A truly revolutionary pilot project would be worth the political capital it would cost to implement. Say you make a major change to a streetcar route for the summer—by painting the pavement and adding some temporary signs and pylons to divert traffic—you could have a real look at how the alternative set-up works. If it doesn’t pan out, it would be equivalent to suffering through the kind of lane reductions that regularly happen around construction projects. If it does work, we’d see first-hand how it transformed the streets and improved the commute for thousands of riders.
Here’s a dramatic streetcar pilot project I’d like to see: We could test making King and Queen streets into something like rapid transit lines. In the downtown core, you could allow one lane of one-way car traffic on each street, give another lane to bikes, and reserve the tracks in the middle for streetcars only. Outside the core, you could designate the track lanes as streetcar-only (and ban street parking and left turns) during morning and afternoon rush hours. If you wanted to make the trip really speedy, you could eliminate half the stops on the route so the streetcars pick up and drop off passengers at traffic lights only. And you could rig those traffic lights so streetcars never have to wait at them.
Would it be extreme? Sure. Could we cut the travel time for those streetcars in half? I think so. And the best part is that it would be relatively easy compared to making other high-impact changes. More than 100,000 people a day ride those streetcar routes combined, and even more would do so if the routes were fast and reliable.
No doubt official consideration of a plan like that would be contentious. But if it were successful, it would give dramatic results to live up to the dramatic debate—which would make it a debate well worth having.
Other radical transit ideas we’ve heard recently (and not so recently)
Scrap streetcars altogether and replace them with buses.—The Ford brothers
A system of swan boats running in canals.—Transit activist Steve Munro
Commuter ferry service along the waterfront.—Former TTC chair Adam Giambrone
Skyride–style gondolas running on overhead cables.—U of T professor Amer Shalaby