Lighter and more streetcars needed, not cars

By Stig Harvor –

In Toronto, and particularly Downtown, private vehicles and public transit are locked in a constant struggle. Cars, trucks, buses and streetcars fight for space to move on crowded streets.

In terms of occupied road space, streetcars and buses carry far more passengers than cars, which mostly contain only the driver. Public transit is more efficient in moving large numbers of people. And large numbers of people must move around in our city every day to make it work.

Public transit has an important and little recognized side effect. It contributes significantly to the social integration and tolerance of our society. People of all classes, races, ages, and types share public transit. It puts everybody in physical contact with everybody else.

People in cars are hermetically sealed in their metal boxes. People with money further seal themselves off in their own privileged neighbourhoods. Some of them even erect fences around these with limited access as in gated communities. There is no segregation on public transit. We are all human beings together in this big city when we travel on public transit.

Our city’s new Official Plan recognizes the importance of public transit. It aims to create a city where “people will be at no disadvantage if they do not own a car.” It sets out planning principles for encouraging more use of public transit.

Higher residential densities along main traffic arteries and around subway stops are promoted. The Downtown situation is more acute and difficult. The area is already heavily built up. There are few wide streets to funnel traffic. Changes are difficult to achieve.

To help their streetcars and buses, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) favours what is called Light Rail Transit (LRT). This means dedicated, separate right-of-ways for transit. After much argument, it was installed for streetcars on Spadina Ave. a few years ago. The recent city council decision to do likewise along St. Clair Ave. is still meeting opposition.

Both Spadina and St. Clair Ave. are unusually wide traffic streets. So is the proposed, yet-to-be-rebuilt Queen’s Quay Blvd. between Jarvis and Parliament. This boulevard will become the east-west spine of the future, built-up East Bayfront area if ever the waterfront revitalization plans move beyond the present planning stage into actual construction.

The boulevard can easily accommodate LRT. An unusual condition is that the boulevard must also retain the railway tracks now serving the Redpath Sugar Refinery at the bottom of Jarvis St. Unlike today, we hope no unsightly railway cars will be parked on the tracks in the future.

The other waterfront project on the West Don Lands east of Parliament St. and north of the railway, poses a problem. The TTC wants widening of the existing Cherry St. for an LRT streetcar extension into the new community.

This proposal is being severely questioned by the citizens’ West Don Lands Committee. They feel a wide, segregated Cherry St. will obstruct community integration. It will also require the demolition of the historic Canary Grill building or an awkward jog in the street to retain this building. Many North American cities introduced electric streetcars at the beginning of the last century. With the subsequent explosive growth in car traffic, these cities abandoned streetcars in favour of buses under pressure of the private car lobby aided by car manufacturers. Toronto did not follow the trend. Streetcars still form part of the transportation network, particularly Downtown.

Streetcars have an advantage over buses in relation to passenger comfort. Streetcars and subways, unlike buses, run smoothly without lurching and shaking on uneven roads. This reinforces the great passenger advantage of public transit over private cars: Someone else is doing the driving.

Passengers can relax, read, think, or just look around instead of being aggravated by surrounding traffic. No road rage here. What does induce stress in public transit, however, is crowding. This is mainly the result of service reductions compelled by reductions in the TTC budget forced by shortsighted, tax-cutting governments.

Some people feel buses should replace streetcars. Granted, streetcars are less flexible in traffic. Buses can weave in and out. Streetcars move on fixed rails in the middle of the street. They can be held up by cars. In turn, they hold up cars whenever they stop for passengers. They slow down traffic.

Also the replacement of old streetcar tracks is a costly, disruptive, and long process as was experienced on Downtown King and Queen streets recently. The combined effect of our harsh climate and heavy, existing streetcars makes such periodic replacement necessary. Lighter streetcars as used in Europe could extend the useful life of tracks.

Buses, while flexible in traffic, run on diesel fuel and pollute the air. Electric streetcars have the advantage of being pollution-free. The TTC is trying to reduce bus pollution by switching to hybrid diesel-electric buses when old buses wear out. An order will be made this year for 150 buses of the new type.

Interestingly, Toronto had some electric trolley buses until a few years ago. They combined the advantage of traffic flexibility with no foul fumes. They were also far quieter than regular buses and particularly streetcars, which can squeal loudly when they round corners. An operational disadvantage of trolley buses was their fixed routes. Visually they also required an unsightly, spidery network of overhead wires.

In the 1990s, provincial and municipal financial support for public transit was seriously reduced. In 1998, provincial support was totally eliminated by the neo-conservative Harrisites in a complex, screwed-up swap of public service responsibilities that left our city and the TTC helpless financially.

As a consequence, TTC service has been reduced while the need for it increases. Since 1988, TTC ridership has fallen 11% while the city population grew 20%. Over 200 fewer buses and 40 fewer streetcars were in operation at peak times two years ago than in the late 1980s. Small wonder waiting times at TTC stops seem long.

The TTC budget consists of two parts: Operating costs and capital costs. Operating costs are the costs to keep the system working. Capital costs are the costs of its material.

For its operating costs, the TTC is overly dependent on fare revenue. In 2001 its fares contributed 82% of these costs, our city the rest The provincial and federal governments contributed nothing. In Montreal fares accounted for only 47% of operating costs and in New York City 54%, the highest for many large cities in the United States.

For capital costs, TTC depended 100% on our cash-strapped city whereas Montreal got all its money from a provincial agency. New York City got 43% in federal funds and paid the rest itself.

There is obviously a big problem here for the TTC. All government funding in 2003 for its operating costs was only half of what it was in comparable dollars 11 years earlier. Recent timid moves by the federal and provincial governments to aid public transit indicate a growing political awareness of the importance of such a basic public service. About time!

It is worth noting that in Los Angeles it has been estimated that 80 cents of every dollar spent on public transit remain in the region while 85 cents of every dollar spent on gasoline, mainly by private cars, leave the region. Money remaining in the region creates local employment

Annual TTC ridership plummeted in the recession-stricken years of the early 1990s. These years were accompanied by TTC budget cuts and five related fare increases totaling 41%. Ridership went from 460 million in 1991 to a low of 370 million six years later. It has since regained half of that loss and ran at 420 million in 2002.

TTC has just been forced again to hike its fares taking effect this March 6 to balance its shrunken budget. Each time fares go up, ridership goes down. This is no way to run a vital service.

High ridership is obviously crucial to the TTC. It is also crucial to the smooth functioning of our city.

In order to analyze factors influencing ridership and propose remedies, TTC issued a Ridership Growth Strategy report two years ago. The report has proposals for improving service, options for fares and a look at innovative, new technologies. There is no lack of ideas. There is only a lack of money.

We can only hope the fundamental political problem of adequate TTC funding will be resolved before private cars totally clog up our city and choke up our air.