A close look at the popular streetcar suggests it’s not the success many believe it to be. STEPHEN WICKENS reports
By STEPHEN WICKENS
Saturday, May 7, 2005 Page M2
Special to The Globe and Mail
Arja Chopra has given up on the Spadina streetcar, just as the Toronto Transit Commission appears set to fully embrace similar dedicated-lane routes across the city.
“Bathurst is faster, and it’s much more pleasant than Spadina,” says Ms. Chopra, who operates Sugar & Spice, a health-food store in Kensington Market, halfway between the two streetcar lines. “I tried [Bathurst] because I didn’t like the crowds at Spadina station. Then I found it saved me a few minutes each morning.
“He didn’t believe me,” she says, smiling and pointing to husband and business partner Dave Chopra.
“It’s true,” says Mr. Chopra, who adds that he always urged his wife to take Spadina, figuring that the street’s dedicated transit lanes had to make the trip faster. Now he’s convinced they don’t, but he’s puzzled by one thing: “How can there be such a secret? Everybody still thinks Spadina is better.”
Maybe not everybody, but rare are the people who question whether the 510 Spadina route has really been the better way since it replaced the No. 77 bus almost eight years ago, at a cost of $140-million. As Toronto considers constructing Spadina-like rights of way as part of a $600-million citywide “surface rapid transit” network that could see dedicated lanes along Eglinton and Lawrence Avenues and on Don Mills and Kingston Roads, the question is critical. And the answer might surprise.
In January, shortly after the Toronto Transit Commission released a report calling for transit rights of way on these arterial roads, The Globe and Mail tried to assess the effectiveness of the Spadina line. Shown the results, opponents of the proposed right of way on St. Clair Avenue West say they now wish they’d asked more questions about the Spadina route during debates about the St. Clair plan. And a transit expert thinks the findings could place the $65-million St. Clair project in jeopardy.
We found that:
Instead of living up to pre-construction reports that streetcars on dedicated lanes would cut travel time from Bloor Street to Queen’s Quay by 5 minutes — the environmental assessment boasted of up to 10 minutes in savings — the 510 appears to take longer than the buses that plied the route from 1948 to 1997. A TTC document obtained last month says the trip takes one minute longer in the afternoon rush hour than in 1990. Data on historical and current transfers indicate a 17-minute bus trip in 1993 now takes 19 minutes by streetcar.
The 510 may be the slowest of all routes between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street. Travel times on TTC transfers put Bloor-to-Queen trips at 12 minutes on Spadina, 8 minutes on Bathurst and 10 minutes on other routes.
The TTC says ridership on Spadina is up 30 per cent since 1997, the year the line opened. But when compared with 1992, the last year before construction tore up the street and cut into ridership, Spadina appears to be down 1.5 per cent, while overall TTC ridership is up about 3.4 per cent.
TTC cost-to-revenue ratio lists show the Spadina and Harbourfront lines (now considered one for accounting purposes) have plunged to 35th-best among the TTC’s 132 surface routes. In 1997, they were No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, with the Spadina bus one of only seven routes turning a profit.
The only finding that Mitch Stambler, the TTC’s manager of service planning, strongly disputes is the question of whether the streetcars are slower than the old buses, although the numbers we’ve used came from the TTC.
But he says that speed isn’t the primary goal of the new dedicated lanes. “We have emphasized over and over again that on Spadina or St. Clair or any other route where we’re looking to establish a right of way, it’s not an issue of speed,” he says. “Service reliability and regularity matter first and foremost.”
Still, he says, the TTC is working to speed up service through gradual changes that include increasing capacity by coupling streetcars and acquiring new cars that accommodate more passengers, as well as providing more locations where operators can manipulate traffic lights.
Ridership on all routes is subject to “many, many macroeconomic factors,” he says, arguing that “apples-to-apples” comparisons aren’t always possible. And besides, he adds, the streetcar lines have benefits that extend beyond passenger numbers. “We’ve never argued that streetcars don’t cost more to operate than buses,” he says, pointing out that they’re still a bargain compared with subways, which cost about 10 times as much to build. “But all the benefits they bring — a smooth, quiet ride; zero emissions; economic development — are well known.”
While Mr. Stambler doesn’t sound worried about our findings, people from both sides of the St. Clair debate had a stronger reaction. “Good God! This is unbelievable,” said Ed Levy, an internationally respected transportation planner and engineer who made a deputation to City Council in favour of the St. Clair plan last year.
“I supported light rail then, and I still do,” Mr. Levy of BA Group says. “But you have to do it properly.”
One concern he cites is the built-in delays caused by the positioning of passenger platforms, which should be placed before traffic lights, he says, but instead were put in after them to accommodate left-turn lanes for cars. “We’re forcing [streetcars] to wait at lights before they can pick up and drop off passengers on the far side of the intersections. It’s a mistake, and it looks like they plan to do the same thing on St. Clair.
“All this other stuff [Spadina travel times, ridership and economics] should have been part of the debate,” Mr. Levy says. Now, he says he fears the provincial Ministry of the Environment will call for a full environmental assessment rather than continue to fast-track the process. “They want to start construction this summer, and a full EA will probably kill [the plan] altogether.”
Of course, if the city and TTC’s ideas for St. Clair die, it would please Save Our St. Clair leader Margaret Smith, who says “the so- called Spadina experience and all its wonderful successes were used to sell the project every step of the way.”
She and her group believe advocates oversold potential time savings on St. Clair and ridership-growth figures on Spadina, and says she’s upset that the TTC and the city didn’t mention the streetcar line’s drawbacks in more than 50 public meetings about St. Clair.
“It doesn’t surprise me, but the fact this information is only coming out now is just further proof that the whole process stunk,” she says. Mr. Stambler defends the TTC’s push for dedicated lanes, however, saying that the round-trip time from Spadina station has actually improved. “That’s a fact I’ll do a bit of digging on,” he says.”The fact that [Spadina] revenue over cost looks worse is: A, no secret; B, we’ve never hid it; C, we’re not embarrassed; and D, it represents an investment in the health of the city and the whole TTC, and that’s a decision council made.”
Mr. Stambler points out as well that the Spadina route became more costly because it went from bus to streetcar, but that this won’t be a factor on St. Clair.
Two others who had roles on opposite sides of the St. Clair debate didn’t sound at all surprised that Spadina doesn’t appear to have lived up to its hype. Richard Gilbert, research director for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation and a former city councillor, opposed St. Clair partly because he feels we haven’t learned from mistakes on Spadina.
“They may have built dedicated lanes for streetcars, but the intersections were designed for cars,” he says. “The St. Clair plan will do much the same thing, and it will only add to the litany of misapplied capital spending the TTC has given us in the past 30 years.”
Greg Gormick, who wrote a report called The Streetcar Renaissance for the TTC and the St. Clair EA process, says if we want any of these lines to really work, we have to make hard decisions.
“We have to decide whether we’re doing light rapid transit or streetcars. Both are good concepts, but Spadina is neither fish nor fowl — too many stops, too many concessions to cars. It’s the worst of both worlds and … unless we give transit real priority, we’ll repeat the mistakes, starting with St. Clair.”
And back at the health-food store in Kensington Market, Arja Chopra has a decision to make, too.
“They’re going to tear up the tracks on Bathurst this summer. I’ll probably use the replacement bus. We’ll see how it goes.”