The great Toronto streetcar debate

We like to say we love our streetcars, but we never seem to give them pride of place on our roads. Like it or not, that may be about to change

Jul 15, 2007 04:30 AM
Murray Whyte
Toronto Star

A sharp clang rings out on Dundas St. as the worker in the sweaty hard hat swings his iron mallet at the massive metal claw again, again and again.

Thick brown fluid oozes from a rusty joint and dribbles onto a mound of dusty concrete boulders, piled on what was left of Dundas St. here, west of Ossington Ave.

From behind temporary metal barricades, a small crowd had assembled to survey the scene: four city workers tending roughly to the wounded paw of a hobbled backhoe, its roadbed-tearing tasks unexpectedly done for the day.

One man takes a final draw on his cigarette. “Streetcars,” he says, tossing the glowing butt into the rubble before shuffling away. “Waste of time.”

Careful, now. In a city with few sacred cows, the Red Rocket occupies a particularly exalted place – even when it’s been crippled by torn-up tracks in dire need of replacement, like here on Dundas.

“Nobody runs around saying they love the streetcar, until you try to touch them,” says TTC spokesperson Marilyn Bolton.

“Then, look out.”

Indeed, since it was rescued from certain death in the early 1970s by a dogged citizen movement, the streetcar, like the CN Tower or the Gardiner Expressway, has become one of our few enduring, if not universally loved, urban icons. It’s fair to say no one ever got misty-eyed about a bus. But rumbling quietly along city streets, the streetcar represents, for many, a more civilized mode of in-city travel – the romance of the railway, urban-style.

“There’s just something about riding the rails,” says TTC chair Adam Giambrone.

But it’s not all about the charm. Streetcars move more people than buses, last longer (as much as three times longer, up to 40 years), and, thanks to the system’s web of overhead electric wires, run cleanly and exhaust-free. TTC statistics show that the Dufferin bus, the city’s heaviest-volume bus, carries slightly more than 30,000 people per day; the King streetcar moves almost 50,000.

“The average car in Toronto carries 1.1 people,” Giambrone says. “A streetcar displaces 130 cars. We’re all citizens. If you assign everyone one value point, that streetcar takes priority.”

All that has convinced the TTC commissioner that the future belongs to streetcars and their ilk. The city is shopping around for a fleet of new streetcars, 204 in all, at about $3 million each. Giambrone’s long-term plan is a massive commitment to streetcars and light rail, in both the city’s core and the distant points surrounding it.

But as the eight-months-long track replacement along Dundas St. (it started in March) shows, love can be hard sometimes.

Track maintenance is extravagant, inconvenient and painful. The Dundas reconstruction, from Howard Park Ave. in the west all the way to Broadview Ave. in the east, is the last in a series of such makeovers since the mid-’90s – tracks on King, Queen and College Sts. were all replaced in recent years. The cost of the Dundas project alone to the cash-strapped TTC: $45 million.

As the reconstruction continues in increments of several blocks, it crimps business along the busy commercial strip (by “25 per cent,” guesses Maria Da Silva, the manager of Caldense Bakery at Dundas and Grove Ave., estimating the hit since construction began), clots up other important east-west arteries with overflow traffic, and coats nearby neighbourhoods in a thin layer of fine, white concrete dust.

And even when they are running, streetcars have their enemies. Drivers hate the way they create bottlenecks on major arterials, loading and unloading slowly, their open doors holding back traffic.

For passengers, they can be slow and rigid. Anything in their path – an illegally parked car, construction, an accident – stops them dead, because, of course, they can’t go around. The service is unreliable: A petition is currently circulating on Queen St. E., decrying a frequency that, on paper, is promised every six minutes but sometimes stretches out to half an hour or more.

“The service is so bad, we had to do something,” says Renee Knight, the petition’s creator. “Don’t get me wrong – I love the streetcar. This is the only way we can tell the TTC, and the city: `Hey, we care about this. We really care.’”

It’s been a long time since Torontonians showed a mass outpouring of love for their streetcar system – at least since activists campaigned for its survival back in 1971.

And it will take a lot of care to restore it to its former glory. Our streetcar system ran on 48 streets in the 1940s. Now it has just 11 routes. As the sales pitch on the transfer slip for the Coxwell streetcar, now defunct, once read, circa World War II, “Your goodwill and support do promote good service.”

“Streetcars are staying,” read the headline in this newspaper on June 9, 1971. And Sam Cass was fuming. Less than a week before, Cass, the Metro Toronto traffic commissioner, had watched as city council let his dream die: the Spadina Expressway, which would have cleaved the Annex in two with six lanes of onrushing – or, more likely, gridlocked – cars, spiriting drivers from the outer suburbs into downtown and back.

And now this. Transit had long been an irritant for Cass, who loathed the streetcar system because it blocked his downtown traffic initiatives, like one-way streets. “No-one has found a way to get the motorist out of his car,” Cass had grumpily professed in the mid-’60s, just as the Bloor subway line was being built. He told a reporter that the city’s $136-million commitment to the service was “building ourselves into a box.”

Despite Cass’s protestations, a few decades on Toronto’s contentious decision to keep its streetcars seems prescient, indeed. In Canada, it’s the only streetcar system left – a shame, given the current thinking. “There is overwhelming support continent-wide for rejuvenating our heritage streetcar systems,” says Amer Shalaby, a University of Toronto public transit expert.

With all of this, a very old circle is finally closing: The streetcar, abandoned as an anachronism years ago, is now seen as the transit mode of the future, along with its modern-day progeny, light-rail transit.

Charlotte, Tampa, Dallas, San Diego, Portland, Memphis, Los Angeles and Minneapolis are only a few of the North American cities re-embracing the streetcar. In Europe, where people have been better at embracing transit than car-crazy North Americans, streetcars never died.

Forty per cent of European commuters take transit, whereas in Toronto, the figure is only 18 per cent, yet it still stands as one of the highest on this continent.

Last year, total streetcar ridership here went up by 10 million, to 52 million-plus. And this year, the federal, provincial and civic governments have promised $6.1 billion to the building of 120 kilometres of new light-rail lines in Toronto by 2021, linking distant suburbs and the airport to the city centre (the Feds have agreed in theory, but have yet to write the cheque). When all the new lines are open, they’ll carry an additional 175 million people per year.

While the new trains are not exactly streetcars, they’ll function how streetcars are meant to: on their own, dedicated rights-of-way.

The systems have not been without their critics, most prominent among them the late John Kain, a Harvard economist who in 1965 co-authored one of the most influential modern tomes on public transit, The Urban Transportation Problem, a study that famously attacked rail transit’s economic practicality.

Dubbed “the rail-basher’s bible” by those in the field, Kain’s stance didn’t soften in the intervening decades. “With few exceptions,” Kain wrote in a study for the Brookings Institute in 1999, “academic studies of the cost-effectiveness of alternative modes of transportation have found that some form of express bus system … would have lower costs and higher performance than either light or heavy rail systems in nearly all, if not all, U.S. cities.”

Kain would have supporters on St. Clair Ave. Witness the great hue and cry there recently, where a vociferous gang of local merchants pushed back hard when told their street would sacrifice a parking lane for a dedicated streetcar right-of-way. “They thought, `This will destroy the area,’” recalls local merchant Gino Cucchi.

Cucchi, who came to Canada in 1958 and started the menswear shop Gino Fashion, has watched St. Clair flourish, and then, as suburban malls became a retail force, make a long, slow decline.

As vice-chair of the area’s Business Improvement Association, Cucchi took it upon himself to advocate for the streetcar right-of-way in the neighbourhood. “The idea, for me, was to keep the customers here, not send them to Yorkdale Mall,” he says.

The best way to do that, he believes, is with fast, reliable transit. “In a year, St. Clair will be beautiful, clean, alive again, and it will be because of the streetcar.”

He can steer them to Spadina Ave., where opposition to the streetcar right-of-way began in 1973, when it was first tabled, and remained entrenched until it opened in 1997, and proved all the opponents gloriously wrong.

“The loss of parking was fought tooth and nail,” recalls Steve Munro, who runs a website, stevemunro.ca, devoted to transit issues. “The theory being that, without parking, Spadina’s commercial aspect would wither away to nothing. But look at the number of people on Spadina every day, shopping. They didn’t get there by driving.”

Munro, 58, was one of the activists who saved Toronto streetcars from certain death in 1971. Though he’s never worked for the transit commission – he’s a technology services manager with the Toronto District School Board – he speaks about it with a degree of ownership. He refers to transit initiatives as “we” – “We already run a streetcar on King every two minutes, at least on the schedule” – and recently drafted a paper on how that King car, besieged by burgeoning ridership from rapid west-end development, ought to function, which the TTC is reviewing. “Transit City,” the name of the TTC’s rail plan for 2021, was Munro’s phrase.

He knows the system has fallen a long way from its apex. “There was a real sense then of people – I wouldn’t quite say loving the streetcar, but being very fond of them,” he says.

“These days, the feedback I get on my site from people who hate streetcars has nothing to do with the streetcars themselves. It’s that it represents, for a lot of people, crappy, crowded, unreliable service.”

Before the city renewed its commitment to streetcars in the mid-’90s, the service was shedding routes, cars and ridership while the tracks deteriorated in shoddy, short-term concrete beds.

Since then, the TTC has been playing catch-up. Replacing ailing track beds, patched in the ’80s on the cheap, and running the lines – badly, most say – on a near-impossible budget has cost the city not just millions of dollars, but the confidence of riders. And Giambrone knows it will be a chore to earn it back.

“`Do something about King!’ – I hear that all the time,” he says. “Well, what do you want me to do about it? If I add another streetcar, it just gets eaten up in traffic.”

Giambrone knows a way to stop that from happening: giving all streetcars their own right of way, like on Spadina, but also giving operators the power to change the traffic lights in their favour.

In other words, in Giambrone’s world, if you drive, you can wait. “That’s what being a `Transit City’ is all about,” he says. “This is why we have to advance the debate.”

To that end, an experiment: Giambrone green-lighted a temporary right-of-way on King St. later this year between Yonge St. and University Ave., wiping away taxi lanes and street parking – for a few weeks, at least. “People will see that the world doesn’t end,” he says. “And then we’ll talk about expanding it.”

Speaking of world endings, back amid the rubble on Dundas St., Binh Tran, owner of Kim Jewellers, regarded the proceedings with a shrug. “What can you do?” he said. “It’s bad for business, sure. It’s bad for everybody. But it’s not like they do it every year. We just hope they do it quickly. When it’s over, we’ll be fine.”

Tran cited the gain, for all the pain: less pollution, more eyes on the street. “People can see the businesses as they pass and, maybe next time, they’ll stop and buy something. We need the streetcar. I really believe it helps keep us alive.”


The rise and fall of urban rail in North America

Starting in the late 19th century, almost every city in North America had a streetcar system. Streetcars were a feature of Canadian cities from coast to coast, from Victoria (1890) to Winnipeg (1882) to Guelph (1895) to Moncton (1896), and including, of course, Toronto, which began operation as the Toronto Railway Company in 1892.

Then, in the 1930s – in North America, at least – streetcars started to disappear.

“Some people will give you the conspiracy theory, about the car companies buying them out,” says author and TTC buff James Bow, 34. “But really, I think it’s just a case of bad timing.”

Bow, a native Torontonian living in Kitchener, blames the continent-wide demise of the streetcar on the enormous socioeconomic shift that occurred through World War II and beyond. Pre-war, most transit services were private businesses. After the war, as major centres were suburbanized, density went down and business got out of mass transit.

“Basically, public transit as a money-making venture was doomed,” says Bow, who’s co-editor of the website transit.toronto.on.ca, the enthusiasts’ choice for all matters relating to the TTC.

Municipalities were left to assume the burden of operating transit systems, as well as the aging fleets of streetcars that came with them. Largely unmaintained throughout the war due to manpower and money shortfalls, most systems became decrepit. Cities groped for a quick fix.

Compared with the cost of a new streetcar, buses were cheap – less than a quarter of the cost. They were faster, and more suited to the network of freeways unspooling continent-wide. Buses could travel to expanding exurbs, untethered by track. Gas was cheap. Inexorably, tracks were torn up.

Remaining streetcars were exiled to transit museums, theme parks or, as a streetcar preservation group in Edmonton puts it, “sold off … to serve as chicken coops, storage sheds or summer cottages.” By the early ’60s, there were almost none left (Los Angeles had the most extensive network in the world, at 1,609 kilometres, before it was erased completely in the late ’50s).

By the time Toronto chose to keep its streetcar system, it was one of the few still in service on the continent, along with San Francisco. But there, as here, good-sized chunks of the system were lost.

“From Union Station, you could take a streetcar all the way to Lake Simcoe,” says Bob Johnson, 72, a restorer at the Ontario Electric Railway Historical Museum in Guelph. “Then all this stuff just disappeared.”

In the ’40s, Johnson’s father started work as a motorman with the TTC. “The streets were full of track. People knew their city, and travelled within it, because of streetcars. Today, people live in enclaves.”

With the resurgence, Johnson’s fondly held past could be the wave of the future. “I hate to say `I told you so,’ but I lived through all the crap of watching it all go downhill. I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see it come back, but thank God I did.”


Endnote: streetcars

In researching this story about Toronto streetcars, I came across an old radio clip in the CBC’s online archives. On Sept. 15, 1955, Mayor George Edward Sharpe of Winnipeg delivered an address to Winnipeggers as he accepted the city transit commission’s proposal to retire the city’s streetcar system in favour of diesel buses.

“I know I speak for all citizens when we wave goodbye to this final streetcar that we know another big step has been taken in the progress of our city,” he said. He wouldn’t live long enough to be proven wrong – he died in 1985 – but I can assure you he would have accepted it graciously.

I say this with some certainty because George Sharpe was my grandfather, and a kinder, more humane person you could scarcely imagine. He, like so many municipal leaders of the time, chose to do away with the streetcar system because he sincerely believed it was not the better way.

That belief has, of course, been proven wrong-headed by the enduring efficiency of streetcar systems in Europe and the more recent re-implementation of modern streetcar systems across North America.

And there’s a poetry to it, really, as the circle closes – this old form, abandoned long ago as archaic, resurging as the wave of the future. It’s a poetry I know he’d appreciate, were he here to see it.

To listen to the clip, go to http://archives.cbc.ca type “Sharpe” and “streetcar” in the search window.




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