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A seat on the Queen streetcar? Don't make me laugh

Posted: February 27, 2008, 8:02 PM by Barry Hertz


The TTC, which expects to set a record this year by transporting 464 million passengers, has recently announced major service improvements and has plans for a big expansion. Peter Kuitenbrouwer begins a three-part series on the challenges faced by the city’s transit service with a look at streetcars.

On Tuesday at 9:20 a.m., Brent Hetherington, director of account management for an Internet software company, stood in snowfall at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Queen Street East waiting for the 501 Queen streetcar.

“I’m kind of frustrated right now,” he said. “I’ve been waiting 20 minutes. A King one went by, but that turns off at Broadview. In general, the Queen Street line is overpacked. A lot of times a streetcar will go by and it’s so packed that you can’t even get on.”

Finally a 501 arrived and we embarked, running the gauntlet of commuters lining the aisle, coaxed by the barking voice of the driver: “Move all the way to the back.” A seat? Don’t make me laugh.

Streetcar service, the most iconic feature of Toronto’s transit system, has become its weakest link. Even as Mayor David Miller earlier this month announced sweeping improvements to bus service, with 30 more buses in the morning rush, he announced no changes to streetcar service during rush hour. The four downtown east-west streetcar lines — King, Queen, Dundas and College — are so slow that it is now faster to walk than take the streetcar for many trips.

Last Friday at 10:30 a.m., seeing a clump of 12 people shivering at the streetcar stop at College and Crawford streets, I chose to walk to Bay Street, and made it as fast as the streetcar. On Tuesday morning, my 501 left Dovercourt Road at 8:35 a.m., arriving at Yonge Street at 9 a.m.

The TTC has responded by removing one row of seats at the back end of streetcars, so that more people can stand.

“Not only do you get to pay higher taxes for a transit service that doesn’t work,” says Michael Mouland, a senior editor at Key Porter Books, “and higher fares, but now you don’t get a seat.”

He commutes from College and Havelock streets to Yonge and Adelaide.

“My preference is bicycle, walk, drive and then transit, in that order. It infuriates me. And I’m pro-transit! Why does it take me 40 to 50 minutes [by TTC] to travel five kilometres?”

Why? Part of the problem is a streetcar shortage. Back in 1988, when TTC ridership peaked, the TTC operated 300 streetcars. Since then the TTC has cut 52 streetcars, to 248, while adding streetcar service on Spadina and Queens Quay. In fact, the TTC informs me, it has “a maximum of 186 streetcars currently scheduled for service.” The other 62 are in the shop.

Yesterday, outside a TTC meeting at City Hall, Mitch Stambler, manager of service planning, said the TTC is considering temporarily replacing streetcar service with buses on Bathurst Street and Kingston Road “on an interim, temporary, defined, limited basis only,” so they can add streetcars on the busiest routes (King, Queen and Carlton).

“The streetcar fleet is so stinkin’ old that options are very limited,” he said.

There is one bright spot: the streetcar lanes on Spadina, about a decade old, where service is frequent and smooth. The St. Clair dedicated streetcar, mired in controversy, is not yet in full operation.

The TTC has a tender for 204 new, longer streetcars to replace the existing fleet; the tenders close in April and delivery is in 2011.

Wow. In the 20 years since the TTC last received a streetcar, did no one think we might need more of these things? We ordered lots more buses — why didn’t we order streetcars?

And if we don’t have more streetcars, why is the TTC spending $176-million between 2003 and 2008 to replace about 40 kilometres of streetcar tracks? There is so much track work that a friend calls it “the Toronto Cement Commission.” Shouldn’t we have spent at least a part of that on streetcars?

Longer term, the TTC has its Transit City light rail plan — outlined in some detail at yesterday’s meeting. It plans longer streetcars in dedicated lanes on Eglinton, Sheppard East, Finch West, Don Mills and the Waterfront West.

Mr. Stambler went through a slideshow of sexy streetcars in Barcelona, Paris and San Francisco, “to remind us of what Toronto will look like at some point in the future.”

But not only is that future at least five years and $7-billion away, it does nothing to solve the problems of streetcars that fight mixed traffic on east-west routes downtown.

Six weeks ago, Mr. Hetherington moved into his new place in Leslieville. When we met at the streetcar stop, he was carrying several tins of cookies: housewarming party leftovers he was bringing to the office. He loves his new neighbourhood, with one caveat. He went from riding the Yonge subway line to the Queen streetcar. The transit adjustment has been a rude shock.

“It’s really slow considering there are so many people who use this line,” he says. “If they added service it’s not like it would go empty.”

He visited San Francisco on business last week and reports, “I thought, ‘Wow, this is quite impressive, considering it’s half the price of Toronto.’ “

Photo by Merle Robillard for National Post