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EDITORIAL: Why Rob Ford's Transit Plan Will Increase Congestion Throughout Toronto

Over and above Rob Ford’s shaky math, and his embarrassing ignorance on the basic political infrastructure of Toronto (roundly dispatched by Steve Munro’s response, seen here), one of the biggest problems with Rob Ford’s proposed transit plan is simply this: by replacing streetcars with buses, Rob Ford will be increasing congestion through downtown Toronto, not decreasing it.

Streetcars are not slow. They are not any more susceptible to traffic congestion than replacement buses. The speed of transit vehicles, streetcar or bus, has far more to do with how the roadway is designed than it does vehicle choice. You can run tracks around left turn lanes, and you can put buses on centre reservations as effectively as streetcars. The only thing keeping streetcars from moving faster through Toronto’s downtown core is the lack of political will in putting the needs of dozens of passengers sitting in one streetcar or bus above the needs of a single car driver holding up traffic just so he or she can make a left turn.

But where streetcars have a considerable advantage is in their capacity. Quite simply, they can carry more per vehicle than a bus. The ‘crush’ load capacity of our current streetcars range from 125 passengers for our CLRVs and 200 passengers for our articulated streetcars. The crush load capacity of a typical bus is 90 passengers, or 150 for your typical articulated bus. Simply put, it takes four buses to do the work of three streetcars.

Consider the 504 King streetcar, the busiest route on the TTC’s surface network. It is operating at capacity, with streetcars scheduled every two minutes in its peak hour. That’s sixty streetcars in total moving in both directions along King Street. To provide the same level of service, a King bus would have to schedule 80 vehicles to operate on the same street. That’s twenty more buses, spewing diesel exhaust into the air, not to mention the cost of paying 20 more drivers to drive them. Adding twenty large vehicles to a street in an hour isn’t decreasing congestion, it’s increasing it.

And that’s just the old streetcars. The new streetcars, due to arrive in the coming months, will hold even more passengers, and the LRTs being built for the Transit City lines will hold even more than that — upwards of 300 in a crush load. And these LRT cars will be operating in two car trains — three car trains for the Eglinton LRT.

And putting the Eglinton LRT line underground, as planned between Black Creek Drive and Don Mills, makes the Eglinton LRT functionally no different from a full fledged subway. The frequencies, speed and capacity are roughly the same. Transit travel times between Keele and Laird are expected to drop in half, from 48 minutes to nearly 20. The Eglinton LRT would likely be pulling more riders than the Sheppard subway.

And yet Rob Ford would ditch this plan, seek to eliminate Toronto’s streetcars in ten years, and burden Torontonians with a subway expansion he doesn’t know how to pay for, that will serve fewer people, and buses that would be dirtier, while carrying fewer people, and being more costly to operate. Ford likes to claim that he’s running on a platform of fiscal responsibility, but there is nothing responsible, fiscally or otherwise, about his short-sighted transit plan.

(Update: 11:38 p.m.): Reader Michael Greason contacted me, (gently) taking me to task over the fact that the numbers I used highlighting the capacity advantages streetcars have over buses might be conservative. As you recall, I said a single streetcar had a crush capacity of 125 passengers, and a single bus had one of 90 passengers.

In his words: “Please remember that we don’t have many of the old reliable GMs left in our fleet in Toronto. Our fleet is almost exclusively made up of the Orion Bus… …I have been on an an Orion - both doors open for loading and stopped at the subway that left people behind. The actual “crush” capacity on that bus was between 55 and 60 people.”

It’s true that the numbers I was basing my calculations on were from the older General Motors “New Look” vehicles, which I happen to have statistics for, close to hand. In crafting this editorial, I didn’t have the crush load capacity of the Orions that make up the bulk of Toronto’s current fleet on hand, and while I can’t attest to whether they can only hold just sixty passengers, I can picture the crush capacity of these vehicles being lower than 90. It’s also important to note that General Motors doesn’t make the New Look bus anymore, and the model likely can’t be purchased, since it violates Ontario’s accessibility rules.

If what Michael says is the case, and two streetcars today can do the work of three buses, then my numbers for King Street become even more alarming. Instead of 80 buses within an hour replacing 60 streetcars on this already busy street, that number goes up to 90. However, in this debate, I thought it wise to keep my numbers on the conservative side, so as not to be accused of inflating things in order to make my point.

Thanks to Michael for his thoughtful comments.

(Update to the Update): According to the TTC’s service standards circa 2005 (seen here, the vehicle loading standard of an Orion VII low floor bus is 55 passengers during the peak hour, compared to a CLRV’s standard of 74 passengers. These are the number of passengers a bus route regularly has to carry, per bus, before the TTC deems that service needs to be increased in order to reduce crowding. By that standard, three streetcars do the work of four buses. The number has since been revised to a range of 52-55. At 52 passengers, the streetcar to bus ratio starts to approach 2:3.