Streetcars: Lessons from Toronto?

It’s been requested that I post offer some fresh thoughts on the issue of the Cincinnati streetcar project, in light of the two years I’ve spent so far in Toronto, a city with, indeed, many streetcars of it’s own.  It’s a fun writing prompt, so here goes!

First, to understand the context, you’ll need to be familiar with my earlier remarks on the streetcar project, then underway. I did a whole series of posts outlining in detail the various weaknesses and infirmities of a project, which I think by accounts on either side had been too much discussed, and by my account too little understood. The series is some of my better writing on this blog and for anyone with an interest in the topic I would of course recommend that you read it in full.

I’ll try to summarize for the sake of rhetorical clarity though: my position on the Cincinnati streetcar project is basically that both advocates for the project and it’s detractors were pretty seriously misguided. Advocates seem generally to have conceived of the project in isolation from the rest of the transit system. It’s goal for them was primarily one of economic development in the city core, with actual transportation as a secondary or even tertiary goal. These priorities resulted in a project that serves poorly as actual transportation and which integrates very poorly with regional bus services, most of which overlap the streetcar route in some way, and which constitute the overwhelming bulk of actual transit in the region. The project opponents for their part acted like belligerent children and failed to offer any serious critique of the project. They also seriously misrepresented the project costs and pretended to be fiscal conservatives while ignoring concurrent highway expansion projects with costs orders of magnitude higher and even more dubious benefits. I do not believe that “expanding the system” will help anything because the streetcar should not be conceived of as a parallel transit “system”. That whole conception is deeply flawed and will lead to more mistakes.

Now having written that, from memory, I guess one thing that should be clear is that my opinion hasn’t changed much. But the question was: How has my experience in Toronto informed that? What is the streetcar experience in Toronto?

Toronto’s transit system (the TTC or Toronto Transit Commission) is indeed a “system” in a meaningful sense. Paying the standard fare entitles one to travel across the whole network on any number of “modes” (bus, express bus, streetcar, streetcar in designated ROW, subway, LRT) operated by the TTC. The routes form a mostly non-overlapping rectilinear grid which spans the entire city.

Toronto Transit Commission System Map

You can find a complete system map here.

For most trips it’s necessary to change vehicles and often to change between “modes” in the process. This is generally easy because the TTC makes it pretty straightforward to transfer, especially at subway stations where transfers happen within a fare-paid-zone. High frequency service on most lines minimizes waits for connecting services. For a deeper discussion of this network structure, and a contrast with a network more like Cincinnati’s, I recommend A very Public Solution, by Paul Mees.

Anyway, most major streets in Toronto are served by some kind of transit services and some of these happen to still be streetcars. In fact, I believe TTC has perhaps the largest streetcar operation in North America at least in terms of daily ridership on those routes. These streetcars however are a part of a large, integrated network, and which part of that network they happen to be seems as much a product of history as of planning. The actual vehicles range from long low-floor modern vehicles to single and articulated high-floor models from I think the 60’s or 70’s. Streetcars operate both within designated rights of way, as on Spadina or St. Clair avenues, or mixed with other street traffic as is the case pretty much everywhere else. Often something on or near the tracks will be under construction and the streetcars will be replaced for days or weeks with single or articulated buses with little effective change in service levels. The operation of these routes with buses is a common occurrence and not one that I’ve ever really heard anyone remark on.

Streets with streetcars do not generally have better service, nor worse service for that matter, at least as far as I can tell. For example, I live near Dufferin Street, which has articulated buses running as often as every three minutes during peak service. Another nearby transit street is Queen Street, which is usually served by streetcars along it’s entire length, though again, sometimes these are replaced by buses for some or all of the route. Queen street is narrow and extremely congested during the day, meaning that service on this street is generally much slower than that on Dufferin and much more prone to bunching. It’s not terribly uncommon to see three or even four streetcars one after another. The peak frequency is pretty similar, so the level of service on these streets is really the result of local traffic congestion more than the type of vehicle being operated. One way that the TTC is looking at dealing with such congestion is by working with the City to remove non-local car traffic from streets with transit services that are currently at or beyond capacity, as is now being considered in the King Street Pilot Study.

All of this, all of my experience here so far reinforces the idea that the quality of a transit service is not about the kind of vehicle being operated, but about the way it’s operated, whether it is mixed with traffic, scheduled with adequate headways, given reasonable connections with other services, etc. The only instance where the vehicle as such really matters is where it’s capacity varies. Articulated vehicles (streetcars or buses) carry more people than single vehicles, and require fewer drivers per passenger, saving on operating costs if the vehicles are reasonably well utilized. Perhaps I should also add that the number and width of doors can also matter, though this would make little difference in Cincinnati given current passenger volumes on most lines. Boarding speed is another element of overall line capacity though, so this is really just another dimension of that. And again, line capacity is not an issue that Cincinnati is facing in any real way.

These are the sorts of details by which a transit project should be considered and described. That the Cincinnati streetcar continues to be discussed in very different terms indicates to me that it’s primary purpose is not to effect the efficient movement of people through or within the urban core. It’s primary purpose, so far as I can tell is to signal that Cincinnati is “with it”, that OTR is a cool neighborhood, and that it’s safe to invest here because the neighborhood is now more closely aligned to the trends of other places which have seen dramatic recent increases in property values. If that was the goal, then we should be discussing whether a streetcar is the most efficient means of accomplishing it. Perhaps it is; I’m not a real-estate developer and such questions are beyond my purview.

What about it’s popular success such as it is? To the extent that the streetcar does or does not meet ridership projections or expectations, I think we would need to consider how such projections are to be made. Surely different models exist for projecting demand for transit services and demand for e.g. a ride at an amusement park or a brand of shampoo. One model would probably look at landuse, density, travel demand and the competitiveness of alternative modes etc., and another may consider popular sentiment, advertising, product placement, etc. I would leave the reader to wonder which model is more appropriate here, and if there is popular demand, to the alignment of which variables this can most rightly be attributed.

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Posted in: Analysis | Technology Choices
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Some thoughts on Toronto

For those of you who may have missed an earlier post, or who are finding this blog for the first time, please be advised that there may be but few updates coming. I have moved away from my exciting and bitter eight-year relationship with Cincinnati to the more expensive and diverse city of Toronto, Ontario.

toronto the blurry

Still seen as through a cell phone, darkly.

Though having been here for several days now, I feel I should send a letter home with some initial thoughts and relevant comparisons.

  1. I don’t yet understand how bicycling works here. There seems to be much more bicycle infrastructure, and about a thousand times more cyclists, but I still find myself quite definitely on the vehicular cycling side of the debate. Cyclists here ride far to the right side of the road, and while car drivers seem very much more competent at driving near people, they can still pass extremely close to the cyclists, even while they are riding in the door-zone next to parked cars. In fact, that appears to be the norm. Perhaps people are also extremely cautious about opening their car doors? As a vehicular cyclist myself, this sort of riding absolutely terrifies me. Yet a couple times when I tried to take the lane for myself, the car behind me clearly indicated that this was not how it expected/wanted me to behave. There are also clear benefits to filtering forward on the right: cars can’t turn until the pedestrians clear the crosswalks, but bikes going straight can get ahead of the turning cars by moving with the pedestrians.
  2. Streetcar tracks are not as bad for bike tires as I thought they would be or as the ones in Cincinnati are. I think the Toronto tracks have narrower grooves and are more flush with the road.
  3. There is actual bicycle congestion here, exacerbated to be sure by the fact that cyclists generally stick to a narrow bike lane. Passing is constrained by the presence of cars on the left, so a slow rider can hold up a line of bikes for a while. Also, cyclists actually pile up at red lights! That’s not interesting so much as it is exciting, I guess.
  4. Can it be possible that Cincinnati has a slightly more modern fare payment system than Toronto?? This agency still has tokens and accepts cash fares at the point of boarding, and does not have a stored-value card1!
  5. Streetcars travel down the middle of many two lane streets and people board them by walking to the middle of the street across a lane of traffic. But the traffic is extremely well-trained and will not pass a stopped streetcar until all of the doors are closed.
  6. What’s the deal with the new streetcar designs TTC is rolling out? Are they supposed to be sexier? Flashier? To get all the “choice riders”? Hell no. They are clearly being introduced because they are larger and the smaller streetcar vehicles can get insanely crowded. There is a line in the Spadina subway station to get on the streetcar and they have to cut it off when it’s packed full. A larger vehicle…
  7.  Streetcar bunching and breakdowns are a major problem as far as I can tell. TTC operates some very long routes, and since the vehicles can’t pass eachother or anything else that gets in their way, all of the cars have to turn back before the breakdown until the thing is cleared. Streetcars have their charm, but this would not be a problem with electric trolley buses.

So, I think the big lessons from the first week are that it’s possible to train car drivers to be more competent around the humans, bike lanes do NOT ever make me feel more safe, and streetcars are definitely less reliable than buses.

That’s what I got for today. Now back to working on that real-time app!

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though I hear that one is already available and working on only part of the fleet.
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Posted in: Bicycles | Investments | modes | Technology Choices
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Toronto!

Big news!

I’ve just accepted an offer from the University of Toronto, where I’ll be starting this fall in the urban planning PhD program and studying there under the tutelage of one Dr. Steven Farber. (Incidentally, he’s the one who, over the winter, clued me in to the TTC’s real-time data feed, which is the actual reason I’ve been looking at the TTC so much here lately.)

So… at some point over the summer, I’ll be packing all of my things and crossing the border, that other side whereon I project to live for the next four years, a Canadian1.

In a causally unrelated, though certainly correlated and fortuitous movement, my current adviser, Dr. Michael Widener will also be starting there in the fall as a professor in the geography department, in which happens to be housed the planning program. Moving buddies! :-D

I live as ever by the creed, “WWJJD”?2

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …student visa holder
  2. What Would Jane Jacobs Do? Evidence suggests that she would move to Toronto, for in fact she did.
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Posted in: Events
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Animapping GTFS

Thinking about it, it’s actually kind of odd that I hadn’t tried animating GTFS data before. I certainly wouldn’t be the first to have tried it.

The videos above are pretty simple. The stops are clustered into a reduced number of nodes and the system is simplified into a graph. Edges are drawn with thickness according to the number of trips scheduled for each frame. Each frame is a 15 minute span and with 10 frames per second we traverse a three-day period in ~29 seconds. The three days are the distinct service patterns, weekday, Saturday and Sunday.

Color! I need to improve the color foremost among many things, but here the color is white where schedule padding is minimal, and saturated where maximal. Since the padding values as I’ve calculated them here have a strong positive skew, the above video uses the square root of the actual value for the coloring. The two videos below try a linear and a log2 scale in that order.

Padding is calculated as ( the difference between the fastest scheduled time for a segment and the actual scheduled time ) divided by the straightline length of the edge.  This gives me something like the amount of schedule padding added to the schedule per KM, roughly a metric for anticipated congestion. It’s (currently at least) normalized by the edge length rather than actual travel distance  to maintain a proportional visual emphasis for the graph representation.

Dear lord this was a technical post. Here’s a fun little thing to look for though: turn the videos up to 1080p, and you can start to see what looks like peristalsis in the busier *ahem* corridors.

Also interesting to note is the absence of the subways. Because the buses make so many connections to the subways, you can clearly see when and where they are operating. Did you notice the two big lines that seem to spring up in the late hours? My guess, without looking, is that these are parallel bus substitutes for the subways after they stop running. Once the subways start running, those corridors become conspicuous by their emptiness.

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Posted in: Analysis | Maps
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