Streetcars: Lessons from Toronto?

September 13th, 2017

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.

2 responses to “Streetcars: Lessons from Toronto?”

  1. John Blatchford says:

    Hey Nate,

    Great work. I just read through the entire Streetcar series as I’ve been feeling the pain of a lot of the things you predicted. I ride the Streetcar 3-5 times a week. My impressions:

    1) The little jog in the Streetcar east on Central Parkway and then west on 12th St. is a nightmare. They each add incredibly to the transit time and end up in not much ground being covered. I don’t think it was that crazy to think that the Streetcar would need to hit the major destinations to be successful initially (Aronoff, Fountain Square, Banks, Vine St. OTR, Washington Park/Music Hall, Findlay Market…) but I do think it was horrifically ill-advised to assume this couldn’t be done by strictly staying on Vine as you’ve proposed, or at least making a loop of just Race St. south and Main St. north (or something) and allowing people to walk a few blocks from a massively more efficient route. I also think it’s impossibly short-sighted/cynical to not think that maybe all of downtown and OTR will be landmarks in 20/50/100 years and so the route should be as efficient as possible covering a distance rather than just hit all of the landmarks of today. It then would be a much better launch point for a route to Northside, UC, etc. as you’ve extolled. To me the sort of entertainment route that we ended with (and the fact that we almost didn’t have a streetcar finished after it began) sort of represents a lot of what is wrong with Cincinnati.

    2) *Without any real data to support this,* I suspect that there is virtually 0% overlap between regular bus riders and regular streetcar riders, and not necessarily because of the inefficiency of the route. I think in general a rail line running through the wealthiest part of the city, and that I think rail in general is more acceptable to a more affluent (or more transit-averse) demographic, makes the streetcar for now a totally separate piece of transit then the bus system. So in that sense I don’t agree with a lot of what you wrote about its shortcomings having to do with it not integrating/overlapping well with current bus routes. In its best form I think it would work pretty well for bus riders getting off at Government Square (or other stops) and I don’t think just about any “streetcar rider” would gladly substitute the streetcar ride for a bus ride if there was redundancy in the routes.

    3) I think the streetcar could be made massively more efficient and useful with a simple traffic study and light improvements. If we believe the streetcar can be a viable way to move people, then at any given point there should be 20/30/50+ people on it and should (purely as a way to move people) have priority over even 10 cars waiting at a light. I could probably tell you just based on my experience which areas are the worst (longest streetcar waits with the least car benefit). This exact sort of study is what I did as a senior project at 20 years old and could be really easily modeled and improved, with any willpower. If we could dream and get to basically 100% green lights for the streetcar, then I think the jog adds maybe only 5 minutes to the route each way and it becomes actually quite useful. As far as route confusion, in OTR you really only have to go to Race or Elm, and downtown only Main or Walnut. It’s not totally clear but also not that confusing.

    4) The ticketing machines are awful. I’ve been on the streetcar at least 10 times that showed up to a stop, waited, and then moved on all while people were trying to get tickets out. They then probably had to wait 12+ minutes for the next car and will probably not ride again. It honestly hurts me. On the other hand, the app is awesome. In general reliability is a major, major issue which I don’t expect to improve in a major way as long as the current political climate is so anti-streetcar. Just the other day I walked from the 12th and Race stop to the Banks much faster then the streetcar. I walked the route out of curiosity and it didn’t pass me along the way. I have plenty of positive experiences with it being truly the best, fastest, most-effiicient way to get to a place also. But as a fanboy I can barely accept even one terrible experience like that, so for the casual rider it’s far worse.

    So as “transit” I’d rate the streetcar right now a 5 and with the proper political climate it could be a 7 maybe. Not perfect at all, but a decent start.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Thanks John.

      To your first point, you know, this is what people are talking about when they say buses are more ‘flexible’. You can take that to mean ‘transient’ (bad) or ‘adaptable’ (good), and I think which of those you get perhaps depends on the agency running the service. Whatever the case, I think you’re right that we may regret our inability to realign that route in the future.

      To the second point, I think that perhaps affluent people (in Cincinnati) may not prefer to take the bus but I see no reason that poor people (current riders) wouldn’t take the streetcar if it were of any use to them. The fare is almost half the normal price, so we should expect current bus riders to be substituting this service if they can. If they can’t, that would indicate to me that either 1) the route doesn’t serve their needs or 2) the services are poorly integrated.

      I’d absolutely be in support of transit signal priority, etc for the streetcar and for every other transit line in the region. There’s no need to think of this as a streetcar issue though.

      As for the machines, do they not have ticket vending inside the vehicles? In Toronto, the new streetcars they’re deploying have smartcard readers by the door, but also ticket (proof of fare payment) machines at two points in the car for people paying with cash or token. People use them… mostly tourists from my impression.