Editor's Note: Photojournalist Page Graham, a San Antonio transplant and Ontario native, is a frequent Rivard Report contributor. He recently made a trip to his former home and filed the first in what will be an occasional series we are publishing about streetcar systems in other cities. Next up: Kansas City, contributed by Centro San Antonio's Scott Gustafson, who recently moved back to San Antonio from Kansas City.
With 190 miles of tracks on 11 routes, Toronto holds the distinction of having the largest streetcar network in North America. The large, traditional-style railcars are ubiquitous throughout downtown. Along busier lines it's possible to see several of them at once, making stops in rapid succession.
On more narrow streets, streetcars share the road with vehicular traffic. On wider boulevards they have their own right-of-way. In some places, there are raised concrete platforms in the middle of the street where passengers can board. On narrower streets, passengers must cross a lane of traffic. Motorists are required to stop behind the streetcar during the boarding process.
Many routes are heavily trafficked, and in some cases passengers may have to wait for the next streetcar to find a space on board, even on weekends. In 2013, annual streetcar ridership was 63,315,000, according to Jessica Martin of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). That's 63 million rides and it excludes bus, rapid transit and light rail traffic in and out of the city. This is an astounding figure by any measure.
Transit in Toronto is truly multi-modal. In addition to streetcars, there are four subway lines, along with buses, rapid transit lines, and commuter trains. All are highly utilized, but like all transit systems – and despite a $3 fare – the government provides heavy subsidies. Reports have put the TTC’s cost at approximately 42 percent of the city’s budget.
The alternative to this cost would be a worsening of an already terrible traffic congestion. Toronto has a city population of 2.8 million people, and many millions more living in surrounding communities. It also has a highway system considered inadequate to meet the city and region's needs, the result of a lack of foresight and opposition to freeway expansion in the 1970s.
Although it wasn’t part of the “Great American Streetcar Scandal”, Toronto’s streetcars were almost thrown on the scrap heap. In 1966, the TTC announced plans, with the backing of Toronto chair William Allen, to eliminate all streetcar lines by 1980. Fortunately, strong grassroots opposition, led by a group called “Streetcars for Toronto”, persuaded city authorities to change their minds. As other cities jettisoned streetcars, the TTC bought them as a way to keep its aging fleet running.
As is the case in almost any city, there is opposition to streetcars in Toronto, and it mostly comes from suburbanites who prefer to drive their cars without having to share the roads. Among inner city residents, however, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t appreciate the convenience. Many downtown Toronto residents don’t own cars, preferring public transit.
Take Toronto blogger Brandon Sage: “I’d been cursing the older streetcars that plied Toronto’s streets, as they kept getting in the way. But when I moved downtown, my views of them changed, which I find is one of the great ironies of streetcar haters. These individuals never actually live in the communities served by streetcars, but when they ride them, they soon fall in love with them. The new model will give Torontonians many new reasons to love streetcars.”
Politics hinder the growth of Toronto’s streetcar/rapid transit network. For example, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford cancelled a rapid transit line as one of his first acts upon becoming mayor in 2010. However, the government of the Province of Ontario took on the project.
In another case, a subway line was canceled, after the first half-mile of tunnel was excavated. It was subsequently filled in. The Ontario provincial elections this month gave the Liberal Party a majority of seats in Parliament, ensuring it will stay in power for the next four years. This political stability will allow several transit projects to move forward without the threat of cancellation. There is, however, a Toronto mayoral election in the fall, and candidates have widely differing views of how transit should be developed. As a result, some projects remain in limbo.
Starting this fall, Toronto will transition to longer, multi-articulated streetcars similar to, but longer than, the modern streetcars proposed for San Antonio. A total of 204 units have been purchased at a cost of $1.2 billion. Some older units will be retired, but the remainder will be kept for use on less-traveled routes.
The primary difference between Toronto and San Antonio is that Toronto has a densely populated urban core, which continues to grow. Side streets are home to tall, narrow homes -- which in many cases are only 12' wide -- often sharing a wall with a neighbor's dwelling. These houses are often subdivided into multiple apartments. Condo towers reaching as high as 63 stories dot the skyline, with several more under construction. San Antonio has nothing similar in nature, nor will it ever match this density even as the urban core is redeveloped.
Toronto's city street network is mostly a grid, as opposed to San Antonio’s wagon-wheel layout. This grid makes it easier to run a transit system – routes are either north-south or east-west. Since much of San Antonio was more recently developed than Toronto, more of our street network was designed around cars rather than multimodal transit.
Another stark difference between the two cities is the perception of public transit. In Toronto, everyone rides on public transit. Heavy traffic and parking costs in the downtown core make it the logical choice. In San Antonio, VIA's bus system is perceived by many as transportation used by people of lower socioeconomic levels, despite VIA’s current efforts to change this notion.
As such, Toronto’s streetcar system cannot be held up as a model for San Antonio in all aspects. To be sure, the city highlights the advantages that streetcars offer, such as their quietness, smoothness, and increased capacity over buses. However, in San Antonio we are faced with a “if we build it, they will come” situation. Streetcars will theoretically be a catalyst for our urban-core redevelopment.
Given the fierce opposition by many people in this city, the VIA streetcar project relies upon the continued tenacity of local political leaders to see the project through to its completion. Toronto's transit system has suffered greatly due to shifting political winds. The lesson from this is that if streetcars get cancelled in San Antonio, we may live to regret the decision years down the road. Or perhaps not. Should we use the money to build some more freeways instead?
Top/featured image: Riders of all socioeconomic levels ride public transit in Toronto. Photo by Page Graham.