Toronto: The City that Saved its Streetcar Tracks

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Riders of all socioeconomic levels ride public transit in Toronto. Photo by Page Graham.

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.

Passengers rush to catch a streetcar at a dedicated stop. Photo by Jessica Martin, courtesy TTC.

Passengers rush to catch a streetcar at a dedicated stop. Photo by Jessica Martin, courtesy TTC.

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.

Toronto streetcar and subway route map. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Toronto streetcar and subway route map. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

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.”

Cars, bicycles, streetcars -- even horses -- share the downtown streets. Photo by Page Graham.

Cars, bicycles, streetcars -- even horses -- share the downtown streets. Photo by Page Graham.

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.

Image courtesy Toronto Transit Commission.

Image courtesy Toronto Transit Commission.

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.

Streetcars are often standing room only. Photo by Jessica Martin, courtesy TTC.

Streetcars are often standing room only. Photo by Jessica Martin, courtesy TTC.

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.

Related stories:

Street Fight Over Streetcars

Billionaire Outsiders Take Special Interest in VIA Streetcar Plan

The True Value of Streetcars in San Antonio

Streetcar Advocate Responds to Red McCombs

Streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit Will Speed San Antonio’s Transformation

24 thoughts on “Toronto: The City that Saved its Streetcar Tracks

  1. No. Downtown Toronto is much more congested. Public transit is so much easier (and cheaper) than using a personal vehicle. People walk.

    Quite the opposite of San Antonio, Texas.

    • Streetcar tracks do pose a risk to bicyclists, and occasionally an accident will happen. Bicyclists who don’t understand how to deal with tracks learn how to do it the right way quickly. No one likes to taste pavement more often than necessary.

      I have seen several bicyclists take a fall over the railroad tracks on Probandt Street behind the Blue Star right here in San Antonio. It’s important to note that streetcar track grooves are not as deep as regular train tracks.

      In the case of Toronto, I saw hundreds and hundreds of bicyclists navigate the tracks with no issues whatsoever. It’s a matter of experience and understanding that tracks should be crossed at an oblique angle. A city that has recently-installed tracks will likely have a spike of accidents in the first year, then it will taper off. Obviously, outreach and bicyclist education should be a key component of rolling out the streetcar system.

      On a final note, I haven’t done the research, but I would be willing to bet that it’s much more likely to be hit by a car when riding a bicycle. As a matter of fact, it almost happened to me the day before yesterday…

  2. Yes, and hopefully come to realize that it is bit a first key step in a needed comprehensive regional transportation plan.

  3. As can be witnessed and has been an issue with a high number of vacant buildings in the urban core, the city should make an effort to give the owners of these properties tax breaks and other incentives to transform them into residential. They will eventually sell for high prices after a few turn arounds through the years. Due to the high number of vacancies being filled by residences the effect will be increased ridership for the streetcars.

    FYI I have no personal advantage or do not work in this industry, my only interest is the beautification of my downtown San Antonio.

  4. Harriet… Even better, there are many fresh food markets. Farm fresh fruits and veggies, butchers, fish mongers, lots of organic market options, bakeries, and yes a typical small IGA grocery in our Kensington Market neighborhood. Far from an urban food desert, it was a feast everyday.

  5. ha ha I live in the burbs and no thats not the reason… what are you going to do move the buildings to expand. When you look at the histroy of many of these streets cars like the one toronto they have had their cars since 1861. Rather than trying to make ourselves a city trying to be like others. How about a city that embraces what we have. This city isn’t going to be a modern city. Those who mainly speak are those in the Burbs, honestly ask those who live in the southside of town, eastside, westside.. a small clique who live downtown for this shouldn’t count.. ask those that matters. We can’t even have a Bus system that works. Why are we spending so much money for something downtown that it is small enough that people should walk. I mean many people do its faster. If anything, how about affordable parking so many work downtown but these parking garages rise and fall pending on events downtown. I remember when under the bridge was $1.50 or we had coin meters and now I gotta pay $3 when all I did was drop off a form at utsa and back in less then 15 minutes. Before we make assumptions ask the people other than the ones you know or the ones who say…oooooh cool … glittler.. ask what they want… I mean they cried about and HEB being downtown….and nobody listened to the people be being against that..come on.

  6. Multi-modal system; significant density of persons residing in downtown Toronto
    High cost to park in downtown Toronto and much traffic congestion. Toronto is APPLES and San Antonio is ORANGES. Just not the same at all. Building the street cars will not increase residential density in downtown San Antonio–note all the construction and occupancy in the Pearl area without streetcars; note the Big Tex Grain/Blue Star project underway and the St. Mary’s/Cesar Chavez apartments—all without a trolley system.
    Check out Memphis. I rode its trolley when I was there last year along with other tourists.
    Memphis lacks residential density.

  7. I’m all for any form of public transit, and I do support street cars on the whole, however I can’t pretend I don’t like the harsh noise created by the monsters 🙂 And of course if the traffic was not the way it is, they would have been a fantastic solution.

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