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Rocket Talk: How Come St. Clair Streetcars Stop So Much?

Have questions about the TTC? Rocket Talk is a regular Torontoist column, featuring TTC Chair Adam Giambrone and Director of Communications Brad Ross’s answers to Torontoist readers’ questions. Submit your questions to!

Reader Rob Elliott asks:

Why does the new St. Clair LRT line have so many stops? All the potential time-saving benefits of the new right-of-way are lost by the fact that streetcars are forever stopping at traffic lights and every block or two. Surely the public could be convinced that shorter travel times are worth walking an extra couple of blocks. The public has accepted limited stops on the subway. There are twenty-three stops between Keele and Yonge streets on the St. Clair LRT, and just ten on the parallel subway route along Bloor. When I have visited European cities where the streetcars are common, stopping once a kilometre or so seems to be the norm.

TTC Director of Communications Brad Ross says:

The first thing I need to clarify is that the 512 St. Clair streetcar line is not an “LRT” line like the proposed Transit City lines will be, or like those found in Europe. It is a streetcar line and part of the TTC’s legacy network of streetcars. The 512 St. Clair, in fact, serves a distinct community of small businesses and neighbouring residential communities. It just so happens to operate in its own right-of-way, much like the 509 Harbourfront and 510 Spadina streetcars.
I won’t re-hash the debate that has occurred, and continues in some quarters, regarding St. Clair, but there was a tremendous amount of public consultation during the planning of the right-of-way. The TTC heard many opinions, concerns, and suggestions—among them, “do not remove any existing stops.”
And we didn’t. Save for one.
St. Clair is not a commuter line in the sense that a subway or high capacity LRT line is. St. Clair, on the contrary, is an integral part of the community it serves. By increasing stop-spacing, small businesses that benefit from transit right outside their front door may well face a downturn in foot traffic. In fact, the TTC introduced a timed-transfer to help minimize the impact on local businesses during construction. Making it harder for TTC customers to frequent businesses—i.e. by increasing stop-spacing beyond the 250 metre average now in place—is anathema to community objectives. Every stop is heavily used and relied upon by the community.
Rights-of-way are designed to increase transit reliability as well as speed. Traffic lights were never going to be eliminated, as there is always going to be cross-traffic to contend with. Rights-of-way, however, manage to avoid left-turning vehicles blocking their path, as well as other conditions one sees on mixed-traffic routes, by having transit-only signalization at intersections.
Eliminating or redistributing stops by increasing distances doesn’t improve speed in any significant way. When the new low-floor streetcars arrive, proof-of-payment on all lines will allow for all-door boarding (four doors in total), significantly improving the time spent at a stop.
Improving the line’s reliability and serving the community with frequent service was the TTC’s chief objective with the 512 St. Clair line. While there is speed improvement on the line, the real benefit is a reliable streetcar service that now better serves a vibrant Toronto community.


  • http://undefined jamesbow

    Having ridden on 512 St. Clair before and after construction, I am amazed at how much faster the line feels, and it’s getting a good surge of ridership now that it’s become more reliable. The increase will be reflected come January when the TTC adds three more streetcars to service during most hours of the day, improving frequencies to as low as every four minutes.
    This may have the net effect of increasing ridership, which may increase the need for more service, and so on. It just goes to show that once you provide reliable and frequent transportation service, people use it. This will be a boon to the community for years to come.
    Now, if only we could learn from the construction hell that preceded it.

  • http://undefined Andrew

    “Eliminating … stops by increasing distances doesn’t improve speed in any significant way.”
    It can easily be shown that this is false. For example, the average speed of the subway is much higher north of Eglinton (where stops are far apart) than south of Bloor (where they are close together).
    It would also be nice to hear why the TTC decided to cripple the system by placing almost all stops on the far side of the intersection, forcing the streetcar to stop twice. (Wait, I know the answer, it’s because drivers would have complained if their precious left turns were taken away.)

  • http://undefined EricSmith

    While Brad Ross’ claim about stop spacing not affecting speed is obviously false in the general case, it may be that the St. Clair streetcar is delayed so much by red lights that reducing the number of streetcar stops wouldn’t really help much.

  • http://undefined mboadway

    “St. Clair is not a commuter line in the sense that a subway or high capacity LRT line…” Mr Ross should know that the 512 certainly is like a commuter line. During the morning rush most passenger exits occur at the subway stops and a couple major intersections. In the evening the passengers get on at the subway stops and those same cross streets.
    That said, I can confirm that the communities was adamantly against removing stops. For example the TTC tried to remove one of the two stops between Oakwood and Dufferin. It was a very good candidate for removal, but the local community rallied strongly against it. The TTC backed off. Tweedsmuir and Vaughan Road were also good candidates for removal due to their proximity to the subway and Bathurst respectively.
    The real issue is the signal priority and design. Often, the streetcar stops at a red light, waits for the left turning cars to go and then crosses the street only to stop again at the actual streetcar stop. This happens often at the busy stops of Yonge (going west) Avenue Road, Spadina, Bathurst and Dufferin. Being able to sail through the green light–or putting the green arrow left turns after the green light would save the 512 time.

  • http://undefined Chad

    Far side stops can be better for Transit Priority Signalling. As a streetcar accelerates out of a stop, sensors outside of the streetcar can keep a green light going for a few more seconds. The streetcar then clears the next intersection safely.
    Near side stops would require some way for streetcar operators to tell the signalling system that the streetcar is about to depart. But how would this be done?

    • Would some device have to be installed in every streetcar?
    • When would the operator press the “ready” button? When only three more patrons need to board?
    • What if a patron boards slower than expected? At some point, the extended green light has to go red and the transit priority is wasted.

    None of these are issues with far side stops.
    In practice though, the theory of transit priority has to submit to the reality of TTC operations and planning. Some streetcar operators go slower than others. The closeness of stops nullifies the potential of cascading green lights.
    By the way, I’ve noticed a lot of proposals for “banning left turns for cars.” Since people rarely flesh out this idea, it initially comes across as fairly delusional. To many, it’s almost like banning people from taking trips that go from West-To-South, South-To-West, East-To-North, and North-To-West.
    It would really help if people offered their alternatives: Replace left turns with three right turns or replace separate left turn and straight lights with a single “exclusive” (flashing green) light.
    I think this would reduce a lot of confusion and dismissive attitudes.

  • Dry Brain

    Sorry, Ross is correct. It’s not a commuter line. There are no commuter streetcar lines.
    People crap all over the TTC regardless of what they actually do. The streetcar has frequent stops, it’s too slow. It runs like a commuter express, it’s not serving the neighbourhood properly. Christ. You know what? I’ve taken the St. Clair ROW from Lansdowne to Yonge several times, at various times of day. It’s pretty speedy.
    Let’s all quit complaining about something that works and start complaining about what doesn’t.

  • http://undefined The Junkyard Triangle

    I like the idea of permanently implementing a timed transfer for the TTC across the board. Then people could actually run errands to all those shops Ross says the TTC is there to serve. A non-pass holding passenger could jump off for a loaf of bread, for example, and then get on the next car.

  • http://undefined EricSmith

    Ottawa has a 90-minute timed transfer, and it works very well.

    The same people who think that Metropass users are somehow robbing the TTC of revenue will no doubt claim that a timed transfer will lose them fares, but they’re forgetting the fact that nobody makes these hop-on, hop-off journeys now, exactly because of the fare penalty they’d pay. Timed transfers may actually stimulate ridership, or at least, and here’s an unthinkable, make using transit less of a pain in the ass.

  • Dry Brain

    Hell, yes. Practically every large city in Canada does this. The TTC’s transfer policy is weird and antiquated.

  • mark.

    The funny thing is that the reasons you give for why it would be good are the reasons the TTC won’t do it! That is, the TTC’s operating cost is disproportionately funded through fares (and they can’t lose any of this money); and, the TTC seems to already be ‘at capacity’ and thus doesn’t seem to have any interest in increasing ridership.

  • http://undefined EricSmith

    I claim that they will gain fares, because the current fare structure discourages the kind of use that a timed transfer would allow. They don’t miss out on the second fare of a hop-on, hop-off journey because there isn’t one: the cost of that second fare is a deterrent, and it doesn’t get paid today.

    It really all depends on whether the new fares encouraged by the new transfer would balance out the reduction in revenue from people continuing to take the same, necessary quick-turnaround or hop-on, hop-off trips that they were taking before, but now at a lower expense. It’s safe to say that the TTC has no idea which way the chips would fall.

    As for the TTC being at capacity, I wonder if a timed transfer would stimulate off-peak errand-running, when there are empty seats?

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Examples like this are a funny rejoinder to people (not you guys!) who like to call for “business leaders” to take political office and run our public infrastructure, and who argue private enterprise is in all ways superior to public administration.
    Timed transfers don’t make great business sense…or else one has to go through all kinds of contortions to argue that they do. But they’re unambiguously good customer service, good for riders, they would make people riders who aren’t currently (and thereby probably improve their quality of life), etc. Evidently those things aren’t priorities for those in charge at the moment.

  • http://undefined metabaron

    I am sorry but having a stop every 250 meters is just ridiculous for the size of Toronto. If you are travelling far you are going to stop dozens and dozens of times.
    Walking a few meters more for most of the commuters would be beneficial – it would trim off some of that extra fat that most of the North Americans seem to carry.
    The business complaining? Well, reducing the number of stops would not affect them since people would then walk around the neighbourhood and maybe visit more shops on their way. Or should we have stops in front of every store and restaurant?
    And people wonder why people are driving? Well, even with bad Toronto trafic it takes me considerably less time to drive than take the TTC…

  • http://undefined uskyscraper

    It’s not just the stop placement. Streetcars in Toronto represent a hugely under-utilized asset because they are effectively treated like buses in every aspect of their operation. Fare payment, boarding, stop placement, shelters … heck, they even appear on the bus maps and not the rail maps. Unlike most cities, Toronto has plenty of track but it does not use it well. This failure to act more like, say, Melbourne, has left the door open for well-meaning but ill-informed citizens to think that streetcars are some kind of inefficient relic that should be, to quote Ford, “phased out.” Has it really come to this? Streetcars need to be improved but such improvements are well within reach and simply require a focus at the TTC to implement best practices from elsewhere.
    Until they do, I’m trying to fend off the anti-streetcar and anti-LRT forces by making videos like this:

  • W. K. Lis

    There used to be a time that when one got off at their streetcar or bus stop, there was a neighbourhood bank, hardware store, green grocer, dry cleaners, all on your way home. Today, due to “efficiency”, all those neighbourhood stores were replaced by big stores. Unfortunately, they are not located close to home. No more can one pick up something on the walk home. Now we have to get into their car to fetch a paint brush or whatever.
    At least with a timed transfer, we would be able to get to the “efficient” big box store, do our purchase, hop back on, and then get home. If the TTC doesn’t allow the timed transfer across the complete network, then ban the big box store and return to the neighbourhood store.

  • http://undefined andrews

    Depends on your neighbourhood. Many of the streetcar heavy old arterials maintain a large element of that sort of accessibility. I live near St Clair and Vaughan and virtually everything I need lies within a 5 minute walk.
    It’s not so much the old style shut down, although it has struggled at times, it’s that they stopped building the city like that long enough ago that the older areas where such a lifestyle still exists are dwarfed by the newer ones where it doesn’t.

  • http://undefined Andrew

    It rarely happens that the streetcar arrives at the intersection at just the right time so that extending the green phase would help. Much more likely, the time wasted with the more likely double stop would outweigh any such rare savings.
    But even assuming it’s true that far-side stops are, on balance, better with priority signaling, you’ll have to get back to me when they actually implement it. We’ve been waiting 13 years now on Spadina.

  • http://undefined Andrew

    Also, I don’t see why the driver would have to make a signal in anticipation that the car would be ready. Why wouldn’t the driver’s signal to change the lights just be the “door close” button? The yellow-red-green change time is only a few seconds.

  • qviri

    You have to allow the pedestrian signal to count down before you can go into the yellow-red-green.

  • http://undefined Vincent Clement

    Hogwash. When I lived at Danforth and Dawes, walking along Danforth from Main Station, I would walk by a bank, hardware store, green grocer and a dry cleaners (and a pharmacy, donut shop, funeral home, etc, etc, etc).
    Same thing on Roncesvalles. Same thing on Queen East in the Beaches. Same thing along many commercial streets in Toronto.
    ATMs, automatic deposit and withdrawal, debit cards and online banking mean you don’t have to go to a bank branch as often, if ever. It was only natural that there would be fewer branches.
    Sure, at the end of the St. Clair line there is a bunch of big box stores. But that is a sign that the surrounding community is vibrant. Those businesses want to be there. Plenty of new housing was also built on the stockyard and Maple Leaf lands.

  • qviri

    Pah, dry cleaners! There used to be a time where one could walk by a good old laundry and have their clothes cleaned with good old water and soap.

  • http://undefined Solex

    Boy, fataphobia sure runs deep in most people like you, doesn’t it?

  • http://undefined anonymousrex

    The TTC is not a business, but a public service. Timed transfers actually make a lot of business sense, since they would stimulate activity that would be good for businesses located along transit routes.

  • http://undefined thelemur

    If you’re strategic (and a bit lucky) you can actually already do the timed transfer thing as long as you are quick and don’t leave too much time between vehicles.

  • Hankmartyn

    I am not convinced Brad Ross, this is a terrible answer. Rob Elliot is right that the St. Clair Streetcar should stop less often. The TTC likes to point out that it isn’t an LRT now but that wasn’t what they were saying when they were building the St. Clair ROW. I think every streetcar line in the city would be far more efficient if they stopped less often and were spaced more like the subway system.