Let’s start by getting a few things straight about public transit, especially the varieties that run on rails. The streetcar that travels St. Clair Avenue West along the recently constructed right of way is not light rail transit (LRT)—though it has often been confused with LRT by both politicians and members of the press. While the two share many similarities, the most important being that they run on dedicated lanes that are physically separated from other types traffic, LRT is faster and has a greater carrying capacity than the St. Clair streetcars.
Surface-level LRT is the technology and the strategy at the heart of Transit City. That transit plan favoured LRT because of the great service improvements it would offer, as well as for its transformative power—its ability to remake and revitalize neighbourhoods by increasing activity on and engagement with the street.
This makes all the hoopla about burying more of the Eglinton LRT—now planned under the transit strategy (if we can call it that) favoured by Rob Ford—more than a little curious. We want transit on our streets.
Before you exclaim “We don’t want another St. Clair on our hands,” protesting that the cost overruns and scheduling delays in which the right-of-way got mired make surface rail untenable or intolerable, please turn your attention to a report called “Getting It Right” [PDF]. Commissioned by the TTC, the report assesses the problems in the construction of the St. Clair right-of-way. It concluded that, yes, the City was responsible for cost overruns and delays, but it was hardly the only culprit. And the report’s most central recommendations, if implemented on future projects, will go a long way to alleviating the headaches residents, businesses, and commuters experienced along St. Clair.
Just as importantly, “Getting It Right” questions the implied condemnation in the “No More St. Clairs” chant—with its implied corollary, “Yes To Subways”—that somehow assumes all the problems in the construction of the St. Clair right-of-way can be attributed to the fact that it is street level transit. As if, had it all gone underground, everything would’ve been hunky-dory. Subway supporters exhibit a curious view, it seems, as to how subways are built. Do they really believe that because it’s below ground, there’s going to be no discernible effect on the traffic above? How do these people think subways are built?
Such thoughts established, on to our expedition.
St. Clair West merchants during the constuction fo the right-of-way. Photo by dzgnboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
On a dreary Monday morning—yesterday, in fact—and in the wake of the recent provincial-municipal agreement to favour underground transit over the surface, light rail–based Transit City plan, we ventured up to travel the full loop of the St. Clair streetcar line. Heading east toward Yonge Street from Bathurst, what we first noticed was the severe lack of congestion. Wasn’t that the spectre being dangled before us by those bent on burying our public transit? Streetcars getting in the way, causing massive gridlock? Certainly on this particular morning commute, both streetcars and private vehicles flowed smoothly. From Bathurst to St. Clair station at Yonge Street: a brisk 10 minutes.
The time for the entire one-way trip from the route’s easternmost point at Yonge Street to its western terminus at Gunns Loop, just west of Keele/Weston Street, just after rush hour, was 29 minutes. It is a fascinating tour from the northern reaches of the downtown urban core to the outskirts of the western inner suburbs—a sequence that would get lost if traveled underground, a connection between people and communities not made.
Much has been made, justifiably, of the havoc wreaked on businesses during the right-of-way construction. Some 200 businesses apparently closed because of it. It is a situation not uncommon to any area of a city undergoing substantial redevelopment, and there are no easy answers or ways to avoid these effects.
That’s not entirely true. The easiest answer would be to never change anything, maintain the status quo. But that doesn’t seem healthy, hardly conducive to growth and development.
Now, more than a year into the new St. Clair streetcar’s run, it looks, to a guy riding along observing the scenery, that the decimation did not take hold. While there are certainly empty storefronts and “for lease” signs in windows along the way, there are no more than the same trip taken along a stretch of Bloor Street, for instance, might reveal. Like everywhere else that is seen as a going concern, there’s a growing presence of chain outlets like Starbucks, Second Cup, and Tim Hortons vying for consumer dollars, alongside St. Clair’s old-time European spots. Trendy cafés and bistros are popping up beside more homespun eateries that themselves are expanding beyond the Italian, Portuguese, and Caribbean flavours traditional in the neighbourhood. Within less than a 10 minute streetcar ride, you can find Brazilian, Peruvian, and Colombian restaurants, too.
This kind of variety promises only to mushroom as the area undergoes increased densification. Between and around the two subway stops on St. Clair along the Yonge-University line, condo developments continue to spring up (including an especially interesting one in the old Imperial Oil building just east of Avenue Road). Towers are even spreading west from this more traditional area of concentration, out past Bathurst Street into what was once considered purely low and medium rise territory. Yes, proximity to a subway has much to do with that, but the fact that this is happening now would suggest that the St. Clair right of way has enhanced rather than diminished the street’s desirability.
Is it too much to suggest that St. Clair Avenue is undergoing a renaissance? My scant two hours spent traversing it tells me no—there is something of a rebirth going on. Even on a rainy Monday morning, people were out, going about their business. Traffic moved—traffic moved, it is worth repeating—smoothly, with very few aggressive flare-ups and accompanying horn-blaring. And on the streetcar, getting from point A to point B was painless. No. Joyous? Maybe a little too far. A very pleasant journey, we shall say.
Before falling in line behind our mayor’s misguided, bull-headed, ill-advised march to rid our streets of everything but cars, trucks, and buses, we all need to pay a visit to St. Clair Avenue West. Sit our asses down on the streetcar and take in the view. Hop off, have a drink and a bite to eat. Watch some soccer or buy some shoes. Not only is such an outing now easier for transit users and car drivers alike, it is more enjoyable—the exact opposite of what Mayor Ford would have you believe.
Daren Foster is also known as Cityslikr. He tweets, and writes a lot about City Hall.