Streetcars For Toronto: An Anniversary
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Streetcars For Toronto: An Anniversary

Forty years ago, Toronto's streetcar system was saved.

Drawing of a proposed new generation of streetcars, 1969, by Hawker-Siddeley.

Today, Toronto celebrates a major anniversary in its transit history. In 1972, the TTC unveiled a plan that would have stripped streetcars out of the city and replaced them with a Queen subway and lower-capacity buses everywhere else. A group called The Streetcars For Toronto Committee was formed to fight that plan and on November 7, 1972, with the help of city council, that fight succeeded. Though they were out of fashion in many circles both here and in cities elsewhere, Toronto’s streetcar network was saved. Except for the Rogers Road and Mount Pleasant routes, which ceased operating, it’s the one we still ride on today.

The plan to remove streetcars from their existing routes was part of a much broader strategy for redeveloping transit in Toronto, first unveiled in 1969. Some sections of suburbia would get a rapid transit network—including lines from Warden Station to Malvern, from Islington Station west and north to Finch (with a possible branch to the airport), and east-west along the Finch hydro corridor.

Toronto’s still-empty northern suburbs could have had a rapid transit network 40 years ago.

To kick-start those suburban routes the TTC intended to redeploy its streetcars—the ones it pulled from downtown and midtown—to run on the new network until they wore out. The downtown streetcar fleet would have provided a quick, short-term way to build the suburban network included in the broader transit plan, but eventually new cars would have been needed. The TTC worked with Hawker Siddeley on a new vehicle design; the intention was for Hawker Siddeley’s plant in Thunder Bay (now part of Bombardier) to produce the cars.

At the same time, the TTC also planned to build a Queen subway (what we now call the Downtown Relief Line), to soak up many of the transit riders on the King, Queen, and Dundas cars. Scheduled completion for that subway: 1980.

The opposition to the plan to strip the city of its streetcars stemmed from concerns about reducing transit capacity and quality. The plan would have begun by pulling streetcars from St. Clair, which would have been hit with a 17 per cent cut in capacity on the central part of the route, from Oakwood to Yonge.

Streetcar services were much more frequent in 1972 than they are today, and St. Clair had cars leaving Yonge Street every 90 seconds during rush hour. Of the downtown routes, only King has service now that is even close to 1972 levels: the system’s overall capacity has declined due to a shrinking fleet of vehicles. In 1972, there were almost 400 streetcars in Toronto; today there are fewer than 300. (Two small lines on Mount Pleasant and Rogers Road disappeared in the 1970s, but the Spadina/Harbourfront route more than makes up for them and the smaller 2012 fleet is stretched further.)

Streetcars For Toronto didn’t exist just to keep the downtown network running, but to advocate expansion of streetcar service both in the core and in the developing suburbs: the idea was to meet the goals of the 1969 plan, but without compromising the levels of transit service the streetcars were already providing.

The decision to reverse course and save the streetcars was not, as some histories would have it, an enlightened decision that emerged from the TTC. The charge to retain the higher-capacity streetcars was led by citizen activists with the endorsement of the former City of Toronto’s council. The Streetcars For Toronto Committee, led by Andrew Biemiller, was formed in September 1972; it received political support from aldermen Paul Pickett and William Kilbourn. I was a member of the committee, and would take over as chair late in 1973.

Developing downtown

With the decision to keep the existing streetcar routes, the TTC would need a new fleet downtown. Hawker Siddeley was quoting a price of $173,000 per car. The economics of a revived streetcar system looked very good, and the TTC directed its staff to sound out manufacturers for a 200-car streetcar order.

Downtown, the Spadina route was an obvious target for conversion to streetcar operation with its very frequent bus service. Much of the streetcar infrastructure remained in place from the original Spadina car (which had been replaced by buses in 1948) and the Harbord route (running from Dundas to Harbord until 1966). Spadina’s generous width made it ideal for a reserved streetcar right-of-way. Why did it take so long for this line to actually begin operating?

In the early 1970s a major office development, “Metro Centre,” was planned for the railway lands south of Front at Spadina. The TTC regarded the new streetcar line as a way to move riders with an express service from Bloor south, despite the very heavy local demand on other parts of the route. Some councillors opposed the streetcars as nothing more than a way to support oversized office development, and the proposed right-of-way as a barrier that would split neighbourhoods east and west of Spadina. It took two decades to settle on a better design, and for politicians to recognize what the new streetcar line could achieve.

Missed opportunities

Suburban expansion fared even worse. Although the Scarborough line was originally designed as LRT, Queen’s Park had another idea. A new technology using magnetic levitation would speed commuters around Toronto, they maintained—and, by the way, launch Ontario as the provider of this technology to the world. This fiction included the denial that any intermediate transit technology between subways and buses existed. The Queen’s Park lexicon did not include LRT.

The mag-lev scheme failed when the German government pulled funding from its developer. Ontario continued on its own with the wheel-on-rail technology we know in Scarborough.

Except for the “RT,” as the Scarborough line came to be known, plans for a city-wide network of lines across the city went nowhere. All that remains are illustrations of elevated structures including lines on Queen Street and Spadina Avenue.

The reality of the RT’s cost—over $230 million compared to the original $96 million LRT budget, plus millions in ongoing fixes to the unreliable technology—put an end to any hope of a cheaper network of “intermediate capacity” lines. Toronto’s focus turned back to subways and the prospect of suburban LRT disappeared from view.

Only fragments of a proposed “Waterfront West” line from Union Station to Mimico were built: the Harbourfront “LRT” (though it’s actually a streetcar) opened in 1990 on the stretch between Union and Spadina, with an extension to Exhibition Place in 2000. Spadina finally got its streetcars in 1997, 24 years after Streetcars For Toronto proposed the line. Although these too were styled as “LRT,” they gave little sense of what a surface route on its own right-of-way could do.

The future of street-level transit development

In 2007, Mayor David Miller announced “Transit City,” a suburban LRT network like the one Streetcars For Toronto had foreseen 35 years earlier. The plan wasn’t ideal, but it was the first attempt since the 1970s to design a rapid transit network with that elusive “intermediate capacity” mode between buses and subways.

The 40th anniversary of the streetcar decision should remind all transit advocates of how long we have worked for better transit, and how much opportunity has been lost to political manipulation of the transit file. There is a role for subways in Toronto, but they are not the only option. All over the world, LRT grows as an accepted, vital part of transit systems, while Toronto plays catch-up, fitfully and without strong leadership.

By the 50th anniversary, will the first four Metrolinx LRT lines be operating, with more in the pipeline, or will Toronto still be trapped in a political debate that yields little real improvement in the transit network?

Drawing of a proposed new generation of streetcars, 1969, by Hawker-Siddeley.