Longer Cars, Longer Gaps?
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Longer Cars, Longer Gaps?

The TTC's new streetcars are physically much longer than the existing ones. Is that a problem, or is it an opportunity?

The TTC’s new streetcar, on its second-ever test run.

The first of Toronto’s newest streetcars roams the city during nighttime test runs, but by day controversies brew over whether it and its ilk are the right vehicles for our transit network.

Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 21, Trinity-Spadina) argues that the new vehicles are “too big” for our streets, and that the rollout of the new, longer streetcars will bring service cuts. This position has been echoed by Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) and others.

At 30 metres, the Low Floor Light Rail Vehicles (LFLRVs) are double the size of the mainstay of the current fleet, the Canadian Light Rail Vehicles (CLRVs). Even the two-section versions of the current streetcars (the ALRVs) are only 23 metres long. Are the new cars “too big” for Toronto? The answer depends on how you ask the question.

Physically, the cars were designed as replacements for all of the current stock. They should be compatible with Toronto’s existing rail network. Recent publicity about platform heights and stop arrangements relates to accessibility of the new cars, not to their ability to fit through tracks and stations. In any case, retirement is a must for the CLRVs. They are over 30 years old. The younger ALRVs will also be older than 30 before last of the new streetcars arrives.


Toronto’s New Streetcar Takes its Maiden Voyage

Long streetcars are not new to Toronto, but they haven’t been around for many years. Two-car trains operated on the Bloor-Danforth line until the subway opened in 1966, and then on Queen Street from 1967 until early 1977. Thirty-metre-long units have not been seen in Toronto since then.

A two-car streetcar passes Queen Street East and Munro Street, in August 1972. Photo by Steve Munro.

Far more important than the physical size of the new streetcars is the question of how frequently they will arrive at stops. Because the new streetcars are longer and hold more people, the TTC could choose to have them arrive half as often at stops on routes like Spadina or St. Clair, which now use the CLRVs. Total passenger capacity on those routes would be about the same, but riders would face longer waits. On routes like Queen Street, which now use the larger ALRVs, the new streetcars could come about 50 per cent less often and still carry about the same amount of passengers.

Budget hawks see the savings in carrying twice as many passengers per operator, but should savings be the goal? By running more than the required amount of the new streetcars, the TTC could add badly needed capacity to already-crowded routes.

This is not just a question for riders on a handful of downtown streetcar routes, but for users of busy bus routes too. The TTC has 153 new “articulated” (two-section) buses on order, and expects to use them on routes like 29 Dufferin, 36 Finch West, and 25 Don Mills. The new buses have roughly one-third more capacity than the ones now on these routes. As with the streetcars, it is unclear how much of the added bus size will be used to increase service capacity, and how much will be used to reduce the number of operators on affected routes. [UPDATE: March 27, 2013, 2:15 PM At today’s TTC meeting, management is proposing to run Dufferin’s articulated buses every three minutes and 30 seconds apart, rather than the current two minutes and 38 seconds. Comparable changes are planned for 12 candidate routes. This is entirely to reduce operating costs, not to provide more capacity.]

Any transit rider knows that there is only a slight resemblance between the service advertised on busy bus and streetcar routes and what they actually see. If streetcars now arrive every five minutes in theory, in practice they arrive in bunches of two or three, and many do not reach the end of the line thanks to short turns. Running fewer cars will make things worse unless the TTC makes large improvements in the reliability of its service.

Outside of peak periods, transit vehicles run less frequently, and any reduction in schedules will bring even worse problems with unreliable service, gaps, and short turns. The effect of this is well known to riders on 511 Bathurst and 501 Queen streetcar routes, where the longer ALRVs replaced regular-sized cars in the early ’90s, just as the TTC was embarking on an era of budget cuts. These routes lost more riders than other streetcar routes that were not subject to the “efficiency” of larger cars and less-frequent service.

The TTC is now in an era of growing ridership, and should encourage this with more, not less, service. This would absorb today’s demand and provide room for more people to shift to transit.

But recent political history is not encouraging.

Back in 2003, the TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy proposed that crowding standards on surface routes be relaxed so that more people could ride. This was intended, in part, to lure new transit users. Buses would run more often during peak and off-peak periods. Streetcars would run more frequently only during off-peak hours, because there were not enough spare vehicles.

This strategy survived until Mayor Rob Ford, supported by TTC Chair Karen Stintz, flatlined the TTC’s annual subsidy from the City. In 2012, the TTC absorbed its budget cuts by rolling back to the pre-2003 standards, even while demand continued to increase across the system.

Another scheme, the Transit City Bus Plan, came out in August 2009. This would have brought express bus service to some parts of the city, and would have guaranteed ten-minute-or-better wait times on some core routes.

The plan fell victim to a tug-of-war over budget control between Adam Giambrone’s TTC and David Miller’s city council. The ideas in it are still worth attention as a short-term, low-cost way to improve transit in many parts of Toronto.

The TTC argues that running fewer transit vehicles will actually improve traffic congestion problems on major routes, and they even have a study to prove it. However, this study only applies to very busy, peak-period operations. The situation is completely different on less-frequent routes—particularly during off-peak periods when there is less service. During these times, a reduction in the number of TTC vehicles on the street doesn’t seem as though it will have much of an effect on congestion. Passengers, meanwhile, will still experience longer wait times.

TTC CEO Andy Byford acknowledges the need for greater capacity on streetcar lines. “The whole point of this new order is to get streetcars that have the additional capacity to deal with the ever-growing numbers that we’re carrying on the TTC,” he told the Post.

To alleviate capacity issues in the short term, the TTC could retain the best of its existing fleet so that, for example, putting the new streetcars on Spadina would free up some CLRVs for the overcrowded King route. By 2019, when the last of the new streetcars are expected to arrive, the challenge will be to balance growing demand and better service.

For its part, the TTC must increase the reliability of its service, rather than trotting out “congestion” as the root of all evil and washing its hands of responsibility for improvement. Better reliability is one of the cheapest ways to improve transit’s attractiveness and spread demand among vehicles already on the street.

Buying a separate set of shorter, new streetcars for the downtown routes, as Adam Vaughan suggests, is not an option. At best, Toronto would get low-floor cars comparable to the existing ALRVs, and would still face tradeoffs between capacity and “efficiency” on most routes. There would be costs to stop the current streetcar order and re-tender, and inevitable delays before new, reliable, accessible streetcars would appear in Toronto.

Streetcars will play an important role in moving people in the core and the “shoulders” of downtown, where populations will grow over coming decades in ways that cannot be handled by any of the proposed downtown rapid-transit schemes. The challenge for Toronto is to make its streetcars and its transit system work in this busy, 21st-century city, rather than finding endless ways to undermine them.

Council, including Vaughan, voted to order the new cars, and they should concentrate on making this fleet work.