Speed, accessibility, affordability—please be mine.
Dear LRT, please be mine.
I want to say a few things about light-rail transit (LRT)—really, it’s a love letter—but this is not meant to be a comment on any specific project under discussion in Toronto. This column is not about what we should build in Scarborough. It’s an effort to celebrate a great mode of transit that has been sadly misunderstood.
It seems appropriate that I am writing this from Dublin, Ireland, where there is, at present, a significant expansion of their LRT system under construction. I live in Toronto, but for research I spend a lot of time in Ireland.
When I am in Dublin, I often have to travel outside the city, and one of the things I appreciate about travel here is how easy it is to disembark from an intercity train at Heuston station, walk for no more than two minutes, and step on an LRT train that zips me into the central city.
No stairs, no tunnels, not even a real road to cross.
Let me tell you why I love LRT, using Dublin’s Luas system as an example. Spoiler: it has nothing to do with construction costs.
The Dublin LRT. Video by Madigan Wood.
The Luas (Irish for “speed”) is a new system in a very old city. There has been some kind of permanent settlement on the site of Dublin for well over 1,000 years, and it has lots of old, narrow, winding cobblestone streets. The entire city centre could be considered a heritage district.
The Luas is a child of the 21st century. It opened in 2004. On two entirely separate lines, the Luas now has 36.5 kilometres of track and 54 stops. The current construction project will extend and connect the two lines.
Each line uses a slightly different train model; one is 40 metres long with five sections, and the other is 43 metres with seven sections. In other words, they are big.
The trains are the Citidis line of a French company, Alstom, which is also building similar but smaller trains for Ottawa’s new LRT system. The Dublin trains carry over 350 passengers with room for two wheelchairs.
Frequent service at rush hour can handle over 5,000 riders per hour. The track can take heavy-rail trains, too, should the city ever decide to upgrade.
How do I love LRT? Let me count the ways.
LRT is fast. Travelling at speeds of up to 70 km/h in its own right of way, the train can move you across city neighbourhoods quickly and easily. Commuting in from the Dublin suburbs takes 30-40 minutes, for distances similar to traveling from Yorkdale Mall to Union Station.
Dublin has two intercity train stations, one of which is adjacent to the central bus terminal. The Luas can get you from one to the other in 15 minutes.
Next reason: the ride is comfortable. The cars are well designed and have good seating but, more importantly, having lighter cars on rails makes for a smooth ride. The train starts and stops without jolts, and it does not toss you around on the turns.
Another aspect of its comfort is that the train is quiet: no screeching around corners, just a low hum as you roll along. It has all the nice aspects of a streetcar, with the speed of a subway.
One of the Luas’ best features is its accessibility. The platforms are slightly raised at street-level, with ramps. There are no stairs or elevators to negotiate. You buy tickets on any platform; there are no fare gates. The cars have wide doorways.
Imagine arriving from Montreal, walking out the front doors of Union Station and getting on the TTC on Front Street itself. If you’ve ever travelled on the GO Train or VIA with a large or heavy bag, you will immediately recognize how much easier it would be, and with fewer bruises on your ankles, to remain at street level and walk straight on to a train.
The GO, VIA, and TTC platforms are far apart and on different levels. Accessing underground trains in a wheelchair, on crutches, or with a stroller makes every staircase and doorway part of an obstacle course.
Accessibility is a serious issue for public transit, and nowhere is it more urgent than Toronto. Only 34 of 69 of the TTC’s subway stations are accessible—and even then, not every entrance to those 34 stations is accessible.
The goal is to have elevators and further improvements for the other stations by 2025, almost ten years from now. That’s a decade of disabled persons not able to access education, employment, and recreation in the city on the same terms as everyone else.
It’s welcome news to have elevators finally installed, but elevators are a time-consuming workaround for a bad situation.
Having street-level transit and avoiding the need to go underground in the first place is much more accessible for all travelers.
Probably what I love best about LRT is the way it interacts with the street and the city. More comfortable than a bus and faster than a streetcar or walking, LRT still preserves the visibility that we lose when we travel underground.
Travelling along a city street gives us knowledge of that city: we can learn our way around in new neighbourhoods, keep track of our progress to avoid getting lost, and make new discoveries of shops and services we didn’t know existed.
It can be very handy (especially with a pass or time-based transfer) to hop off to grab milk or use a bank machine when you see one, then hop back on the train to continue to your destination. It’s a great way to explore a city without a destination.
Just knowing what the weather is doing is a plus. When you are traveling at street-level you are still a witness to and part of the life of the street.
Having the mobility to access all the opportunities and adventures a city has to offer, easily and comfortably, is key to our quality of life.
With all its advantages, the fact that LRT is less expensive than heavy-rail to build and maintain is almost beside the point. Okay, money at that scale is never beside the point. But street-level LRT is truly the ideal form of urban rapid transit even before the cost comparison is considered.
It’s better than an underground subway. In some instances, the ridership demand is so high, only heavy-rail can provide it, and often that means going underground.
But if LRT will do the job, it is the best option. The comfort, accessibility, and interaction with the street that LRT offers beat heavy-rail every time.
LRT is superior urban transit for cities that everyone can live in and enjoy. Torontonians will get a chance to see for themselves, when the Crosstown (finally) opens in 2021.