By Rick Liu, Cannon Design and Layout
Toronto used to be an oddity in North American cities. Streetcars were supposed to be dead, but in Toronto, they continued to rocket through the city, well after the point many cities abandoned their streetcars. But now, streetcars are making a comeback in North American cities for better or for worse, and Toronto, by being too stubborn or lazy to remove its tracks, is now miraculously ahead of the game in terms of transit.
During the 1800s, horse drawn carriages were the norm for public transit. With the industrial revolution, and the railway revolution happening in the background, steel rails began being laid down on city streets for carriages to follow as a guide. The benefits were pretty clear at the time, and are still there for modern streetcars: rails could be used year round in rain or snow, and rails have a smoother ride because of the low friction of steel wheels on steel rails. Various experiments with more mechanical propulsions occurred but most had their problems. Steam fogged the streets up with not just steam, but also unhealthy smoke. Cable cars were too expensive since they required an entire substructure under the road for the cables, and only existed in hilly cities, like San Francisco’s famous cable cars. Third rail, like subways, provided an obvious safety hazard. Eventually in Saint Petersburg in 1880, an electric trolley wire was built for it’s streetcar system, and was brought over to Toronto only 3 years later, making Toronto’s streetcars some of the earliest electric streetcars in existence. Horses were soon discontinued because they were no longer viable.
Many cities, and even small towns, created vast streetcar networks. Obviously, big cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Boston all had systems, but even small towns had some sort of electric streetcar. My hometown of Calgary, having a population 65,000 in the 1930s, had an extensive streetcar network. In Canada alone, towns from Nelson, to Belleville to Moose Jaw to Lethbridge had streetcars.
It’s obvious that nowadays, very few cities and especially towns under 10,000 people have streetcar networks anymore. The depression was the first strike against the streetcar, and caused many streetcar operators, the majority of which were private companies, to go bankrupt and close their doors. Publicly operated streetcars also could not find funds to operate and maintain their networks. But the biggest cause in the removal of streetcar and the decline in public transportation was the post war explosion in car ownership. In the United States and Canada, car ownership exploded from 0.7 vehicles per household in 1945 to 1.3 by 1955. Cities in North America were new, and did not face the same density and space constraints as European cities, and were free to build sprawling developments that sold the idea of single family homes with front lawns and white picket fences. The car was the obvious key to that idea and car centric infrastructure such as urban freeways were built to clear out the old and dirty inner cities in the name of urban renewal. This had a profound impact on streetcar systems, and public transit systems in general. The New York City Subway for example, had ridership decline from its 1949 high, and would keep declining to the 1980s. It would never reach its 1940s ridership again. In the face of declining ridership, dawning ideas that middle class families would use their cars, the annoyance of having streetcars take up road space, the maintenance cost of streetcar rails/trolley wires/streetcars themselves, and the idea (which still persists and is a credible argument today) that buses can do everything a streetcar can do for less all started the trend for many cities to start abandoning their streetcars.
Some cities, like Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco buried their streetcars to create a pseudo subway. These systems still exist today. A few cities, like Montreal, eventually partially replaced their system with a subway. The Bloor line and the Yonge line were also originally streetcar lines that were replaced by subways. Some cities were simply too cheap and lazy to rip up the tracks and wire, and chose to replace their streetcars with trolleybuses that also use the trolley wire. West coast cities, such as Seattle and Vancouver, are famous for this, partly because trolleybuses can go up hills far better than diesel buses. Edmonton also had a trolleybus system, until it faced the decision to either retrofit the wire, or remove it (spoiler alert, it removed it). In Toronto, the Mount Pleasant, Ossington, Bay, Harbord/Wellesley, and Weston buses all were trolleybuses due to the removal of streetcar on those routes, but were eventually converted to regular buses because of the cost to replace the wire/buses at the end of life. Many systems just replaced their streetcar with buses. A common conspiracy in the transit world is that GM (who dominated the bus market) bribed many systems, or outright bought them, and caused the switch to buses from the Presidential Conference Committee (PCC) streetcar that was found in almost all streetcar systems across North America. The extent of whether this is true or not is in question, but its obvious that Streetcars were on the decline. Only Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New Orleans (Streetcar named Desire anyone?) kept their original systems, and Toronto’s is by far the largest of this bunch by at least 30 km, beating San Francisco with 82 km vs 53 km of track.
Toronto also has its fair share of streetcar abandonment, but for the majority of the system, it has largely been kept intact. The TTC (who assumed ownership of the system from the private Toronto Railway Company) took advantage of the wave of streetcar abandonments by buying PCC streetcars on the cheap. But by the 1960s, the TTC went through its own phase of considering abandonment and planned to phase out all streetcars by 1980 and replace them with busses or trolleybuses. Jane Jacobs, fresh from her time stopping freeways in New York, had just settled in Toronto and supported activist Steve Munro and professor William Kilbourn in pressuring the TTC to reverse those plans. Nostalgia was strong in Toronto, and with rider preferences for streetcars and a report that the lifecycle cost to switch to buses was more expensive than keeping the streetcar the abandonment plans ended.
Over the years, the TTC kept true to its promise of keeping the streetcars, replacing the PCCs with the “current” CLRVs in 1980, and building new lines such as 509 Queens Quay in 1990, the 510 Spadina in 1997 and building exclusive lanes in 2010 for the 512 St. Clair. The system survived another economic recession in the 1990s and is continuing to be modernized with the record $1.2 billion order for new streetcars.
For a long time, Toronto’s streetcar system was an outlier in North American Transit systems, but many new cities are adding streetcars. In 1978, Edmonton led the first wave of adding the new “super-streetcars” called LRT. These systems were inspired by surviving systems in Europe and Australia, particularly Germany, where the decline of streetcars was not as profound. Streetcars in Germany had priority at traffic lights, had their own lanes or weren’t on the road, and had sections where the system resembled a subway. In the North American context, LRT systems functioned much like surface subways, but had shorter stations for less capacity and cost, and went underground/above ground when it was necessary to avoid a road or a freight rail line. Unlike streetcars, they had stops far apart like a subway, ran off the road, and did not have to wait for traffic lights. These LRT systems were much cheaper than traditional subways since the cost of tunneling and viaducts were prohibitive to many medium sized cities. Today, LRT systems exist in Los Angeles, Calgary, Denver, Seattle, Dallas, Washington and most notably, Portland. The GTA has pseudo LRT lines like the 509, 510 and the 512, but the first true LRT system will be finished in 2022 with the completion of the Eglinton LRT, Finch West LRT and the Mississauga LRT.
Streetcars made a return to North American transit in 2001 when Portland built the first true (Non LRT) system in 50 years. That has since sparked a major boom in streetcars. Many cities brought back streetcars with their original PCC vehicles as heritage lines and tourist attractions, such as the F Market and Wharves in San Francisco. This represented the fastest and cheapest way to bring streetcars back from the dead since the cost for the train was to simply refurbish surplus PCC streetcars other agencies (especially the TTC) had lying around. These lines were quickly becoming regular options for non tourist commuting, and these cities, along with others, built brand new streetcar systems. Currently Portland, Seattle, Washington, Detroit, Kansas City and Cincinnati all have new-build streetcar lines while many others, such as New York City’s BQX, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, are proposing/building streetcar lines.
However, these new streetcar systems are not without flaws. The new-build systems are generally focused only in downtown, often just loops of the downtown area, and don’t connect to other major lines. Otherwise, they only connect to the tourist areas of the city. This has often led to low ridership on these systems that are less cost effective than equivalent service using buses since the lines do not go anywhere useful (or if they do, they don’t connect it to other useful destinations). Streetcar lines also run in mixed traffic, blocking other cars and getting blocked by cars themselves. In many cases, they run the route slower than buses and their LRT cousins where the exclusivity of their lanes and transit priority signaling increases their average speeds by up to 10km/h or more. Versus LRT, streetcars are also slower because of the far higher number of stops that streetcars generally serve. Streetcars are often claimed to be more accessible, but advancements in bus technology have made buses to be equally as accessible. Politicians who propose streetcars have cited that ridership may be higher because riders (like the horse drawn streetcar era) prefer rails over the bus. While this is somewhat true, the number 1 and 2 factors affecting ridership is frequent and reliable service, and connecting destinations where people want to go. In many cases, streetcar replace/create routes that are equally, if not worse than bus routes due to the cities limited amount of streetcar infrastructure/vehicles, and sparsity compared to buses.
South American cities have proved that buses can be better for the commuter than streetcars with their BRTs. A true BRT will have exclusive lanes/roads, higher capacity buses, payment at stations, limited stops, transit priority traffic lights, and most importantly, can be done for less cost than a streetcar system because it doesn’t require expensive infrastructure like trolley wire/catenary or rails. They can be easily repurposed and capacity can be adjusted easier because cities have large amounts of buses at their disposal. Often, BRTs are unfairly penalized since many cities cheap out on BRT features until they become like regular bus routes, but true BRTs are found even in Vaughan and Mississauga
This article is not meant as a slight against streetcars, rather a desire to see high quality streetcar systems be built. Toronto’s system is no question the best streetcar system in North America because of its extensive experience running it, and its successes are constantly being cited and used as a model for cities that are only beginning to build their networks. At 56,700 riders a day, the King streetcar along with 4 other streetcar lines make up 5 out of the 10 busiest surface routes in the TTC. Each streetcar line’s length, in a straight line, has the highest frequency of the system and connect business, residential, and commercial areas at every point of line, which contribute to the high ridership on the TTC system. While only 3 routes and a bit of the Queen Streetcar (3.5 after the King Pilot) have exclusive lanes, transit priority lights are found across the network. Other rules, such as left-turn bans, and the “no passing a stopped streetcar” improves the speed of streetcars to improve performance.
Streetcars also contribute to their own ridership by encouraging demand. King, Queen, Dundas, College, Spadina and St. Clair stations all have higher density, and attract more businesses than most other equivalent streets besides Yonge & Bloor. When built to the same spec, riders will choose streetcars over buses and create more traffic for business. They also shape the street with more development because the rails symbolize a cities commitment to providing long-term quality transit service on that street, compared to buses where business can easily be spooked by sudden changes to bus lines. Streetcars also have lower operating and maintenance cost which offset the higher capital cost of buses, a key reason in why Toronto kept its streetcar network. A bus has a lifespan of only 20 years, while TTC has in the past kept PCCs in the system for 50-60 years, and the current CLRVs are going to last 45 years. Streetcars can also turn better (despite the cringe I get when I see a CLRV turning) and go up hills better than buses. The biggest benefit today’s streetcars have are their capacity. The new Toronto streetcars can hold 273 people, over the 122 people in articulated buses, 86 in double decker buses, or 51 people in normal buses. This is an effective tool in increasing route capacity and decreasing congestion.
Toronto streetcars are iconic and clearly have a history shaped by stubbornness, uniqueness, and now advancement. The network is not the largest in North America, but it beats out many other cities with trams or streetcars like Zurich, Amsterdam, Paris, Hong Kong, Munich and Frankfurt in its extensiveness. Toronto is clearly not done improving its network though. New vehicles are being delivered slowly, and the TTC is constantly pushing for improvements like the King Pilot, or new lines, like the Waterfront, Cherry, and Broadview extensions. Streetcars have shaped the history of Toronto for the past 100 years, and will hopefully keep running for the next 100.