Whenever there are plans to alter or upgrade streetcar service in Toronto, some call for scrapping steel-wheeled vehicles altogether in favour of the rubber-tired variety.
Replacing streetcars with buses is appealing to some motorists who view the TTC’s trams as an old-fashioned technology that just clogs traffic. The streetcar/bus debate can get quite complex involving pollution, maintenance cost and inconvenience during track construction.
So, why does Toronto hold on to its streetcars, especially the ones that share four-lane streets with cars and trucks?
Many detractors feel the only reason is nostalgia — as if Torontonians suffer from an emotional bond that blinds their objectivity.
The hard fact is that some form of medium-capacity transit is a must for certain routes.
Only a limited number of subway lines can be built along the TTC’s busiest routes and there is an inescapable upper limit of how many people can be efficiently carried along a bus line.
Toronto’s “Transit City” proposal fills in this middle spot — modern light rail vehicles would travel down the centre of main arteries or, in some cases, underground. In addition, we need a major network of exclusive bus lanes on GTA streets that have heavy transit ridership — although not enough to justify rail-based service. No amount of wishing can make buses do the job of Toronto’s streetcars.
As an example, a recent proposal to test a transit priority corridor on King Street in 2008 has generated opposition, and resurrected the argument to use buses instead.
Despite the fact that streetcars are currently scheduled every few minutes, riders on King know that existing service is inadequate for the demand — especially from new residential development west of downtown.
Removing streetcars is a recipe for worse traffic congestion than today.
Even if the TTC were to buy longer, articulated buses for King, the agency would need to run substantially more of them to carry the number of riders that streetcars do. You’d have to schedule far more than 30 buses an hour, and what happens when they bunch up — as happens on other TTC bus routes?
Auto drivers prefer transit vehicles that pull out of the travel lane to pick up riders, but that benefit disappears if buses are lined up waiting to access a stop.
To fix this, you’d need bus-only lanes; something motorists might dislike far more than being behind some slow-moving tram.
Toronto’s preference for steel wheels goes far beyond nostalgia — streetcars are a crucial component of our transport network.