Thursday, October 21, 2010

Municipal Exceptionalism

Toronto's municipal election is only a few days away now, and so it's no surprise that the various campaigns are furiously setting down their astroturf wherever it may stick in the hope of swaying even one more voter to their cause. It's become particularly acute in online newspaper comment threads; it was those that accompanied the Globe and Mail's recent article taking issue with Rob Ford's claims that tearing out Toronto's streetcar system would cost nothing, when all was said and done, that really got me.

Because, really, I don't think it's any kind of leap of logic at all to positively conclude that, yes, replacing a 150-year-old streetcar system entirely with buses would be anything but expensive. Forget for a moment that the Orion VII, the backbone of Toronto's present bus fleet, has less passenger space - one-to-one trades between CLRV streetcars and buses would lead to yet more overcrowded buses, not a good recipe for increasing transit use. Buses are _more expensive_ over the long term; they experience more wear and tear than do streetcars. The CLRVs are older than I am - the TTC's oldest in-service buses date from 1987, and even then they only see service out on the Island. The vast majority of its buses appear to be less than fifteen years old. There's no reason to think this life cycle would conveniently extend itself in the future, and so to consider the cost of tearing up Toronto's streetcars without taking into account the necessity of replacing the rolling stock twice as frequently is nothing but brass. If Rob Ford's so dedicated to cutting waste at City Hall, you'd think he'd be all against setting the city up to pay even more in the future.

But, no. TTC figures indicate that it would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" to remove the streetcars, and considering they have access to all the information, they'd probably be the ones to know. What's more, this article has generated a flood of furious comments... and I find it disturbing to the very core that so many people (if they are, in fact, individuals and not sock puppets) can spew so much hate over the rails. They're a waste of money, they say. They're obsolete and inefficient and so must go.

You'd think, from this sort of commentary, that Toronto is the last city in North America to operate streetcars. It very nearly came to that, back during the darker days of the 20th century - but the fact is that not only do cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans continue to operate streetcars and streetcar-descended networks, but cities that removed their streetcars as being "obsolete" and "inefficient" are now putting them back in. Kenosha's streetcar network, reinstated in 2000, is one of the bigger tourist draws in that Wisconsin city. The Portland Streetcar, a street-running system in the same vein as Toronto's, started service in 2001 and has not only been hailed as a vehicle of urban renewal since, but is fueling interest for streetcar systems in other cities across the United States. Even Boise is studying the prospect of a downtown streetcar.

CLRV 4119 pushes north along the Spadina Avenue right-of-way - September 17, 2010

In this climate, the claims from Toronto that streetcars are antique, obsolete, 19th century, whatever - all ring hollow to me. The internal combustion engine is just as much a product of the 19th century as is the streetcar, and I would much rather see the IC engine be consigned to the ash heap of history than the streetcar. To me it reeks not only of ignorance that the streetcar issue is not unique to Toronto, but of putting expediency over the long-term good.

And to everyone that complains about how streetcars are "slow" and slow down traffic: traffic does a good enough job of that without any help at all. Streetcars are not responsible for the traffic slowdown, it is all the cars, and one of the things that got me through three years of commuting by the 501 Queen and 504 King from Parkdale to Yonge was thinking about how fast my trip would be if it wasn't for all the fucking cars on the road.


  1. All I can say to Toronto re: the streetcars is this: "Don't do what the rest of Canada did!" In Ottawa alone, it's taken nearly sixty years to even begin to recover from that Error.

  2. Some routes, streetcars are nearly impossible to pass. Being forced to stop every block when you can see the road ahead is clear is frustrating (just as being stuck behind someone stopped at a green light to finish doing her makeup is frustrating). Busses at least you can pass while loading, but not streetcars — so they do slow down individual drivers.

    Being stuck in a line of cars that aren't moving doesn't feel so bad, even if the end result is the same, because you can see that there is no way to move. The streetcar, by being the obvious block between you and the clear road ahead, becomes the focus of frustration.