Saturday, November 20, 2010

Light Rail's Persistent Albatross

It's easy to poison a group of people against something by delivering a flawed test case of it to their doorsteps. There's no shortage of folk out there who will take a look at something that's presented as "bungled," whether or not the truth is more complicated, and harden their hearts against anything else of its kind. In Toronto, one such albatross I see popping up again and again is light rail - specifically, the manner in which the St. Clair Avenue streetcar right-of-way was built. There's only one problem here: the 512 St. Clair streetcar is not light rail. This is a pernicious, galling assumption that I encounter time and again, and is common enough that TTC communications director Brad Ross had to begin a recent Rocket Talk article on Torontoist by clarifying that it is still part of the legacy streetcar system.

Yet the misinformation stubbornly refuses to go away. It reared its head again yesterday in the Toronto Star, when columnist Royson James described the St. Clair ROW as "Exhibit A in the case against light rail lines." I tend to take issue with this description, because - call me weird - shouldn't Exhibit A be an honest example of what it's _supposed_ to be, and not just what people think it is? Sure, I'll grant that there may be a public perception in Toronto is that the St. Clair streetcar is light rail; but that perception does not make it so. It's always been an issue of branding; for some damn reason the Harbourfront streetcar was branded as LRT when it opened in 1996, running with PCCs that have since gone on to new tracks in Kenosha - it was redesignated a streetcar not long after, and with good cause, because it's not light rail.

If St. Clair has to be tied into the LRT debate, it should be as an LRT precursor and not as an example of what a light rail system would actually look like. This is particularly important, as Torontonians seem to have no bloody idea what light rail is - one of the downsides of consistently operating a streetcar system for the last hundred and fifty years.

A Blue Line light rail train in Los Angeles. Does this look much like a streetcar to you?

It's not surprising, really. There are no well-known examples close by; Buffalo, New York has been running a light rail system since the 1980s, but for the average Torontonian Buffalo has no presence beyond the sprawling outlet malls that beckon drivers off the highways. The only significant light rail systems in Canada are those in Edmonton and Calgary. With no examples close at hand, it's easy for the concept to be framed as "streetcars plus" - but this isn't necessarily the right way to go about it. The rhetoric that came out of hizzoner Rob Ford's campaign is a signal that not everyone is satisfied with being on the rails.

There are plenty of folk out there who would love nothing more to frame the debate so that streetcars and light rail become one and the same in the minds of Torontonians; it would be so much easier, at that point, to stamp out any plans for transit expansion. Otherwise well-meaning articles that reflexively echo these incorrect labels only make the situation worse - something repeated often enough can be held up as the truth, whether or not it's actually so.

Even with St. Clair being used to poison the debate wherever an opportunity exists, I still find it funny - no one ever seems to complain about Spadina or Harbourfront, routes which have been running in their own traffic-separated rights-of-way for more than ten years, as being examples of the problems of light rail. They have just as much in common with light rail as St. Clair does; namely, they run on rails.


  1. I agree that streetcars in Toronto are not LRT. When I visit my friend that has a condo facing Harbourfront, I'm amazed at the noise and vibration that streetcars on the road below produce, clearly noticeable and annoying even 10 stories above them. They are HEAVY, not light.

  2. Small wonder that LRT's restoration has been fought against in Ottawa for so long. A successful exemplar here in my city could be a problem for its Torontonian opponents.